Girl At War — A Must Read

Cover-Girl At War by Sara NovicThe title says it all. Sara Nović’s novel, Girl at War, is a compelling account of Ana, a ten-year old Croatian girl living in Zagreb, and her shocking, life-changing experiences during the cruelty and carnage that overtook her country and the rest of the multi-ethnic ex-Yugoslavian state a generation ago. I chafed each time I had to put it down to eat, sleep, or perform a household chore. It has the feel of a memoir: both the war scenes that froze Ana into a repressed silence and the later scenes of struggle to come to grips with the memories–forget? forgive? move on?–are gripping.

Beautifully written in simple, unflorid prose, its final paragraph attains a kind of poetry. If you want to know what war is like for those caught in its crosshairs, read this book!

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TWO FOR ONE: ALL THE LIGHT IT’S STILL CRUCIAL TO SEE

It seems remarkable to me—an almost spooky coincidence, as a matter of fact— that the two best books I’ve read this summer were produced by two authors who were both offering workshops at the same time in the same place—the One Story writers’ conference, called Sirenland, in Positano, Italy this past April—and that both deal with a different aspect of the same subject, World War Two. Stylistically, they’re complete opposites. One novel is lean and pithy, with a measured, sure-footed economy of style; the other is written with an expert, bravura elegance, full of rich detail, in prose that seems carved out of the air. Yet each, in its own way, is true to its purpose, and absolutely top-drawer.

I’m referring to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—which won the Pulitzer Prize this year—and Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aaron—which certainly ought to win an award equally prestigious! I’ve already written about Shepard’s book (August 13, 2015) but have only now found the right moment to write about Doerr’s.

Shepard’s book is slender, laconic, and spare, describing the squalor, misery and horror of the Polish ghetto as seen through the eyes of one unremarkable boy. Doerr’s book takes place in Germany and France both before and during the war, in alternating, yet interlaced segments, primarily through the eyes of two characters: a remarkable young German boy and an equally remarkable young French girl, who is blind. It’s clear from the beginning that their paths will cross, but the question of how still manages to provide ample opportunity for ratcheting up the tension. In contrast to Shepard’s terseness, Doerr’s prose is lush and sensuous, squirming with details of places, sights, smells, sounds, and the inner workings of the inquisitive minds of its characters. There is a host of minor folk as well, all beautifully rendered, but the French girl’s father, and the sister of the German boy, play major roles. Still it is sound, not people, which finally brings the two youngsters together. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you what that means.

Among the many enjoyable accomplishments of Doerr’s book is the delineation of so many scientific subjects—all quite relevant—from bivalves to the workings of electricity to the transmission of radio waves. I’d read Doerr’s The Shell Collector a few years ago, so was familiar with his expertise in that area, but was struck by the breadth of his knowledge about so much else in the physical universe, and the authority with which he integrates it into the plot. Everything is designed to fulfill its purpose.

It’s a plot-lover’s dream: complications, obsessive pursuits, twists and turns. There is much fear in this novel. There is also mystery. There are secrets and the clever ways in which they are kept, as well as how they’re prised open and nakedly laid bare.

In many ways Doerr’s is a story of the yearnings of the human spirit, as well as how those yearnings are dashed. You feel your heart ready to break at so many points.

Two remarkable books. Two masters at the top of their game.

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IN PRAISE OF JIM SHEPARD’S “THE BOOK OF ARON”

(A number of people have asked about the review I did a couple of months ago of Jim Shepard’s novel The Book of Aron.  So for those of you who missed it the first time, here it is again.)

I imagine I am interviewing Jim Shepard.

“Jim,” I say. “Yes, Jim?” he says.

“Choosing a kid to tell the story. Choosing that kid to tell the story. Such a brave and brilliant choice! A boy so unremarkable that he becomes . . . remarkable. It seems to me you’re straddling a line here. A balancing act. A kid who breaks things. A kid who can’t even learn the alphabet. A kid whose own uncle chooses to call him What Were You Thinking?

“By some people’s reckoning, a throwaway kid. And, first to last, everything told through his eyes. Someone getting shot, someone going hungry, someone else getting shot, someone else going hungry, someone getting knocked down, bludgdeoned; him getting knocked down, bludgeoned. Someone getting shot because of him. This kid’s birds-eye view of a great, great man weeping, ranting, begging—and still every emotion filtered through Aron’s tiny, budding yet already wizened little soul. What a choice! How did you make it?”

I have no idea what he would answer. Perhaps, “It chose me?”

Nor does it matter. I am not interviewing Jim Shepard. I am sitting in a chair having just finished his book, and I am crying. I can’t remember the last time a book made me cry.

The Book of Aron is an astounding accomplishment. Not just because of the author’s choice of protagonist, but because of the extraordinary skill with which Shepard carries it off, the choice of tone and style, the choice of what to say and what to leave out of the awful, bone-chilling, unbelievable (yet all too believable) occurrences in the Warsaw ghetto and the fate of its Jewish inhabitants, including the children.

At the end, in my interview, I would say, “Jim?”

And he would reply, “Yes, Jim?”

And I would say, “Mazel tov! And wow!”

