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Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Requirements of the Moment

As I mentioned in this post, I’ve decided to spend more time writing ostensibly politically themed pieces, in addition to the pure literature/aesthetics writing that you’ve probably come to expect from me if you follow this site and my writing.

There’s no other way to put it: the historic nature of the recent Presidential election has left no other course than this. This is a time when we all have to make our voices heard to protect the things we love about America, so I’m going to do my part.

As part of this, I’ve inaugurated to fortnightly Lit Hub column about the importance of the humanities during a time like this, and the role that they will play (politcally and otherwise) in these dark years. The first entry in the column is here.

Just in case you’re wondering, this writing doesn’t come out of a vacuum. Way back when I did my undergrad degree, it was a double major in Poli Sci and Economics (I barely studied literature or art at all in university). Questions of governance, economy, civics, society, etc, etc are in my roots, and I have always taken a very keen interest in American and global politics. I read lots of books on these topics every year, I keep up with the news like a minor political junkie, and I’ve always engaged in our government as a citizen.

This is something I’ve taken pains to separate out from my literary writings (although I’m quite opinionated on the subject if you follow me on Twitter), but no more. This is a time when voices in the literary and artistic communities need to come forward to support the values we believe in and ameliorate the harm of divisive politics. I hope you all will be with us.

Issue 46 of The Quarterly Conversation

Lots of good stuff in this issue.

If you like what you see, take a second to support these websites.


Mario Bellatín: Between Hermeticism and Communion

Mario Bellatín: Between Hermeticism and Communion

It’s difficult to find adjectives that will bear the full oddity of Mario Bellatín’s books. But it’s at least possible to say they are remarkably elastic—usually slim in size but containing a stretched-waistband world of absurd characters, uncanny scenarios, and endless transformations. In Bellatín’s accounts of reality, nothing remains what it is for very long, nothing is cataloged properly or fixed in place. Soon enough it shifts shape, or inverts. Male to female, fanged to toothless, indecent to prim, alive to dead; Central Europe becomes California, a beauty salon an aquarium and a hospice, a roadhouse an underground railroad for Jewish refugees.

The Scrim and Fog of Translation

The Scrim and Fog of Translation

The pieces of writing in the couplet of new essay collections by Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and The Ghosts of Birds, though varying in their tactical scopes, share an overall strategic concern: no cultural labor is truly free from its source. This applies to translation as much as it applies to the manufacture of history. All of the antecedent things that evolve across the ether surrounding their precedents are forever tethered, although often by an invisible tissue of strange virtual possibility. Weinberger, with great sensitivity, explores the notion of that tissue just as much as the cultural objects it engenders.

Beyond Malcolm and Garnett: The Possibilities and Limitations of Translation

Beyond Malcolm and Garnett: The Possibilities and Limitations of Translation

This past June, in an essay (“Socks”) in the New York Review of Books, the writer Janet Malcolm, best known for her writing about psychoanalysis and her legal battles with the former director of the Freud Archives, added wood to discussions—some long burning, some more recently ignited—about the ideal approach to translation. Ever combative, Malcolm writes that “a sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English.” Most specifically, Malcolm claims that this couple’s, and Marian Schwartz’s, recent translations of Tolstoy are vastly inferior in approach and readability to the classic translations done by Constance Garnett a century ago.


The Edwin Frank Interview

The Edwin Frank Interview

Great literature is literature that remains news, and there’s a way to publish things that can cast a new light on things we take for granted in our own time. The metaphors I tend to think of are somewhere between the vinyl bin, where you can flip through and there’s a whole range of music and so on, or the repertory film theater that can move from Japan to B movies and so on. So that was always the idea, but at the beginning it was very much about reprints, and that was true for two or three years. Partly because the series was doing well there was a moment where it seemed right to begin acquiring books and doing new translations of books.

In Translation

From The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

From The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

As Flann O’Brien, he wrote two masterpieces: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman; a novel written in Gaelic, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), a sort of requiem in a whisper for a language on the verge of extinction, and for the last inhabitants who still speak it, descendants of warrior kings and talented poets, degraded to a condition in which the difference between their life and that of pigs whose breeding sustained them was scarcely perceptible; as well as two minor novels written in his waning years, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, and the play Faustus Kelley. He was a personality with three faces: a public functionary, an avant-garde novelist known only by a tiny handful of enthusiasts, and the author a popular column in Dublin’s most important newspaper. Journalism ended up invading his creative faculties, by making him famous and unhappy, by turning him into a creation of his pseudonym.


