Staff Picks: Fasting for Ramadan

Taylor recommends Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali:

How do we define family? Traditions? Vacations? Shared Meals? Shared beliefs? How do we draw the line between faith & understanding? Food & body? The SuperNatural & anxiety? What makes words into poetry? Is it the not letting go? Is it the rain? Or lack thereof?

This book in its most simple form is a diary. OR> An exploration of exploration. OR> Experiencing an experience. OR> Can we be forgotten? OR> Once I met a man who I was sure was me myself but also him himself & that, though we had never met, had never seen one another, had always been separated, we had never been separate. OR> I never sleep because night is when I eat. OR> Maybe we have to be truly empty to understand emptiness?

PART 1: THE MIND’S REACHING OUT

One feels, at the end of a day of fasting, like a branch of a tree or a bone bleached in the sun…
Sometimes even your own language disappears…
Tell me the difference between entity & eternity…
How Small & tender the ego is…
I wonder if I will always be like this…
I’ve always thought of a poem as an open door…
But holiness is everywhere, in the ordinary days as well…

PART 2: GROUNDED IN THE BODY

White sunlight comes through the window…
What is cleaner than fire…
These are drugs I take…
Each morning I am up early enough to look at the moon…
The fast takes us from a self-oriented universe into creation…
My body is a transitional site, a holding pattern…
I dream to come back, to have it be really mine again, my lovely brother, my corpse, my shield…

Elegant & intimate; you won’t want this book to end.

Staff Picks: One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin

Schandra recommends One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin, translated from the French by Christiana Hills:

In honor of the March for Science that happened on Earth Day, April 22nd, the staff put together a STEM-inspired display of books by or about scientists, mathematicians, and doctors.

One of several titles on the display that I personally recommend is One Hundred Twenty-One Days, the debut novel of acclaimed mathematician and Oulipo member Michele Audin. Oulipo, of Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud fame, is a workshop of predominantly French-speaking writers and mathematicians producing literature using constrained writing techniques. This novel is only the second book by a female Oulipian to be published in English. Rendered here masterfully by emergent French-to-English translator Christiana Hills and printed by Texas’ own Deep Vellum Publishing with geometric cover art by Anna Zylicz, One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a posterchild for the representation of women in translation, STEM fields, art, and literature.

It is difficult to summarize the plot of this novel, primarily because the plot is more like a word problem only solvable through careful reading. And like a math problem, there is a great deal of satisfaction inherent in its completion. I can say that the book’s focal point is a community of scholars, mathematicians, and their families orbiting around the University of Strasbourg during the first and second World Wars. As Amanda Sarasien of the blog Reading in Translation expertly noted:

The daughter of a mathematician who was tortured and killed by French parachutists in the Algerian War, Audin is, herself, a mathematics professor at the University of Strasbourg. Not only does the University … serve as a kind of polestar for the novel’s various narratives, mathematicians’ daughters figure prominently as nodes where the orbits of these narratives cross paths. It is in those moments where a woman’s voice takes over the narration that the novel achieves its greatest emotional resonance.

Audin’s Oulipian constraints demand that every chapter find its own voice in the sparsest possible prose, in some instances reaching the extremes of nothing more than hurried notations. Each of these distinct voices sing loudly without overwhelming the choral whole. More concrete literary constraints showcased in One Hundred Twenty-One Days include purposeful alliteration, palindromes, anagrams, and acrostics, all of which, more because of their artfulness than in spite of it, go unnoticed to the casual reader. And where one might anticipate that these confines would limit such a book, they serve instead to liberate its form far beyond the traditional novel, oscillating stylistically chapter to chapter from a childhood in Africa told as fable to a scholar’s historical research notes to a reporter’s interview transcripts to the diary entries of a combat trauma nurse to…to…to… To borrow from Anne Sexton, “[Y]ou could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.”

The experience of reading this book is quite a bit like going through guided research or detective work. You might be reading a diary entry and notice a stray detail not immediately expanded upon. You will wonder why it’s there or how it relates to what has come before. Then, two chapters later, perhaps in an interview or an obituary, the detail’s relevance is made marvelously clear. Audin draws on the pleasure intrinsic to discovering the kind of monumental historical coincidences and improbable confluences of people and events with which this novel is fragrantly ripe.

One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a unique find for enthusiasts of works in translation, French literature, history, mathematics, psychology, mystery, poetry, and humanity (so basically anyone). If The Diary of Anne Frank or the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Lights We Cannot See speak to you, so will this.

Staff Picks: Life Embitters by Josep Pla

Fernando recommends Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Roland Bush:

Josep Pla is one of those writers who was so prolific, whose work captures the people he saw in his day to day with such nuance, humor, and emotional precision, who had the talent of observation and getting into the heart of things better than most of his contemporaries, yet I find myself hardly ever thinking of him. Why is this?

Perhaps the title of this collection of stories, and that it clocks in at six hundred pages, makes this book kind of a hard sell.

Josep Pla was a Catalonian critic, reporter, and writer of fiction born at the end of the 19th century. Making his way all over Europe in his travels, he had front row seats to some of the biggest social events of the 20th century, and got to see how they affected everyday people. From people living in Spanish boarding houses, to French café owners, to dreamers in train compartments going into Germany, the moments Josep Pla witnessed in people are forever frozen in these little vignettes.

I will admit that upon reading the first story I had little interest to actually finish the book. However, something about the atmosphere and poetry in these stories seduced me. Perhaps because I am a sucker for culture-specific, regional works (like Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio, or Letters from My Windmill by Alphonse Daudet), I tapped into the tragic human comedy and beauty in these stories. Now, I can say I am a reader devoted to the work of Josep Pla. His writing has only recently begun to be translated into English and I couldn’t be happier to discover more.

