Worldwide Reading: Books Beyond the Mainstream That Take Us Far

Aira, César. Ema the Captive. New Directions. Dec. 2016. 128p. tr. from Spanish by Chris Andrews. ISBN 9780811219105. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811226035. F

Distinguished Argentinian author Aira, a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2015, here offers what he calls a “ ‘simplified’ gothic novel,” inspired by the books he used to translate for money. But there’s nothing simple about this grandly written take on the captivity narrative. It opens in 19th-century Argentina with a group of soldiers making their way to a frontier fort with crammed-together, barely fed captives in tow. One soldier explains to a startled Frenchman with the convoy that these white women are mere tokens of exchange on the frontier, taken away from home for the smallest misdemeanors. Among the captives is young Ema, with her baby, and when she arrives at the fort she’s given to a drunken officer named Paz. Ema is, however, tougher than she looks and trades around men herself, eventually establishing a bird-breeding enterprise that allows her to thrive. VERDICT An enthralling portrait of a time, a place, and one resilient woman that a wide range of readers will enjoy; refreshingly, Aira never writes the same book twice.

Atilgan, Yusuf. Motherland Hotel. City Lights. Oct. 2016. 152p. tr. from Turkish by Fred Stark. ISBN 9780872867116. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780872867123. F

A maladroit loner who runs the seen-better-days Motherland Hotel in a backwater Turkish town, Zeberjet has become obsessed with a female guest who stayed there briefly and frantically anticipates her presumed return. The terse, stream-of-description narrative follows him as he tends to his guests, sleeps dispassionately with the hotel’s hapless maid, and reflects on his long-gone family’s history and relationship to the hotel, a grand mansion burned down by the Greek army in 1922. These details at first seem mundane, even tedious, but as Zeberjet becomes increasingly unhinged, we’re drawn into his dark interior life while coming to understand Turkey’s post-­Ottoman uncertainty. (The novel was originally published in 1973.) Then a horrific and unexpected act of violence compels the narrative forward. VERDICT Sophisticated readers will understand why Atilgan is called the father of Turkish modernism, while those who enjoy dark psychological novels can also appreciate.

redstarEir, Oddný. Land of Love and Ruins. Restless. Oct. 2016. 240p. tr. from Icelandic by Philip Roughton. ISBN 9781632060723. pap. $16.99. F

landoflove-jpg10316Winner of the EU Prize for Literature, this meditative novel by Icelandic shooting star Eir (she’s collaborated with Björk) features a nameless young narrator home again after a break up and launching a spiritual quest. She seeks peace and solitude in nature, visiting Iceland’s meadows and lava fields with a tentative new ornithologist boyfriend who for a time goes to live in a cave. But she’s also deeply sociable, sharing many homey moments with family, particularly her archaeologist brother, and traveling to Basel, Paris, and more in search of sustaining interactions with art and artists. In fact, the narrator herself is a writer deeply imbued with Iceland’s language and literary traditions. Without ever sounding like a screed, the book considers how we manage intimacy and live in a world rife with social and economic injustice. VERDICT Reading this lyrically, sometimes even deliciously written work is almost as good as going on one’s own spiritual quest; it will have great appeal to any reader beyond thrill-seeking, shoot-’em-up fans.

redstarElhassan, Jana Fawaz. The Ninety-Ninth Floor. Interlink. Oct. 2016. 264p. tr. from Arabic by Michelle Hartman. ISBN 9781566560542. pap. $15.99. F

“To be a Palestinian, either you forget your roots and deny your origins in order to advance in life, or you remain a bullet in the barrel of a rifle waiting to be fired.” So says Majd, a Palestinian living in New York, working on the 99th floor of a sleek office building, and struggling to keep at bay memories of the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, which killed his pregnant mother and left him scarred and crippled. Now he has fallen in love with Hilda, a Lebanese Christian studying dance in the city, and he’s edgily, anxiously, angrily aware that her people should be regarded as the enemy. Were they linked to the massacre? As Hilda prepares for a trip home, professing her devotion to Majd, we’re about to find out. VERDICT Whether it’s discussing love or war, this arresting meditation on loss is visceral and honest; short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2015.