The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

We’re all familiar with unreliable narrators, those first-person storytellers whose words we are not sure we can trust. In The Invisibility Cloak, Ge Fei takes this to the next level: he gives us an unreliable narrator in an unreliable career struggling with unreliable characters in an unreliable country. What is reliable in The Invisibility Cloak is the translation. This is Canaan Morse’s first full-length novel, but he is one of a new generation of ambitious translators who are redefining standards of quality in writing English without sacrificing accuracy in treating the Chinese.

Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon

Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon

In Jung Young Moon’s novel Vaseline Buddha, the narrator lurks in every one of its paragraphs, constantly disrupting the flow of his own narrative whenever it shows a hint of becoming a full-fledged story. “Free-wheeling” might be too modest a phrase to capture the excess of freedom the narrator exhibits in his chaotic romp. Jung has taken the wheel of narrative from his book and hid it, or perhaps he has destroyed it. His carriage will never get the reader from point A to point B. Our trickster guide will teleport his visitor through broken images in an elliptical dance around what is beyond language. To borrow Wallace Stevens’ line, Jung frolics through the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria

Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria

The 2013 publication of Martutene earned Ramón Saizarbitoria his second Euskadi Literature Prize and helped to cement his status as one of the patriarchs of Basque literature. A grand and audacious novel, Martutene is just over 800 pages and presents a nuanced perspective of the contemporary Basque experience. History, politics, language, and culture ripple through the characters’ daily interactions. Saizarbitoria dramatizes the best and worst of the contemporary Basque experience—national pride and cultural intolerance, as well as gastronomy and terrorism.

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

For those familiar with canonical texts of Haitian literature, the translation of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 novel La Danse sur le volcan into English is a long time coming. Vieux-Chauvet is a key figure of Caribbean literature, known for interlacing charged subjects such as slavery, colonialism, erotic desire, racial injustice, and the influence of Vodou in Haiti, and it is surprising that, until now, only her famous trilogy of novellas Amour, colère et folie—originally published by Gallimard in 1968 with the support of Simone de Beauvoir—has been translated. From a writer whose most frequent subject is the psyche of Haitian women during violent and politically charged moments of Haiti’s history—she herself fled the Duvalier régime after the publication of her trilogy—Dance on the Volcano is an intimate rendering of the Haitian Revolution and a nuanced portrayal of the brutality that resonated across all realms of society in the colony of Saint Domingue at the turn of the 19th century.

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane

In the novel The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, by Paulina Chiziane, fidelity is not scarce but actually in abundance. The reader just has to broaden their definition of what being faithful is, especially when the author puts it to the test in a story where five women realize that they all have been married to the same husband. This renewed concept of fidelity will have little to do with blind obedience because by the end of the story the women begin to have more faith in their own abilities to acquire work, new relationships, and independence on their own terms.

Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

Colonel Lágrimas is ambitious and something to remember. It tells the story of a hermit attempting to cipher the monstrosity that is 20th-century history into an intimate code. The novel is an exploration of obsession, genius, madness, and of the futility of historical meaning in the face of a past in ruins and the gargantuan archive that remains. Loosely basing his novel on the life of the great mathematician Alexander Grothendiek, Fonseca takes advantage of that biographical silence that was Grothendiek´s final decades. Colonel Lágrimas fills this biographical void with a bursting yet elegant flight of crazed and creative power.

Pieces of Soap by Stanley Elkin

Pieces of Soap by Stanley Elkin

There is an unfortunate shortage of grotesquerie in literary criticism. Prudish intellect has somehow muscled the burping body from the realm of books, as if we do not read and write, too, through the revelations and failures of our flesh. The grand critics have already assembled in holy raiment—Trilling, Wilson, Kermode, Ozick, Wood—to lay a white cloth over the roughly hewn table of literature, smoothing over its splinters, its sap. While of obvious merit, their collected work is, in itself, something like a history of manners: spotless, chaste, the well-planed beams of a gleaming critical edifice. This is not necessarily a knock against them (I read much of their work with admiration); call it rather a lingering desire for something supplementary, a meaner model, runny as an egg or rich as butter, words to stain lips and lapels, to pass gas (as Gass’s does), flippant, bloated, savage, overcooked but rarely overwrought: a criticism of both gut and guile. Such a mode would, of course, need its exemplar, its Falstaff, comingler of erudition and eructation. Such a mode, finally, needed only Stanley Elkin.

Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems by Yoshimasu Gozo

Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems by Yoshimasu Gozo

Because he prizes concept over medium, I would argue that Yoshimasu is an artist before a poet. If a project needs to be visual, he is a photographer and filmmaker, as in gozoCiné, ethereal short films that mix sound, music, and spoken word with shaky, sometimes filtered images. If the concept requires an aural element, he’s a musician and chanter with what has been called “a unique ‘vocalization’ recitation style, which relies upon a highly rhythmic delivery and intense vocal modulations.” If the concept requires language, he is a poet, but even then he is not limited to one language, or even to language at all.

