Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Shelves To Read 2011

Last year at this time I noticed frequent side remarks on book blogs about the stacks of books that people have bought but haven’t yet read, and I thought it might be nice to actually have a photo of my “to read” shelves. I thought it might be nice to make this into a yearly event, so here is the updated version of my “to read” shelves.

It’s fun to compare to last year’s shelves and see where I’ve made progress—and where I haven’t. I’ve moved the “to read” books to a different, slightly slimmer bookshelf than before, so I’ve done a fairly good job of reading more than I buy in the past year. For now, at least, the books all fit the shelves! Of course, some of this may have to do with strategic weeding of the lower shelf, which has the lower priority items…

I hope to be reading a number of these books this summer, so this is about as close to a preview as this blog will ever have.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Granta 113: The Final Five

(I’ve been working my way through Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. The previous installments are here, here, and here. This post covers the final five stories.)

Having now finished Granta 113, I think there is one lesson to take away from all this, and it is a lesson for editors: don’t include so many excerpts from forthcoming novels. Three of the final five authors—Matías Néspolo, Andrés Felipe Solano, and Alejandro Zambra—are represented by excerpts, and the excerpts are all perfectly ok but don’t really make me want to run out and buy the work. I’ve never understood how this was supposed to work as a marketing ploy. When I read a story in a magazine or literary journal, I would much rather see a completed work. Zambra’s bio says he is working on a collection of short stories—why not include one of those? I will probably buy and read the novel the editors have excerpted here, but it will be because I’ve read his previous novels, not because of the excerpt. Give me something that shows the writer can deal with a beginning, middle, and end.

The real standout in this regard is Samanta Schweblin’s story, “Olingiris,” which tells of a bizarre business that allows women to come in and perform a ritualistic hair removal—by tweezing out the leg hairs of another woman one by one. The story has just the right mixture of the unexplained (Why do people line up to do this? How did this start? Who is running it, and what do they do with the hair?) and the explained, giving us the back stories of two women who work in the establishment. The story is amazing because its surreal events evoke all sorts of contemporary rituals—consumerism, the beauty parlor, prostitution, sex tourism—without being reducible to any of them. For me, this kind of story is the narrative equivalent of Emily Dickinson’s saying that poetry should spin your head like a top: it demands certain connections yet doesn’t easily add up to anything, producing a kind of sublimity and dizziness.

Patricio Pron’s story, “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” ends the volume. It is a well-told first-person story about a young writer who lives in an apartment underneath one of his major influences, dwelling incessantly on the life of the older writer and letting that shape his work. The general idea, as it develops, seems to be the way that writers fabricate ideas about their influences, making the line of literary development less clear and more a matter of happenstance and invention. [Insert your own longer Harold Bloom flashback here.] The story develops this idea fairly well, and it works as the final bookend to a volume about new writers; I was less interested in the reflections on writers who come to the city. I also feel I might be missing something just through a lack of thorough familiarity with Argentinean writers—for example, if there is a particular older writer Pron has in mind, I’ve missed the cues entirely.

Coming out the other side of this collection, there are really two writers I am eager to follow up on: Lucía Puenzo and Samanta Schweblin. To a lesser extent I also want to follow up on Carlos Labbé’s novel and on Pola Oloixarac if/as they are translated into English. Alejandro Zambra, as I said above, I’ll read more of, but not because of the excerpt here. Other writers I have some interest in and would quickly be persuaded to read by the right review: Javier Montes, Federico Falco, and even Carlos Yushimito, the last of whom I didn’t write about in my previous post. I’m not really sure that I would call the volume overall a big success, but I am happy that at least I came away from reading it with a few women writers in Spanish that have my interest, given the general problem with the lack of translations of women writers I’ve mentioned before. In that vein, hopefully next time someone makes a list of good new Spanish writing they will be able to do a little better than having only five women out of twenty-two writers.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Carlos Labbé, Federico Falco, Elvira Navarro

(I’m working my way through Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. The previous installments are here and here. This post covers three stories from the next nine.)

With only five more stories left in Granta 113, I haven’t encountered anything I disliked as much as the Barba story, but only three more have really grabbed me, so I will focus on them.

The first is Carlos Labbé’s “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable,” which surprised me with my interest if for nothing else because the title is so bad I expected to groan myself all the way through. Labbé has one of the various excerpts from novels, and I have to say that it is the only one so far that makes me really curious to run out and buy the longer work (thank goodness the novel has a different title). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it is translated by Natasha Wimmer, as it sits well alongside her work on Bolaño. I find it hard to even describe a plot at this point, beyond its evocation of spy/detective story and a hint of surrealism. The narrator is describing a sighting of two wanted criminals, the sister of one of them, and a congressman publicly believed dead. The surrealism comes from the blend of strange behavior of the four, some seemingly unlikely behavior on the part of the narrator, and the narrator’s ability to tell things he couldn’t possibly have witnessed without quite a lot of voyeuristic effort.

