mini-review · stuff I read · translation

Käsebier Takes Berlin by Gabriele Tergit, translated by Sophie Duvernoy

38911927._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In Berlin, 1930, the name Käsebier is on everyone’s lips. A literal combination of the German words for “cheese” and “beer,” it’s an unglamorous name for an unglamorous man—a small-time crooner who performs nightly on a shabby stage for laborers, secretaries, and shopkeepers. Until the press shows up.

In the blink of an eye, this everyman is made a star: a star who can sing songs for a troubled time. Margot Weissmann, the arts patron, hosts champagne breakfasts for Käsebier; Muschler the banker builds a theater in his honor; Willi Frächter, a parvenu writer, makes a mint off Käsebier-themed business ventures and books. All the while, the journalists who catapulted Käsebier to fame watch the monstrous media machine churn in amazement—and are aghast at the demons they have unleashed.

In Käsebier Takes Berlin, the journalist Gabriele Tergit penned a searing satire of the excesses and follies of the Weimar Republic. Chronicling a country on the brink of fascism and a press on the edge of collapse, Tergit’s novel caused a sensation when it was published in 1931. As witty as Kurt Tucholsky and as trenchant as Karl Kraus, Tergit portrays a world too entranced by fireworks to notice its smoldering edges.

Käsebier Takes Berlin jumped out at me when I was looking through the New York Review Books Classics catalog. “Cheese beer” is the literal translation of “Käsebier” – what is that name? This is the first English translation of a satirical novel from 1931 Germany, whose author fled the rise of Nazism in 1933, eventually ending up in London. OK. I’m in.

Käsebier Takes Berlin shows us a “year-in-the-life” of what happens when a mediocre Jewish Everyman (Käsebier) becomes an overnight cabaret sensation (look, it was a slow news day). He becomes a media darling, despite singing lukewarm 1930s dancehall music, and lends his name to everything from shoes to rubber dolls to the construction of a luxury apartment building by a shady speculator. Then it all falls apart. T

This is the driest satirical look at the Berlin intelligentsia and upper class of 1930. Gabriele Tergit spares no one, not even Käsebier. Tergit skewers the capitalist drive to make as much money as possible off the hot shit for the moment – a drive that still exists in ever-increasing amounts of media tie-in rubbish and branding in the 21st century. She also gives part of the narrative to Miss Kohler, also referred to as Dr. Kohler, a woman with a doctorate who is severely under-employed at a middling newspaper and is repeatedly strung along by an old boyfriend. It’s an interesting look at a woman stuck at the crossroads between the modern and the traditional roles for women just as Germany the country is about to start on the long road to atrocity. An interesting book for me to read and contrast with the Germany of Fritz Lang’s M (a favorite movie) and Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.

Käsebier Takes Berlin is out on Tuesday, July 30!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

The Golden Goblet: Selected Poems of Goethe by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth (Translator), Frederick Turner (Translator)

45361728._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
The Golden Goblet traces Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetry from the idealism of youth to the liberation of maturity. In contrast to his rococo contemporaries, Goethe’s poetry draws on the graceful simplicity of German folk rhythms to develop complex, transcendent themes. This robust selection, artfully translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, explores transformation, revolution, and illumination in Goethe’s lush lyrical style that forever altered the course of German literature.

The notes on the translators’ work and the introduction explaining how Goethe’s language changed over time and influenced art and literature were very interesting.

The poems? Eh, maybe not. The translators of The Golden Goblet were very careful to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter of the poems, but in doing so the poems felt very cold. Not inspiring or passionate, which are the first things one thinks of with Goethe. It may have been better had the publishers chose to do a facing-page style presentation, with the original German on one page and the new English translation facing the other. Because it was hard to judge how much Goethe was changing since he didn’t write in English. Since I read German, that would have been fun.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani

39831356

Summary from Goodreads:
Muslim: A Novel is a genre-bending, poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim from one of France’s leading writers. In this novel, the second in a trilogy, Rahmani’s narrator contemplates the loss of her native language and her imprisonment and exile for being Muslim, woven together in an exploration of the political and personal relationship of language within the fraught history of Islam. Drawing inspiration from the oral histories of her native Berber language, the Koran, and French children’s tales, Rahmani combines fiction and lyric essay in to tell an important story, both powerful and visionary, of identity, persecution, and violence.