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi

As the new collection In Praise of Defeat, deftly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness. Laâbi was jailed in Kenitra Prison 1972 for because of his writing and as a co-founder of Souffles, the influential literary journal. He was sentenced to ten years and served eight, spending some of that time in solitary confinement. His poems detail the torture that he suffered. The powerful poem “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” an excerpt of which appears in In Praise of Defeat, is at once account of torture and incarceration, a cry to humans and poets to bear witness, and evidence of the transporting power of metaphor.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

It has taken a while for Szabó’s work to see the light of day. Her first novel in English translation, The Door, published by Columbia University Press in 1995 did not cause much of a stir. It wasn’t until the success of Len Rix’s retranslation of The Door ten years later with publisher NYRB Classics that she started to see some success. Whether this was due to the merits of the new translation, the marketing skills of the publishers, or just down to the whims of fortune, Szabó is finally having her moment in the English-Speaking world. Previously Szabó has been popular in German translation, and in her native Hungary she is considered one of the major writers (although even the Hungarians had to wait until after the Stalinist era, when the ban on publishing her books was finally lifted). Now with the U.S. arrival of Iza’s Ballad, in George Szirtes’s crisp, polished translation, American readers are starting to see that The Door was only the tip of a much larger iceberg.

A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar

A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar

Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage has been a cult classic in Brazil since its publication in the late 1970s, but was not published in English until last year. From the first page, which opens in media res, it is apparent why Nassar has achieved such renown in his homeland, despite only publishing two novels before retreating from public life: his prose moves with a violence, vitality, and sexual energy that burns like a splash of acid. At only 45 pages, it barely meets the expectations of “novel,” yet the experience and reward of reading it are equal to that of a much longer fiction. Constructed of seven one-sentence chapters and anchored by a vitriolic, brutal center-piece, A Cup of Rage is a book to be read in the span of a single sitting—even if its density conspires against that.

You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett writes a dual biography of monumental figures in the artworld, a book that feels comprehensive but that only requires under 300 pages (30 of which are notes). We get to know both the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the sculptor Auguste Rodin as persons and artists, as Corbett relates their marriages, major works, and personal crises. To add new dimension to these biographies, she illuminates how their relationship is at the heart of Rilke’s most famous book in the U.S., Letters to a Young Poet. So framing their story presents and questions the advice Rilke gives about the artistic life, its sacrifices and burdens, and its implications for love, marriage, and family life. Corbett also traces significant ideas about the new science of psychology, turn-of-the-century Europe, and artistic developments.

Support CR, TQC

I’m going to keep this brief. Running Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation takes time, energy, $$$, etc. There’s a great audience and community around these sites, and I love to do them. I have no intentions of stopping, but if you are in a position to support these sites, that would make keeping them around so much easier.

There are some really easy ways to support. Skip on down below to learn about those.

I’m hoping to make this blog in particular extra fantastic in 2017. One of the things I’m eager to do next year is lots more short interviews on the site. That’s in addition to the usual mix of lists, brief essays, recommendations, and assorted odds and ends.

Here are a few of the posts you may have enjoyed so far this year (+ the “interesting new releases” list and my rundown of favorite reads of the year):

And here are the ways to support these sites.

Number one, the easiest thing is to just do your regular Amazon shopping after visiting Amazon through my links. You get your stuff, I get a kickback, and we probably entirely kill Jeff Bezos’s razor-thin margins. Everybody wins!

Another nice thing would be to purchase one of my ebooks for yourself. You get some great reads, I get a little of your money, unbeatable deal for everyone.

Right now I’m offering a pretty sweet buy on the Latin American Mixtape and The Missing Books. That is 35,000 words for just $4.99.

You can read the whole deal right here, or just get it below.

The Missing Books——which has been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed——can also be purchased separately:

Kindle ($4.99)

And, of course, Paypaling me a little funds is always nice.

24+ Books That Have Shaped My Understanding of the 20th and 21st Centuries


Probably most people who know me through this website know me primarily as an arts and literature person. That is my profession, and that’s mainly the way I’ve oriented this website, but I’m also heavily into politics. My undergrad degree was in Political Science and Economics, and I still read a lot in those disciplines, even if that reading tends not to make it to this blog.

Well, with the state of the world as it is, maybe it’s time to feature a little more of those kinds of books on this site.

So, with that in mind, here’s a list of books that I think can go a long way toward helping understand exactly where we are now in the world, politically speaking, and where this all might be headed. This is not an exhaustive list; it’s a very idiosyncratic, personal, and probably incomplete list of the books that have shaped my vision of the world.

Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore

“Fascism” and “Nazi” are two words that are getting thrown around quite a bit right now. Well, this is basically the book on where fascism in Europe came from, why some societies went toward fascism, while others went toward democracy. In terms of understanding the contemporary drift toward authoritarian leaders, this is worth roughly a million thinkpieces on the Trump voter.

Postwar by Tony Judt

World War II was basically the Big Bang that exploded out into the world we live in today. You can’t understand our current globe without understanding what that war did, how the West recovered from it, and how the resulting global order evolved over the decades. Tony Judt’s Postwar is basically the single best text for comprehending this.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

I just gave you Postwar, and now this: what I consider the definitive novelistic response to the Second World War

Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty

I look at this as the essential companion volume to Postwar. Basically, the long European conflict now known as World War I and World War II opened the way for an economic regime unlike any that had ever existed in Europe. This is where the middle class and the postwar wealth, freedom, and (relative) equality came from. Piketty lays it all out, as well as explaining why this order looks to be regressing to something much more 19th-century.

Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer

The decision to go to war is one of the gravest a society can make, particularly when said society has more destructive firepower than the next 10 combined. It’s hard to know just when war is warranted (if it ever is). Michael Walzer is one of our nation’s leading political philosophers, and this is his major statement on these questions. The thoughts here, as well as the discussion of major historical examples—including many from the signal conflicts of the 20th century—is essential.

Ryszard Kapuscinski

It’s hard to pick any one book by Kapuscinski, since he tended not to write large, all-encompassing volumes (maybe his “tyrant trilogy”—The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and Amin (unfinished) comes the closest). But in terms of understanding what was happening in the developing world in the 20th century his body of work is essential.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

Knowledge is power, information is capital. Facebook spread more fake election news than real. If this rings true to you, then you want to know who’s controlling the information you get and how. Tim Wu has written a pretty definitive account of how the major media of our age—radio, TV, film, the Internet—have all pretty much taken a similar path in terms of who controls them and to what end.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer

Fascism, Nazis, Hitler, these are all common points of comparison nowadays. If you want to see what the genuine article was and how it came to exist and eventually be exterminated, this is the book you need. It’s very big, and also addictive.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

If The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the nonfiction you read on Nazism, this is the fiction. How German is it? Where does radicalism come from? How deeply is fascism embedded in the West’s cultural DNA? This is the book to read on these and other related questions.

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An essential text on the USSR. I’m not sure if the sell an unabridged edition any more (the link goes to an abridged, recent edition).

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

The essential novel of the totalitarian mind. This and Orwell’s 1984 go together like peanut butter and milk. And also, probably, The Captive Mind, which I’m reading right now, and of course the work of Hannah Arendt.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

The key text on the struggles of the oppressed peoples of the 20th century.

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

One of Freud’s most famous texts, also very readable and probably one of his most relevant works today. Basically, what impulses led human beings to work together in communities, and what impulses are threatening to tear those bonds apart?

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Not a book about the 20th century per se, in explaining how the world map got to be as it stands is explains the deep roots of modernity and thus gives a very deep look into societies in general. A great, hugely illuminating read.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama

Don’t be intimidated by the title: this book is very easy to read, ad hugely fascinating. Basically, it’s an authoritative account of what makes democracies tick, how they have been given stability and strength, and how these qualities have been detracted from. The sections on the U.S. are of great importance right now.

Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

This is a key work for processing how the order of the early 21s century transformed in the years after the war and turned into the postmodern, heavily mediated present. Essential reading for figuring out how we process political realities at the moment.

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

How does the modern nation-state enforce its values? How does it generate the power it uses to control its citizens? Where do these things come from (historically)? This is the book to read on those questions. Contains Foucault’s discussion of the “panopticon,” definitely one of the most famous pieces of writing Foucault ever made.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi

One of the core texts of Keynesian economics and a great education on where the industrialized world came from. Still one of the best cases against the “self-regulating” market.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama

The French Revolution is basically the big bang of the modern values core to any Western-style democracy. This is the best single-volume popular account.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

This is the story of American thought in the post–Civil War era. Basically, Menand covers much of the groundwork for the various strains of thought that have come to dominate America thought in the realms of politics, science, education, and philosophy in the 20th century.

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

My favorite Solnit book, and a great read alongside the Menand. Basically, where to modern concepts of time and distance come from? (Photography, the railroads.) And how have they shaped the modern perception of the world and life?

Rise to Globalism by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley

How did America become a world power, and what did it to with that power once it had it? A very strong single-volume narrative of American foreign policy from the era of the Nazis through 9/11.