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A Thank You and a Promise

A heartfelt thanks to all those who participated in the free-ebook promotion of my novel, Problems of Translation, this past July 2-4!  Many thanks to those who shared the information about the promotion, and of course, to those who downloaded their free copy of the ebook.  Hope you enjoy the novel, and if you do, please tell your friends and, if you have a moment, write a review on Amazon.

For those of you who don’t yet know, it’s the story of Charles Abel Baker, a short story writer who travels around the world attempting to get one of his short stories translated successively into 10 different languages before returning it to English.  That’s why I subtitled it Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness.

Thanks to the promotion (and your sharing and downloads), Problems has more potential readers–and, I hope, reviewers on Amazon– not only in the US, but in Germany, the UK, Canada, India, Spain, and Japan, as well!  What’s not to love about that? (Actually, when I learned of that first order from Japan, I was momentarily convinced it was downloaded by Haruki Murakami, since he’s the only Japanese writer who is specifically mentioned in my novel. But on reconsideration, that didn’t seem likely, since the chance that he knows about my novel is outrageously slim.)

In any event, thanks to everyone, and for those of you who haven’t yet purchased a copy, please avail yourselves of the fun.

And my promise is that in the very near future I’ll descend from my state of enrapture with my own novel and go back to doing more blogs about other people’s writing, not just my own.  Actually, I’m reminded that I have two such in the recent past. See my review of Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron (6/20/15) and also of Robin McLean’s book of short stories, Reptile House (June 27).

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FREE! FREE! FREE! MY NOVEL, PROBLEMS OF TRANSLATION FOR FREE! DID YOU SAY FREE? (July 2-4)

Problems of Translation - Front CoverYES! Free! Bupkes. Nada. Niente. Zilch. Zéro. (Feel free to translate into additional languages!)

In an effort to get my novel Problems of Translation into even more hands (and with my permission, of course), Amazon is running a sale–on the Kindle ebook edition only–for a three-day period starting tomorrow. That’s July 2nd through the 4th. Just go to  the Amazon page for the Kindle edition of Problems of Translation (click here!) on Thursday, Friday or Saturday to collect your copy!

If you haven’t heard about Problems, it’s the story of writer Charles Abel Baker’s quest to see one of his short stories translated successively into ten different languages before returning it to English. Unable to get a publisher to back his ploy, he travels around the world to accomplish his goal himself, winding up in trouble almost everywhere he goes. The subtitle, after all, is Charlie’s Comic, Romantic, Terrifying, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness, and that pretty much says it all. Well, not all, of course, since there are subplots involving dueling CIA operatives and romance, along with many other surprises.

Wonderful reviews and comments continue to accrue. Recently got a nice one from Kirkus! And then there was that person who wrote: “Alice in Wonderland for 21st century adults” and gave it five stars! Still, who can top Gary Shteyngart’s evaluation? “An insanely amusing adventure with a deep love of language at its belly-shaking core.”

And now, for a brief time, you can get it for . . . let’s see . . . what was that price again? . . . oh, yes, free. So, if you haven’t read it yet, get it now! And please tell your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, your minister, your rabbi, your mistress – woops! – I didn’t say that! Oh, and please remember to write a review for the good folks at Amazon!

JULY 2, JULY 3, JULY 4!

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Bold. Brilliant. Imaginative. Scary. Meet Robin McLean’s “Reptile House”

Once you’ve read these nine stories, forgetting them is as unlikely as discovering the end-point of pi. Kissing cousins to George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, and perhaps even Don DeLillo, they are nonetheless powered by a distinctive new voice. McLean dives fearlessly through the Looking Glass; she scrubs the psyche raw, perhaps in an effort to get even closer to what constitutes “reality”. Like lifting up a rock to see what’s crawling underneath. Ever wonder what Real, REAL COLD is like, and what it might make you do? How about having dinner with giraffes while an amulet of yours rides the cosmos with an expiring lady cosmonaut? And what happens after a man sees a snake in a zoo swallow another snake will chill your blood.

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IN PRAISE OF JIM SHEPARD’S “THE BOOK OF ARON”

I imagine I am interviewing Jim Shepard.

“Jim,” I say. “Yes, Jim?” he says.

“Choosing a kid to tell the story. Choosing that kid to tell the story. Such a brave and brilliant choice! A boy so unremarkable that he becomes . . . remarkable. It seems to me you’re straddling a line here. A balancing act. A kid who breaks things. A kid who can’t even learn the alphabet. A kid whose own uncle chooses to call him What Were You Thinking?

“By some people’s reckoning, a throwaway kid. And, first to last, everything told through his eyes. Someone getting shot, someone going hungry, someone else getting shot, someone else going hungry, someone getting knocked down, bludgdeoned; him getting knocked down, bludgeoned. Someone getting shot because of him. This kid’s birds-eye view of a great, great man weeping, ranting, begging—and still every emotion filtered through Aron’s tiny, budding yet already wizened little soul. What a choice! How did you make it?”

I have no idea what he would answer. Perhaps, “It chose me?”

Nor does it matter. I am not interviewing Jim Shepard. I am sitting in a chair having just finished his book, and I am crying. I can’t remember the last time a book made me cry.