Staff Picks: Inventive Impulses

Taylor recommends Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine:

I don’t know what’s already been said about this book, but considering the impression it’s left on me I would assume a lot of people have said a lot of terrific things… like ::: there’s such a warm atmosphere to this collection… elegant, dazzling, charming, tender, fearless… incredible control and craft, what lovely enjambment… an instant classic… I just couldn’t put it down… and really, it has become a book that I reread often. So many of the poems leave me slightly breathless, so many of the lines make me touch my hand to my heart. This book makes me feel less alone and/or ok in my sadness or optimism.

So what are we really looking at here? Just another book of poems in three parts from Copper Canyon. Just amazing cover art from Januz Miralles. Just a terrific title for a book of poems with terrific titles… I mean “Incorrect Merciful Impulses,” “Dear Enemy,” “Always Bring Flowers,” “Symptoms of Home”… yeah this book is solid and it hits on a lot of registers, like what it means to be alive right now and how we interact with history, which is sort of to say how we interact with death and those who have died and how sometimes we have to use metaphors because the pain of saying what we need is so great and how sometimes we must confront the sources of our pain directly and how sometimes we just need to feel human.

Even though each of these poems stands alone like a treasure chest of visceral images, snappy line breaks, effortless rhythm, inventive phrases and subverted cliches, the entire collection coalesces around revisitations of the sea, the sun, symptoms, fire, love and family. Not many books of poetry are for everybody, but this one is. I can’t wait for you to read it.

Staff Picks: Hadlíz With His Trump Hair

Stephanie recommends The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz by Ladislav Novák (translated from the Czech by Jed Slast):

When this book first arrived at Malvern in September 2016, I believed there was no way Donald J. Trump would ever be elected president of the United States. He seemed so obviously a jester for an evil we wouldn’t let win. So when I started reading The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz, I saw the visuals of Hadlíz, with his Trump-esque coif, as a freakish prediction from the 1970s of Trump’s goofy-but-traumatizing presidential campaign and it made me laugh. Look at Trump as a slice of pizza! Look at Trump punching another, fatter Trump in the face!

But as I started reading the text and not just ingesting the images, the comparisons between Mr. Hadlíz and Trump lost their humor: “Clowning and dissimulating, he invites us to have fun with him. To make our forgetting even more profound? To easily get us under his control? Under no circumstances should we trust him too much.”

Now that Trump is in office, the accidental connections between Hadlíz and The Donald stand out even more.

Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press focuses on contemporary writing from central and eastern Europe. The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz (Twisted Spoon, 2002) is a combination of poetry, prose, and visual art, featuring twelve images created by froissage, a method author and artist Ladislav Novák invented to interpret crumpled paper.

Hadlíz is carved from the quotidian: an unused daily calendar gifted to Novák at the beginning of 1976 (a year before Trump married his first wife, a Czech model). Of Hadlíz’s genesis later that year, Novák writes: “Near the center of the sheet and in the middle of the creased lines there emerged a suspended figure in the original white color of the washed background. It suggested to me the title: ‘Mr. Hadlíz as a floating cloud (as an eiderdown).’”

The writings were composed sixteen years after the images, in 1992 (a banner year for Trump, as three Trump hotels filed for bankruptcy protection).

With his reliance on clowning (“Mr. Hadlíz of course isn’t just joking”); predatory behavior (“Mr. Hadlíz may be free but will she freely comply?”); and his own inner voices (“these voices are more than dim visceral whimperings”), Hadlíz With His Trump Hair entertains and terrorizes throughout The Transformations, which at one point asks, “What sort of age have we lived in, do we still live in?”

Hadlíz can be taken as a Trump figure up until the book’s conclusion, when Hadlíz shows emotional growth, something Trump has no interest in. We remember that Hadlíz isn’t real, that he is a kind of cartoon and therefore can have his easy redemption. But Trump wasn’t carved from paper and chance and is not a cartoon. Trump is real and somehow our president. “What sort of age have we lived in, do we still live in?”

Staff Picks: Necessary Silences & An Uncanny Monologue

Stephanie recommends 100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu:

Yu uses poems by Collins, Oliver, Pound and more to skewer the original texts (and their creators) for their racist representations. “Often I run out of ideas / for poems,” Yu writes in a riff on a Dan Gerber poem, “but then I remember I am an American / and so can end my poem with something Chinese / and call it original, like that / ancient American railroad / built miraculously by silent hands, / helping me drive my golden spike home.”


Fernando recommends Amulet by Roberto Bolaño:

What can I tell you that you don’t already know? Perhaps it’s too easy to recommend a book by Bolaño, but this is the first novel by him I ever read. I bought it on a whim around 2007ish, after having witnessed his corner of the shelf at the local bookstore get a little bigger year after year. Finally I said, Who is this guy?, and picked one up. I will say now, after ten years of distance, that nothing could have prepared me at that time for Amulet.

This is a story about immigrants, about the government doing the unthinkable, and about resistance. At the time a novel like this was not easy to come by, especially one that was contemporary. It is narrated throughout the course of twelve days by an older Uruguayan woman as she hides in a bathroom stall while the army invades the university in Mexico City. She calls herself the mother of all poets and passionately recounts her life, passions, fantasies, and fears.

Maybe since 2007 Bolaño’s popularity has gotten out of control, but I try not to think about this when I consider one of his books as a work of literature. Though his longer, imperfect novels are certainly works of art in their own right, I really enjoy the impact and immediacy of shorter ones like Amulet.

By the end everything is devastating and holy, in a way only the rapture can be. Even if you’re in a crowded room as you finish it, you’ll feel completely alone, in the best way.