The Faith of the Faithless by Simon Critchley

A great book about how belief in God has become belief in State in the 20th century. Also about how authority is legitimatized in the modern nation-state. On these and similar questions I would also recommend Simone Weil. And you’d probably also want to have Sartre on existentialism in here, too.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

This book is so foundational to feminism in the 20th century that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve kind of already read it, because so many ideas that are now second-nature originally came from it.

Mark Danner

Mark Danner’s reporting on Bush-era war crimes and abuses in the NYRB was the best reporting I read on the subject. He’s published some volumes collecting these pieces, plus a lot of other reporting from all around the world. I recommend it.

Black Friday for the Litblog


I hope you all (in the States) are having a sweet Thanksgiving holiday, in spite of the fact that politics is a total shitshow right now. Regardless, I want to take the momentto thank everyone for reading this site (and The Quarterly Conversation!).

Running CR/TQC takes time, energy, $$$, etc, so it’s actually really, really rewarding to see that there’s a pretty sizable audience for this little litblog, and its online journal cousin. Thank you for being here!

And while I’ve got all your attention, this is also my moment to ask you all to give a tiny bit back so I can make CR 2017 fantastic.

One of the things I’m eager to do next year is lots more short interviews on the site, in addition to the usual mix of intriguing lists, brief essay on fascinating books, recommendations rundowns, and assorted odds and ends.

As a reminder, a few of the posts you may have enjoyed so far this year (+ the “interesting new releases” list and my upcoming favorite reads of the year):

If you dig that stuff & wanna say thanks by giving a little something back to me, this is your moment.

(As always, no one should feel obligated. If you can’t afford to or just don’t want to, don’t worry about it. And if you’re one of those people who has already donated, bought via the links, etc, THANK YOU YOU RULE!!!)

Number one, the easiest thing is to just do your regular Amazon shopping after visiting Amazon through my links. You get your stuff, I get a kickback, and we probably entirely kill Jeff Bezos’s razor-thin margins. Everybody wins!

Another nice thing would be to purchase one of my ebooks for yourself. You get some great reads, I get a little of your money, unbeatable deal for everyone.

Right now I’m offering a pretty sweet buy on the Latin American Mixtape and The Missing Books. That is 35,000 words for just $4.99.

You can read the whole deal right here, or just get it below.

The Missing Books——which has been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed——can also be purchased separately:

Kindle ($4.99)

And, of course, Paypaling me a little funds is always nice.

Thank you in advance for everything. And I hope to see you here for my “best reads” breakdown next month, plus all the fab-ness of CR 2017.

Missing Books + Latin American Mixtape Bundle Offer


I’m now offering The Missing Books and the Latin American Mixtape as a bundle for the sweet price of $4.99. That’s gonna be 35K+ words of blissful literary idyll——

The Missing Books is a living, growing, updating collection of books that don’t exist, but should.

Since its release on Oct 10 of this year, it’s been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed.

Featured authors include: Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé.

Whoever purchases The Missing Books receives the right to all future versions for free. Version 2.0 is in the works and currently slated for release at some point next year.

The Latin American Mixtape is charismatic, fun tour through a continent’s leading writers.

In includes an in-depth interview with César Aira, the most important digression of Aira’s career, why Roberto Bolaño has become a worldwide phenomenon, why Guatemalan superstar Rodrigo Rey Rosa needs to be on your to-read list today, + lots more. Over 25,000 words on Latin America’s finest.

Get both of them:

The Missing Books can also be purchased separately:

Kindle ($4.99)

Megan Abbott: Writing Noir in a New Way


One of the reasons I love editing The Quarterly Conversation is that it opens up so many authors I would never find out about otherwise. Having some of the best, most open-minded, engaged readers in our world writing reviews and essays of top notch writers is a little like having my own private research staff cluing me in to great stuff. For a writer who thrives on creative influence as much as I do, this is incredible.

Case in point, last issue Angela Woodward (a very interesting writer herself) intro’d me to Megan Abbott with this essay. After editing it and publishing it, I knew I had to check Abbott out.

The elevator pitch for Abbott is that she does feminist noir. That’s a reductive label, but it’s a powerful way to coordinate what makes Abbott’s fictions feel so interesting to me, so I’m just gonna go with it.

Abbott is the author of several novels, all noir-like in their structure and feel, but insofar as I’ve read her it feels like no noir I’ve ever read before. The narrators are female, and though the stories play on familiar noir tropes (the femme fatale, the private investigator, etc, etc) the books are resolutely feminine: the focus on women’s relationships, they view masculine relationships from a female perspective, and (perhaps most interesting to my mind) the narrative voice has a very “female eye” for detail.