The Book of Aron is an astounding accomplishment. Not just because of the author’s choice of protagonist, but because of the extraordinary skill with which Shepard carries it off, the choice of tone and style, the choice of what to say and what to leave out of the awful, bone-chilling, unbelievable (yet all too believable) occurrences in the Warsaw ghetto and the fate of its Jewish inhabitants, including the children.

At the end, in my interview, I would say, “Jim?”

And he would reply, “Yes, Jim?”

And I would say, “Mazel tov! And wow!”

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PROBLEMS OF TRANSLATION AT BOOK EXPO AMERICA

Problems of Translation at BEA 2015Big day at the Javits Center yesterday, as the latest Book Expo America kicked off, and Problems of Translation, my new novel, magically appeared on the shelves of the New Titles Showcase. An image of the cover also winked out at me from the New Titles digital display, as well as from the printed catalogue. I happily posed for a picture pointing it out.The Author and His Novel at BEA 2015

In any event, even though it might not be making quite as hefty a splash as some other new titles, like those of Jonathan Franzen or John Irving, for example, I could not have been prouder to have it acknowledged at the BEA! And people were once again admiring my cover!

Meanwhile, one of my recent readers confided that she was already casting the characters in my book for her imagined film version. Say what? Oh, yes! Not only was she convinced it would make a great film, but did I think Julia Roberts was an appropriate choice for Svetlana? Well, should it ever come to pass that Hollywood comes clamoring at my door, I think I’ll leave that to the casting director. Right now I just hope that those who read it have a pleasant smile on their face when they turn the last page!

On another note, but still talking about film, I noticed that the movie version of Ben Fountain’s wonderful, sad, poignant, funny novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is scheduled to be released on November 11. When it first came out, I personally nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize (see my blog posts of September 24 & December 9 of 2012), and an NYU professor proclaimed it a “masterpiece,” but it got snubbed by the Pulitzer people and won a National Book Critics Circle Award instead. (Not too shabby!) I can only hope the film does some justice to that brilliant book.

Problems of Translation - Front CoverOh! And if you’re interested in getting a copy of Problems of Translation, it’s available on Amazon in print and ebook.

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“A SENSE OF HUMOR IS JUST COMMON SENSE, DANCING”

Got a really nice write-up in the OSARC newsletter the other day about my book, Problems of Translation. What, you inquire, is OSARC? I thought you’d never ask!

My various writer’s bios (tailoring them to fit the occasion) might or might not attest to the fact that, in addition to my days as college professor, poet and writer of short stories and novels, I’ve also been a bartender, an actor, a cab driver, a banker, a blues singer, a newspaper editor, and a shoe salesman, as well as one of those guys who passes out leaflets on street corners.  What almost none of them will tell you is that I worked for the City of New York for 22 years, specifically for the Department of Housing Preservation & Development, helping design, then administering educational programs. In that capacity, I belonged to a professional union called the Organization of Staff Analysts, whose retirees arm is called the Organization of Staff Analysts Retirees Club (hence OSARC). On page 8 of their May Newsletter they wrote the following headline: “OSARCer Jim Story’s Buzzed-About Novel Goes on Sale.”  Buzzed-about!  I love it!

The article goes on to quote Gary Shteyngart, who you may remember called my book, “An insanely funny adventure that has a deep love of language at its belly-shaking core,” as well as to mention other advanced praise the book has been receiving, and finally lists many of the altogether curious adventures my hero, Charles Abel Baker, gets himself into—in Russia, in China, in Mexico and elsewhere.

While wit and side-splitting (belly-shaking?) hilarity are not, I hope, the only thing to be found in my book, I’m nevertheless proud of the fact that so many people are finding pleasure in the book’s humor, and felt even prouder when I came across the following quote in last week’s New York Times Book Review. The reviewer, while writing about Saul Bellow, quoted the well-known critic Clive James: “Common Sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humor are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.”

“A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” I like that!

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“PROBLEMS” TRANSLATES INTO A LOT OF FUN

Problems of Translation - Front CoverAt last!

My novel, Problems of Translation, or Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness, has finally become available as a paperback on Amazon! (E-book shortly.) Check it out!

For those of you who’ve never heard of my book, and are puzzled by that seemingly cockamamie subtitle, you might be among those who’ve always thought literary translation was a simple act, hey? You perhaps never supposed that trying to get a  a short story translated might suck you into an international brouhaha? Never realized it could result in your being pursued by the CIA? Never dreamed it could force you to fly a Gulfstream jet over China when its pilot died? Or that it might land you in the lair of a drug cartel? Create some squirrely hi-jinks in a Karnataka cave? That it could even lead to heavy-breathing ROMANCE? Think again!

After all, this is the book that Gary Shteyngart called, “An insanely amusing adventure that has a deep love of language at its belly-shaking core.”

In any event, I’m very excited that the book is finally here!

SO!  To those who’ve heard me read parts of this novel at the Cornelia Street Café over the past five or six years, and who’ve waited right along with me to see the book finally brought to fruition, the wait is over! For those of you who are newbies, feel free to dip your toes in the water. I hope you all enjoy it!

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