Kaniuk, Yoram. Between Life and Death. Restless. Sept. 2016. 208p. tr. from Hebrew by Barbara Harshav. ISBN 9781632060921. $22.99. F

It’s a shame that this recently deceased multi-award-winning Israeli author isn’t as well known here as, say, Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua, because as evidenced by this final novel he was a prose master. Written after he awoke from a four-month-long coma, it fictionalizes that experience in surprisingly absorbing detail. Unpitying, observational, and fiercely flowing, the clinical account of the protagonist’s hospitalization feels almost like a beautiful ballet, but what really makes it work is that it’s interwoven sentence by sentence with near hallucinatory memories of the speaker’s life in Palestine and then Israel. (Kaniuk himself was born in Tel Aviv in 1930 and fought in the War of Independence.) The result is both a rich tapestry of a life gone by and a contemporary appreciation of a near-death experience. How did Kaniuk manage it? “Maybe because I grew up woven in that sea and the melody was in me,” says his alter ego at one point, fittingly. VERDICT Captivating for many readers.

Köhlmeier, Michael. Two Gentlemen on the Beach. Haus. Oct. 2016. 238p. tr. from German by Ruth Martin. ISBN 9781910376461. $24.95. F

That Austrian author Köhlmeier’s account of the friendship between Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill is narrated by a man whose father was friends with Churchill’s personal secretary might seem unduly elliptical, but it effectively echoes the distance that existed between the public and these two great men. The story starts slowly but becomes increasingly absorbing as the author’s intent emerges. This is not a life-and-time account of the two men, though we do get to visit Hollywood and see Churchill in the run-up to World War II. (Having Churchill proclaim, “I’m like England. I force my ideas on the whole world” is a nice touch.) Instead, Köhlmeier shows that his characters drew close because they both suffered from depression—the black dog, in Churchill’s apt phrase—and met worldwide, from the titular beach to the studio where Chaplin feverishly edits The Great Dictator—to give each other support. VERDICT A humanizing account of two iconic individuals, lucidly if not always swiftly told.

redstarLaroui, Fouad. The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers. Deep Vellum. Aug. 2016. 120p. tr. from French by Emma Ramadan. ISBN 9781941920268. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941920275. F

Moroccan-born Laroui, a professor of French literature at the University of Amsterdam, makes his English-language debut with this Prix Goncourt–winning story collection. Laroui uses a wry, dry, knowing style to address identity and otherness, showing how focus on such issues defines the immigrant experience. In “Born Nowhere,” for instance, a young Moroccan man in a café complains more and more loudly to another about the wrong birth place and date on his identity card until a woman reprimands them for shaming their land of birth, “because I’m Moroccan…even though I was born in Vietnam to a Russian father. Incidentally, am I really a woman?” In “Dislocation,” a triumph of content and style, a Utrecht-based Moroccan man considers what it would be like to live in “a world where everything is foreign,” then repeats that idea in ever-expanding paragraphs as he argues that he’s “French in the head” while eventually acknowledging that he’s seen as an outsider. Yet the story has an unexpectedly affirmative ending. ­VERDICT Terrific stuff, insightful and often blackly funny.

Modiano, Patrick. Little Jewel. Yale Univ. Aug. 2016. (Margellos World Republic of Letters). 168p. tr. from French by Penny Hueston. ISBN 9780300221824. pap. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780300224818. F