Let me focus in on that last point for a minute. Typically noir constructs a very masculine world, not just in things like the protagonist (who is usually male), his desires, his methods, etc but also much more quietly in the very texture of the story. The items the noir trades in (the guns, the cars, the clothes) are masculine items, the approach the protagonist takes is a man’s approach. The very word choice and incidental detail is geared toward evoking a masculine sensibility.

With Abbott’s novels, all this is couched in a feminine perspective. For instance, as I was reading Abbott’s Die a Little, I was struck by all the little details here and there that continuously created a female world:

And I take his arm. And my hand doesn’t even seem to make it halfway around his thickness.

Their fingernails are painted dark.

“Oh?” I say politely, taking my hand back and burying it safely in my dress pocket.

One night, lice is putting delicate finger curls in my hair . . .

Two pencils poked out of her upswept hair.

On and on, these details are endless, and I think there’s an important purpose to them in Abbott’s writing. Die a Little is very much about Lora the narrator’s journey, how this subversive woman named Alice comes into her life and shows her a kind of femininity she never before knew existed. All these little details establish Lora’s world—what she pays attention to, what she notices, what seems normal to her, and what’s dangerous—and as Lora develops her eye begins to catch other details. Whole new realms of signification open up to her. She comes to understand what these things signify, she even tries some of them on her own body, or wants to possess some of them as objects. She takes the typical noir plot of a rough woman shaking up a man’s life and she reimagines it for a relationship between two women.

There’s another important thing that I think Abbott is doing with Lora’s eye for detail. All of these little things that are a part of Lora’s world—how the dress she wears feels, how Alice’s makeup connotes danger, how little her hand and body is as compared to a man’s, how she inhabits space and moves around a room—these details are working to establish Lora’s vulnerability. And I think this is one of the most interesting things about Abbott’s noir. She creates a world in which Lora feels very, very delicate and vulnerable in a very true and deep way. Because most likely a woman like Lora in the 1950s was in a very vulnerable and subjected position, and in establishing this and integrating it into the plot and very texture of the story, Abbott gets across something very important about how women exist in our world and why they act as they do, why they choose the strategies they choose, why they communicate as they communicate, etc, etc. What Abbott does is to help someone who doesn’t know this world begin to understand it, which seems to me a very important thing.

Abbott is first and foremost a storyteller. She’s not preachy, she’s not didactic. I’m sure lots of readers just enjoy her books as stories and never come to think of the things that Ive found in her books. But I do think she writes with something along the lines of a purpose or an agenda, made just call it a powerful point of view that guides her literary sensibility. This moment from Die a Little has stuck with me:

It reminded me of a conversation I witnessed between Bill and Alice right after Edie’s miscarriage. Bill had talked about how these women, they were so delicate, like those flowers that look too heavy for their stems to support, that seem to defy their very structures.

“I’d say you men are the fragile ones,” Alice had replied. “Too soft for this world.”

When she said it, I thought she was teasing. but I could tell Bill was affected, that he found the remark surprising, penetrating. Even if he couldn’t put his finger on why.

The look in Bill’s eyes had been: She knows things. Things I can’t begin to know.

I think what Alice “knows” is simply what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, which is to have to give the impression of great delicacy while also having to live with the fact that all the people of power and status in your world view you as a delicate object. And so who is really the strong one, the one who stands up to that pressure every day, or the one who benefits from and controls that arrangement?

I think that Abbott’s book is such that, by the time we reach this moment, anyone who has been paying attention can likely read this subtext. And this is why I call her work feminist: it gets across this perspective, simple by very powerfully evoking this world and this lifestyle for anyone to see.

I would just add in conclusion that it seems that fiction like this is still greatly called for. I happened to read Die a Little almost exactly as the revelations about Donald Trump’s sexual abuse of women were occasioning a flood of testimony about sexual abuse that the women I know in day to day life had experienced at some point. So I think that even though Abbott writes about a society that is decades old and that we can think of as something we have left behind, certainly many tenets of the female experience she brings to the page have not aged at all. I would hope that in reading her books the genders can come to understand each other better.

Interesting New Releases: November 2016


Here are a few new releases for the month of November 2016 that have caught my eye. All of these, and many, many more new releases, can be found on my Interesting New Books — 2016 page.

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías Nov 1. New Marías is always a moment. Been hearing lots of good about this one.

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach Nov 1. Final volume of a bio of Kafka that will break new ground for the English-language reader.

Landscapes: John Berger on Art by John Berger Nov 1. Major new work from John Berger at 90. You gotta love it.

The Voynich Manuscript Nov 1. Nobody actually knows how to read this. Maybe you’ll decode it!

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante Nov 1. Elena for your children.