“Muslim” is a book that I ran across by accident while curating a selection of Muslim writers for a display at the bookstore. Which, in the most ironic way, plays into the central tenet of Rahmani’s novel: that “Muslim” is used as a monolith, a label that erases all nuance. The narrator of “Muslim” weaves back and forth between exploring her childhood as an immigrant from Algeria in France, losing and then finding her childhood Berber language, ruminating on the development of Islam, and contemplating the bleakness of an unnamed camp, in an unnamed location of the world, where the narrator has been taken captive because she is a “Muslim” and is therefore suspect of all manner of unnamable things.

The original French edition was published in 2005, so several later references in the book are very directly pointing to the US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq at that time. I wonder how the book would be similar or different had Rahmani written the book in 2015.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read · translation

Aladdin: A New Translation, translated by Yasmin Searle and edited by Paulo Lemos Horta

43234945Summary from Goodreads:
Long defined by popular film adaptations that have reductively portrayed Aladdin as a simplistic rags-to-riches story for children, this work of dazzling imagination—and occasionally dark themes—finally comes to vibrant new life. “In the capital of one of China’s vast and wealthy kingdoms,” begins Shahrazad— the tale’s imperiled-yet-ingenious storyteller—there lived Aladdin, a rebellious fifteen-year-old who falls prey to a double-crossing sorcerer and is ultimately saved by the ruse of a princess.

One of the best-loved folktales of all time, Aladdin has been capturing the imagination of readers, illustrators, and filmmakers since an eighteenth-century French publication first added the tale to The Arabian Nights. Yet, modern English translators have elided the story’s enchanting whimsy and mesmerizing rhythms. Now, translator Yasmine Seale and literary scholar Paulo Lemos Horta offer an elegant, eminently readable rendition of Aladdin in what is destined to be a classic for decades to come.

So, Aladdin lived in Agrabah with a small monkey and after getting tricked by Jafar and his mouthy parrot, he found a lamp with a funny blue genie and then married Princess Jasmine who lived in a palace with giant onion domes/looked like the Taj Mahal, right?

Eh, no. A new translation of Aladdin is just out from Liveright and it is a delight. This is a new translation from the French, drawn from a French edition by Antoine Galland in the early 1700s. Aladdin has a curious publication history, highlighted in Horta’s introduction. It has not been found in extant Arabic manuscripts of the 1001 Nights or The Arabian Nights, but was added to the collection by Galland after being told the story of Aladdin, and others, by a traveler from Aleppo, Hanna Diyab. If you’ve only been exposed to the Disney/Hollywood/children’s version of Aladdin this is fascinating reading. It definitely isn’t a children’s translation – the sentence structure is complex and this is an English translation of a French version of a Syrian tale that perhaps comes from centuries of oral tradition. Apparently, Aladdin’s kingdom is nearer to China than Arabia, who knew?

Searle is working on a new translation of the complete Arabian Nights, which I believe will be released in several volumes, and Aladdin is an early taste of her work as a translator of the French Galland edition. This is a very lovely translation to read and I’m definitely looking forward to the completed work.

Thanks to Liveright/Norton for the galley (I’m a little behind on my reading – Aladdin was released November 27).

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

 

mini-review · Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #1) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

1232Summary from Goodreads:
The international literary sensation, about a boy’s quest through the secrets and shadows of postwar Barcelona for a mysterious author whose book has proved as dangerous to own as it is impossible to forget.

Barcelona, 1945 – just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes on his eleventh birthday to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child, Daniel’s widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel’s father coaxes him to choose a volume from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the novel he selects, The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last one in existence. Before Daniel knows it his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love. And before long he realizes that if he doesn’t find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly.

As with all astounding novels, The Shadow of the Wind sends the mind groping for comparisons—The Crimson Petal and the White? The novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte? Of Victor Hugo? Love in the Time of Cholera?—but in the end, as with all astounding novels, no comparison can suffice. As one leading Spanish reviewer wrote, “The originality of Ruiz Zafón’s voice is bombproof and displays a diabolical talent. The Shadow of the Wind announces a phenomenon in Spanish literature.” An uncannily absorbing historical mystery, a heart-piercing romance, and a moving homage to the mystical power of books, The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of the storyteller’s art.

I’ve been trying to finish The Shadow of the Wind for years. It was one of the first books to end up on my “Read My Own Damn Books” list. For some reason, I just couldn’t get any steam going to actually make headway in the book beyond the first few chapters.

Thanks to a combination of paper and audio book, I finally finished! Once I go into the meat of the study I really liked the labyrinthine plotting – even if it did slow the reading down. The recreation of the Spain and Barcelona of the Spanish Civil War and Franco was very atmospheric. The ending was both climactic (action!) and anti-climactic (because I’d guessed all the reveals since those bits were all very Victorian-Gothic-ish). And now I can read the rest of the books in the series.