Nobel Prize winner Modiano here retains the ineffable sense of mystery pervading all his fiction but does something different; uniquely in his oeuvre, he offers a female protagonist, which lends perhaps a greater sense of intimacy to the narrative. On the metro, 19-year-old Thérèse spots a woman in a threadbare yellow coat she’s convinced is her mother, who supposedly died in Morocco years ago after abruptly abandoning Thérèse to friends. Thérèse follows the woman home but doesn’t speak, instead returning to question the concierge and reflecting on keepsakes stored in a tin box. She claims not to have thought about her childhood until this encounter, but it’s evident how deeply she’s been hurt, which we see mirrored by her babysitting charge, whose parents are mysteriously detached. Thérèse’s mother might have called her Little Jewel, but this young woman is decidedly chipped and tarnished. VERDICT An affecting read, ambiguous even for Modiano in its ending; his fans will embrace.

redstarMondrup, Iben. Justine. Open Letter. Nov. 2016. 212p. tr. from Danish by Kerri A. Pierce. ISBN 9781940953489. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781940953496. F

justine-jpg10316In this propulsive new novel from award-winning Danish author Mondrup, Justine, a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (as the author herself once was), is readying a major exhibition when her house burns down. There go all the works she was planning to exhibit, but she seems more upset by her recent break up with imperious Vita. Even as she considers how she’ll quickly pull together new works, she chronicles relationships past and present that reveal the hierarchy and misogyny of the art scene in Denmark (and, no doubt, elsewhere). Readers leave the book with a powerful sense of artists not locked away in their studios but embedded in life, and Mondrup’s observational prose imparts how they think and work. Justine’s always on the edge, but one ferocious act tilts the novel in a scary new direction. ­VERDICT Smart and absorbing reading for a wide audience.

redstarMukasonga, Scholastique. Cockroaches. Archipelago. Oct. 2016. 165p. tr. from French by Jordan Stump. ISBN 9780914671534. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780914671541. F

Following her award-winning debut novel, Our Lady of the Nile, which revealed in quietly devastating detail the tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in 1970s Rwanda through the microcosm of a Catholic girls’ boarding school, Mukasonga returns with an expanded autobiographical novel chronicling the endemic violence in her homeland. The book opens in the late 1950s, when the first Hutu-led violence against the Tutsis occurred, then moves inexorably through the years of internal exile, deprivation, and escalating violence to 1994 and “the genocide, the long-awaited horror.” The Hutus called Tutsis Inyenzi, or cockroaches, and they were to be stamped out brutally. Mukasonga, who was not in Rwanda at the time and lost almost her entire family, chillingly observes, “I was not with my family when they were being hacked up with machetes.” The entire novel is related with brave, sobering, steely-eyed calm. VERDICT For all readers interested in history as fiction; see also Senegalese journalist Boubacar Boris Diop’s Muramai, The Book of Bones, another exceptional novel about the genocide told from multiple perspectives, published in 2006 by Indiana University Press and rereleased this summer.

Reza, Parisa. The Gardens of Consolation. Europa. Dec. 2016. 208p. tr. from French by Adriana Hunter. ISBN 9781609453503. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781609453589. F

A Prix Senghor 2015 winner by Tehran-born Reza, who came to France as a teenager in the 1980s, this debut opens in a remote mountain village in 1920s Iran. When teenage Sardar marries barely pubescent Talla and takes her away to live on the outskirts of Tehran, she becomes the first female to leave the village and is thereafter spoken of with awe. Sardar’s a steady man and Talla rather a blazing temperament, and they eventually have a son, Bahram, who’s smart, cheeky, and a devoted follower of progressive politician Mohammed ­Mosaddegh. Social and political upheaval go hand in hand, as Sardar becomes entranced by radio and Reza Shah Pahlavi comes to power and bans the chador, horrifying Talla not because of religious conviction but her fear of the unknown. Reza thus provides a carefully wrought lesson in 20th-­century Iranian history. VERDICT Informative but not didactic, this book reads like a popular saga, simply told and with recognizable characters whom many readers will appreciate.