The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp by Elena Filipovic Nov 4. New take on Duchamp.

Pieces of Soap: Essays by Stanley Elkin Nov 15. Beloved essay collection by one of America’s most respected experimental authors.

Wayward Heroes by Halldor Laxness Nov 1. A new translation of Laxness is always a big deal.

The Attraction of Things by Roger Lewinter Nov 1. Short and vvvery powerful.

Nocilla Experience by Agustín Fernández Mallo Nov 8. If you dig experimental, pomo lit, Book 2 in the Nocilla trilogy.

Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser Nov 14. I liked this a lot last year in hardcover.

Thomas Bernhard: 3 Days by Thomas Bernhard Nov 15. Bernhard talks about himself for 3 days; so probably brilliant and horrifying at once.

The Post-Structuralist Vulva Coloring Book by Elly Blue and Meggyn Pomerleau Nov 15. I’m not actually recommending this, I just think it’s one of the most oddly specific titles I’ve ever seen.

In Praise of Defeat: Poems of Abdellatif Laabi Nov 15. One of the major poets of North Africa.

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso Nov 21. Classic of Brazilian lit, for the lovers of Faulkner. Supposedly Clarice was a big fan.

Recommended Reading: Henry Green, Alberto Manguel, Megan Abbott, Werner Herzog, David Constantine


A few things I’ve been recently enjoying, or have been recently released, that I think you all should read.

Caught, Back, and Loving by Henry Green. Although Green has been around for a while, he’s criminally under-read and hard to get a hold of, so NYRB Classics is reissuing everything of his, starting with these three. If you want to know why he’s great, Dan Green’s essay in The Quarterly Conversation is a good place to start. There’s also an appreciation Deborah Eisenberg just wrote for the NYR Blog and an essay in The New Yorker. When heavyweights like Parks and Eisenberg are stumping for Green, you better give him a look.

Reading Pictures by Alberto Manguel. Manguel is a real polymath, kind of like a less flashy but better researched Geoff Dyer. He’s written on all sorts of things, and this 2002 release is him giving deep readings of numerous works of art. Engrossing, filled with all sorts of magnificent research and delightful trivia. This book is such an education, like the art history class I never had mixed with the mass media critiques I learned in college.

Die a Little by Megan Abbott. Another TQC tie-in. Angela Woodward wrote a really smart essay on the feminist noir of Megan Abbott, so I decided to give it a look. Die a Little deserves its own post at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it reinvents the conventions of noir from a female perspective in some really surprising and deep ways. I’ll be reading more Abbott.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed by Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin. I’ll say right off the bat, 600 pages of interviews with anyone, let alone Herzog, is going to be a wee bit extreme for some people. I love interview books, and I dig Herzog’s energy, so I loved this book. And I will say, if there’s anyone who could bullshit about himself and his career for 600 pages and keep it fresh and surprising and illuminating the entire time, it’s probably Herzog. Film lovers should definitely check this one out.

The Life-Writer by David Constantine. I first found out about David Constantine while staying in a friend’s apartment. She shoved his stories into my hands and said I had to read them. So I did, and from the very first sentence I knew I was in the presence of a master storyteller. Think Mavis Gallant, Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro. So when Constantine’s first novel in 30 years came out, it was a must-read for me. It did not disappoint.

21 Great Books to Demystify and Remystify Translation


The Craft of Translation, eds. John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte

For a primer on the central dilemmas and activities in the practice of translation, you can learn a lot from the essays collected in this book. (Also see Biguenet and Schulte’s Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida.)

The Man Between, eds. Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, Russell Scott Valentino

A tribute to Michael Henry Heim, one of the most artistic and successful translators of the 20th century, plus a remarkable translation advocate and a man who translated from nearly a dozen languages. The book collects tributes, essays, and interview to give an accessible idea of Heim’s ideas on translation, the nuts and bolts of his translation practice, and the impact of his translations (make sure to see Sean Cotter’s piece on how Heim’s translation of Kindera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being essentially gave the English language the construction “the un-x-able y of z”).

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

Another good, accessible primer on the central questions in translation and the practical matters of how people translate. Bellos is a major translator of French fiction, having done, among other things, the English-language edition of George Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, an extraordinarily challenging (if not impossible) translation.

If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa

Rabassa, who recently passed away, is one of the great translators of the 20th century, creating the English-language editions of canonical authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar (García Márquez claimed Rabassa’s English-language One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than his original). This is Rabassa’s memoir of a lie in translation, as well as his ideas on the practice.

The Subversive Scribe by Suzanne Jill Levine

Levine is a translator (and friend) of many canonical Latin American authors, including Manuel Puig, Julio Cortázar, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and this is her book laying out her ideas and experiences. Notable here is Levine’s idea of translation as subversion.