Immediately after that excerpt is Federico Falco’s “In Utah There Are Mountains Too,” which is a funny story about a teenage girl, Cuqui, who develops a crush on a Mormon missionary. It is a little unlike anything else in this volume and works because it is really in all a tender story that somehow manages not to come off as cloying and sentimental.

The last thing I’ve read is Elvira Navarro’s “Gerardo’s Letters”—it is another excerpt translated by Natasha Wimmer, but this is one that I think I would like to stop right where it ends. The narrator tells the story of her disintegrating relationship over the course of a hostel stay, and you get a nice feel for how sick the two are of one another while also being very sad about it. I think the narrator would be hard to follow for the course of a novel, but her internal ranting and euphoria lend nice color to details such as the description of some kids at the hostel and the “creepy gnome” who runs it. One nice line that gathers in the hostel experience and the relationship troubles: “The PC takes a while to start, and it’s so cold that I plug in the hairdryer and rest it on the edge of the keyboard as once again I curse Gerardo and at the same time feel sad because everything is full of his opinions, which have become my own.”

Finally, By the Firelight has just covered several Granta 113 stories. A few I’ve discussed here (by Barba, Montes, and Puenzo), one I haven’t gotten to yet (Shweblin), and another that I read in the set covered by this post but didn’t discuss above. This last is Alberto Olmos’s “Eva and Diego,” and while I didn’t love it, the story has a couple of great moments, such as when Eva realizes she has no memory of the building that has previously occupied a now-empty space in the city (now that I’m on it, I’m reminded of James Merrill’s poem “An Urban Convalescence”). This story is another of the excerpts from novels the editors chose in place of full stories, and I could see this fragment turning into an interesting longer work.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lucía Puenzo’s XXY

After enjoying her Granta 113 story, I decided to track down Lucía Puenzo’s film XXY (2007), an adaptation of a short story by Sergio Bizzio. Puenzo makes good on many of the promises of her short story: in particular she is fantastic at weaving a story around highly charged issues of gender and sexuality, playing off of some film genre stereotypes but avoiding the pitfalls they might usually entail. The story focuses on an intersex teenager (Alex) and her parents and a visiting family with a son (Alvaro) of the same age.* The film is playing with material that has real potential to dive headlong into a Lifetime movie combination of voyeurism and pity, but Puenzo seizes the opportunity to play with some of the melodramatic tropes to which she alludes. The story opens through the perspective of the son of the visiting family, which has been invited by Alex’s mother, Suli, because Alvaro’s father, Ramiro, is a plastic surgeon and past friend with whom she’s been discussing the possibility of surgery to “decide” Alex’s gender (as female).

In a more conventional melodrama, this would be an opportunity to show the evils of Ramiro, while Alvaro redeems himself (and through him, the audience) by confronting Alex’s “true nature” and learning to love her—all the while leaving Alex as mostly a scientific specimen discovered on film by the camera’s increasingly prying eye. And to a certain extent this happens: Ramiro is a bully that Alvaro is going to have to continue living with, and there is some sympathy for Alvaro’s situation in the end. But really what is interesting is how the film narratively sidelines Ramiro as the villain: yeah, he’s a bad guy, but the threat he poses is easy to see and ultimately not very interesting here. Instead, the film offers us more and more of the perspective of Alex, Kraken (Alex’s father), and (to a lesser extent) Suli. In the process, the film develops some distance from Alvaro, turns the critique against him in addition to his father, and, as a result, makes the audience squirm. Instead of building on the suspense of what gender Alex “really is” or visualizing her intersex condition, Puenzo asks us why we think about the issue through that lens. The shift also opens up a perspective on the issues within Alex’s family that allows for a more interesting view of intersex lives than the abuse from the outside world and the fight to overcome it.

The film isn’t perfect: excepting the way she plays very well with point of view, Puenzo could work most on the visual in film. Not that the film isn’t beautiful, but there are some images that come across to me at least as a little heavy handed (the turtles, particularly early in the film, although later they work more seamlessly). I also felt Ramiro needed to demonstrate his “bullying” of Alvaro a little more clearly earlier in the film, but maybe its abrupt, seemingly random entrance into the film (in a scene over dinner) is part of the point. Still, these issues don’t come anywhere near to outweighing the strengths, and XXY has confirmed my interest in Puenzo’s writing enough that I’ve order a copy of her novel The Fish Child.

*I use the feminine pronoun in this post because the character has been raised to appear as a daughter, but one nice thing about the film is that it refuses the idea she is “truly” any one gender, something that I noticed was punctuated in the film by that fact that Alex’s father, Kraken, alternately refers to her as “mi hija” and “mi hijo” at certain points.