Or at least try to – I may have three more entries in my list.

Dear FTC: I read my own trade paper copy and borrowed the audiobook via the library’s Overdrive site.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations edited by Sarah Cleave

39737311Summary from Goodreads:
In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the United States, effectively slamming the door on refugees seeking safety and tearing families apart. Mass protests followed, and although the order has since been blocked, amended and challenged by judges, it still stands as one of the most discriminatory laws to be passed in the US in modern times.

Banthology brings together specially commissioned stories from the original seven ‘banned nations’. Covering a range of approaches – from satire, to allegory, to literary realism – it explores the emotional and personal impact of all restrictions on movement, and offers a platform to voices the White House would rather remained silent.

Banthology is a slim and lovely collection of seven short stories from authors who claim countries caught in the “Muslim Ban” as home. The pieces range from hyper-realist to bordering on fantasy. All deal with displacement, grief, and loss. Somali-Italian author Ubah Cristina Ali Farrah’s story about a teenage refugee in Italy is heartbreaking.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this story collection almost as soon as I heard of it’s forthcoming existence.

mini-review · Read Harder · Reading Women · stuff I read · translation

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

35969593Summary from Goodreads:
An award-winning debut story collection by Karin Tidbeck, author of Amatka and heir to Borges, Le Guin, and Lovecraft.

A child is born in a tin can. A switchboard operator finds himself in hell. Three corpulent women float somewhere beyond time. Welcome to the weird world of Karin Tidbeck, the visionary Swedish author of literary sci-fi, speculative fiction, and mind-bending fantasy who has captivated readers around the world. Originally published by the tiny press Cheeky Frawg–the passion project of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer–Jagannath has been celebrated by readers and critics alike, with rave reviews from major outlets and support from lauded peers like China Mieville and even Ursula K. Le Guin herself. These are stories in which fairies haunt quiet towns, and an immortal being discovers the nature of time–stories in which anything is possible.

I had heard that Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka was a good book but I hadn’t got around to reading it, yet. So I was really interested in reading the new edition of her collection Jagannath, originally published by the Vandermeers’ indie press Cheeky Frawg in 2012. Jagannath is an unexpectedly lovely and unsettling collection of short stories that occupy a liminal space between reality and folktales (with a few dips into more mainstream fantasy). This is a collection for fans of Sofia Samatar, Margo Langergan, Amber Sparks, and Laura van den Berg, excellent company indeed. Tidbeck did her own translations for those pieces originally published in Swedish and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between those originally written in English and the translations.

The new edition of Jagannath is available on February 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Read Harder · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (transl. Jonathan Wright)

30780005Summary from Goodreads:
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by “Baghdad’s new literary star” (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

Here is the problem with flap copy and blurbs: this description is only half the story. The novel opens with the description of a division of the Tracking Unit tasked with identifying and tracking threats to the new government and American occupying forces. However, this division has also secretly been using fortune-tellers, astrologers, fakirs, and all sorts of metaphysical methods to attempt to predict where a bombing might occur. They’ve uncovered a criminal who cannot be killed and a journalist who interviewed him and a writer who was provided with confidential materials from the department and wrote a novel about it.  Which has been confiscated.

What we proceed to read then, is that novel. It begins with the elderly widow Elishva, a woman of deep religious convictions, on her way to worship at the Assyrian Christian church and pray to St. George for the return of her lost son, Daniel, who was conscripted by the Baathists over twenty years ago. While she is gone, a bombing takes places near her home in Bataween, an old Iraqi Jewish neighborhood. Once the blast has cleared we meet Hadi, the junk dealer, who is grieving his former business partner lost in a similar incident. The journalist Mahmoud is sent to write about the bombing. And then another bombing happens, this time an attempt on a hotel, and a guard is killed, his body vaporized. Without a body, his soul cannot find rest. It finds a home in the patchwork corpse the traumatized Hadi has assembled from disparate body parts. Claimed by Elishva as her lost son, the creature embarks on a course of vengeance across the city.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is an outstanding metafictional work set in post-invasion Baghdad. Saadawi draws from not only Mary Shelley’s creator and monster but also the idea of the golem to explore ideas of retribution, causation, and responsibility. A wonderful cast of characters populates the Bataween neighborhood at the center of the story. It brought depth and detail to a place in the world so often presented in Western media as a monoculture. The plot is structured in such a way that I really couldn’t predict how it would wrap up. I have to compliment the translator Jonathan Wright for bringing this novel across into English – the language flows beautifully.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.