The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship by Alex Beam

This forthcoming title tells the tale of the feud between Nabokov and Wilson over Nabokov’s highly controversial (and widely panned) translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Looks to be a fascinating book for people curious to know more about translation orthodoxy and how/why Nabokov decided to shatter it in his translation of the canonical Russian novel in verse.

The Delighted States by Adam Thirlwell

Thirlwell’s fun, very readable, anecdotal trip through some of history’s major translation questions. Although Thirlwell can be maddeningly superficial at times, he does a good job of explaining (and subverting) translation practice, making this a good one for both demystifing and remystifing translation all at once.

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger

In looking at 19 different translations of a single Chinese poem, Weinberger gives you some fascinating trivia on the Chinese language, as well as some excellent reasons why translation is impossible (or at least translating Chinese poetry into English). Eye-opening if you’ve never seen the practical side of translation up close.

Writing Beckett’s Letters by George Craig

Craig, who was an editor and translator on the mammoth project to make Beckett’s letters available in English, discussed the particular questions the came up with the project. This included the challenge of reading Beckett’s handwriting (often stylized to the point of incomprehensibility), dealing with Beckett’s movement between languages in a single letter, and many others. Also see all the Cahiers (or which this is #16) for more great discussions of translation in all its forms.

The Poetics of Translation by Willis Barnstone

Barnstone is, among other things, one of the major Biblical translators, as well as a collaborator with Borges. These are his ideas of how translation can be an art form of its own. His discussion of Biblical translations (ancient and more recent) are especially interesting.

The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes

Few if any people have written better than Barthes on what happens when a reader experiences a text. This is a matter essential to translation, because translation is often (and probably rightly) called the closest form of reading. The “erotics of reading” (Richard Howard) that Barthes creates in The Pleasure of the Text must deeply discuss what happens in a translator’s mind while immersed in the remarkably complex task of translation.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

The book where Queneau famously wrote the same brief anecdote 99 different ways is great for seeing how many different forms a story can take (many of the ones in this book transcend language altogether). The expanded 65th anniversary edition from New Directions has additional exercises from the likes of Jonathan Lethem and Enrique Vila-Matas to give greater breadth to the idea of translation here. Also check out Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story, which brings Queneau’s idea into the realm of graphic fiction.

Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey

These are Hawkey’s experimental translations (and/or mistranslations) of the major Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl (including translation via shotgun). Along the way you get Hawkey’s reflections on the art of translation and his personal experiences of Trakl (or his ghost).

Deformation Zone by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson

In twinned essays, McSweeney and Göransson lay out their (sometimes controversial) ideas of translation as Frankenstein-like deformation of the original text (as opposed to the ideas of fidelity and transparency that translators generally espouse).

Experiences in Translation by Umberto Eco

In addition to all the writing he did, Eco translated a great deal (including the Italian edition of Queneau’s Exercises), and this is Eco’s definitive statement on the practice, with copious illustrations from his own experiences of translating and being translated. (Also see Eco’s Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation.)

After Babel by George Steiner

After being released in 1975, this boo quickly became an essential text on the theory and practice of translation (although it’s also still an accessible work. Steiner finds translation as an essential quality of all communication and an indispensable practice for cultures to comprehend one another. He also, memorably, claims translation to be “not a science, but an exact art.”

The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys

Leys’s massive essay collection is a bounty in many ways, one of which are his reflections on translation (which he did much of himself). “The Experience of Literary Translation” is his most direct approach to the subject, but you can fin observations and theories throughout the other essays in this book.

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach

Not a book on translation per se, this is the major study on how reality has been transformed into literature throughout 3,000 or so years of Western literature. An essential book for anyone interested in the many ways reality can be composed into literature and the cultural and historical differences that have made for different representations. Without translation, this book wouldn’t exist, and it gives a good idea of the many different ways of seeing and comprehending the world that a reader can discover by reading translations.

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin

Recommended because it contains Benjamin’s major essay “The Task of the Translator,” which lays out Benjamin’s (often controversial) ideas on translation as well as his thoughts on what he calls a “pure language.”

Dictionary of Untranslatables, eds Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, Michael Wood

A mammoth compendium of some 400 philosophical ideas that are “untranslatable.” A weird, fun, in-depth book that will live with you for some time (it’s over 1300 pages long).

Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt

The incredibly massive, Joycean German mega-novel deals with a pair of Germans translating Poe. According to David Auerbach, the book is about “a sort of shared linguistic unconscious, where ‘etyms’ form a deep structure of language that guides how we interpret reality”—a provocative idea for those who are trying to get a better grasp of translation.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


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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