Ruge, Eugen. Cabo de Gata. Graywolf. Nov. 2016. 120p. tr. from German by Anthea Bell. ISBN 9781555977573. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9781555979522. F

The study of an East German family through decades of Communist rule and beyond, Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light won him an international following. Though the quality of the writing remains the same, this new novel is entirely different in focus, eschewing the big picture for an account of one man sorting out his life. The protagonist recalls a time as a young man when he realizes that he’s mindlessly performing his daily tasks, can barely afford a cup of coffee, and won’t ever be able to bond with the son he has with his ex-girlfriend. He instantly decides to walk out on his life, leaving Berlin for Spain and eventually the Andalusian village of Cabo de Gata. It sounds like a glorious escape, but he doesn’t find exactly paradise; for one thing, he hasn’t planned well. Still, there’s some small redemption in his caring for a stray cat. VERDICT Our hero is not always the best company, and there are times when his complaints about the monotony of his life become ours, but his contemplative concern is real and the lesson that happiness is hard-earned a good one.

Stamm, Peter. Agnes. Other. Sept. 2016. 160p. tr. from German by Michael Hofmann. ISBN 9783442725502. $18.95. F

Award-winning Swiss author Stamm (All Days Are Night) here returns to his best-selling debut, which features a man writing an increasingly and dangerously embroidered narrative about his lover, Agnes. “ ‘Write a story about me,…’ she said, ‘so I know what you think of me,’ ” the cheerfully open Agnes begs after meeting him at the public library, where he is doing research. His account of their love affair is initially true to life, but soon he is stage managing events and manipulating her ruthlessly for grander and riskier effect. Limpidly told, the plot rushes forward, reading like a domestic thriller while unearthing questions about power, relationships, and the trouble we have distinguishing truth from fiction. VERDICT Even though we know what will happen to Agnes—it’s announced on the first page—this is an urgent and unsettling read.

Tawada, Yoko. Memoirs of a Polar Bear. New Directions. Nov. 2016. 288p. tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky. ISBN 9780811225786. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811225793. F

In her latest novel, Tokyo-born, Berlin-based Tawada, winner of the Akutagawa Prize, presents an unusual cast of characters: three generations of polar bears famed behind the Iron Curtain as circus performers and writers. The Soviet-born matriarch, proud of her performance skills if annoyed by her girly outfits, wins acclaim for her autobiographical Thunderous Applause for My Tears but begins to question her life and emigrates to Canada. Daughter Tosca triumphs in East Germany with a trick called the Kiss of Death, performed with a ponytailed trainer who isn’t nearly as interesting as her charge. Tosca’s son, Knut, born in a Leipzig zoo and happily bonding with his human trainer in Berlin, woefully recognizes the limits of his freedom when another trainer takes over. Throughout, Tawada’s sleek, matter-of-fact prose makes us feel as if there’s nothing unusual about having ursine protagonists. VERDICT This engaging fable is not just for animal lovers, though Tawada quietly shames us with human beastliness.

redstarToussaint, Jean-Philippe. Naked. Dalkey. (Belgian Literature). Sept. 2016. 132p. tr. from French by Edward Gauvin. ISBN 9781628971408. pap. $15. F

naked-jpg10316If you’re doubting whether you or your crowd would enjoy reading the work of a Prix Médicis–winning Belgian often compared to Samuel Beckett, think again. Toussaint has also been compared to Jim Jarmusch and Charlie Chaplin, and this final book in a four-volume series starring Marie Madeleine Marguerite de Montalte is about fashion. Told by her lover, the series features Marie’s ups and downs in business and in life, and this wrap-up is an entirely delicious, witty, irresistible read. It opens with Marie, who’s already done dresses in sorbet and thorny broom, planning a truly spectacular piece as the closing number of her Tokyo fashion. Essentially, the model’s naked body will be covered in honey, and bees will follow her down the runway. A split-second decision as the model exits creates catastrophe, as such decisions often do, and the bees attack. Throughout, we see Marie as a thoroughly modern woman, deftly smoothing over missteps and going forward, and she’s one great character. VERDICT Recommended for all readers.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. An excellent presentation of new offerings from some of the most important independent U.S. presses engaged in the difficult task of translating world literature.