Based on about two hundred recent conversations with (or tweets from) literary friends and colleagues, I’m guessing that 2009 will be a big year for two important trends: e-books and international literature. The New York Times Book Review is still shutting its eyes real tight so it won’t have to see e-books (I assume they’ll schedule an endpaper essay full of bad Kindle jokes in the next few months, and start taking the trend seriously a year later). But they may be doing better on the literature in translation front, and even the globally minded Michael Orthofer has nice words about this weekend’s issue, which offers Sarah Fay on Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothomb, Elaine Sciolino on Azar Nafisi’s Things I’ve Been Silent About and Ligaya Mishan on Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany.
I’d probably be interested in Chicago if Mishan didn’t have so much fun dismantling Al Aswany’s fatal failure to capture the nuances of American behavior, especially where race relations are concerned:
A beautiful young black woman is fired from her job at a shopping mall, supposedly because of her race … people on the street heckle a white man with a black girlfriend, yelling “How much did you pay for this slave girl?”
Franz Kafka’s Amerika: The Missing Person, newly translated by Mark Harmon, is another glimpse of the USA through foreign fictional eyes, though in this case the anomalies (most famously, the Statue of Liberty carrying a sword instead of a torch) may be the key to the work. I’m halfway through this new translation myself right now, and I appreciate Adam Kirsch for finishing before me and providing some helpful context for this slippery work. I don’t remember ever praising an article by Adam Kirsch before today, but this is nice stuff:
[Mark Harmon] follows previous English editions by retaining the German spelling of America, with a “k.” This lends the name, in American eyes, a more ominous and alien quality than it would have for the German reader. That “k” is hard to resist, however, and not just because readers have come to expect it. No writer has ever annexed a single letter the way Kafka did with “k.” Between the two in his own last name, Joseph K. of “The Trial” and K. of “The Castle,” the letter seems imbued with his own angular essence. Amerika is not America; it is a cipher for Kafka’s dream of a country he never visited.
I’m not sure if I’ll finish this book myself, though I’m glad I started it; perhaps what I appreciate most of all about Adam Kirsch’s piece is that it lets me off the hook, first by explaining how this early Kafka effort was designed to work (it’s a classic picaresque) and secondly by confirming my suspicion that even at its best this book is not as essential as The Castle or The Trial. I think that’s all the excuse I need to move on to the next title on my to-read list.
Liesl Schillinger praises Louise Erdrich’s story volume The Red Convertible with her usual flair. I hoped to see a positive review of fun rock critic Chuck Klosterman’s first novel Downtown Owl, and one imagines that Peter Meehan hoped to write one, but had to tell the truth instead. I also had trouble getting absorbed in Klosterman’s story, which reads like Fargo Rock City slowed way down, though I hope the author will try again.
I don’t know what to do with Leah Hager Cohen’s soapy cover piece on a cancer memoir, The Mercy Papers by Robin Romm. There’s not much sport in attacking a positive review of a book about a dying and saintly mother, especially when an editor’s note reveals that the reviewer’s mother is also suffering from late-stage cancer. Cohen has started her own blog about her mother’s illness, she says:
… in a state of serious mortification, giving in at least to my agent’s urging. I hated the ugliness of the word ‘blog’ and the kind of self-involvement I associated with blogging.
Ugliness? Really? I always thought we were kind of cute. Anyway, this positive review is itself highly self-involved, though it will probably appeal to anyone currently caring for a sick relative. But then, so would a nice greeting card.