I’m happy to have written a book review for a new, to me, venue, a magazine called On the Premises, edited and published by the poet Ron Slate.
Vesna Maric emigrated to the UK in 1992, a refugee from Bosnia. A township in northern England funded her transportation. Sixteen at the time, having barely recovered from the shock of experiencing the first six months of the war, she enrolled in school where she soon recognized that “Yugoslavia had been a totalitarian state, that we had been indoctrinated, brainwashed, unfree, undemocratic” – unlike her new British neighbors who were “free of indoctrination” and democratic in practice. As she writes in an essay published in Granta, “The Fascist Within,” this information conflicted with the education she had received in Mostar where she had been a Pioneer and had been taught to regard England as a colonizing capitalist empire that teaches its citizens to value property over human life. How then to reconcile the two incompatible doctrines? What impressions of one’s world remain after we accept that the political history of any country, no matter how democratic it thinks of itself, is mainly a self-justifying lie?
I’m delighted to see my review of Margarita Khemlin’s powerful novel Klotsvog in Lisa C. Hayden’s translation up on The Common. Huge thanks to Nina Sudhakar for editing.
The piece is available online for free, and I urge you to spread the word, subscribe, and donate to this wonderful publication that focuses on writing of place. And they pay their writers, too!
“The year is 1950 in Kiev. A twenty-year-old college student, Maya Klotsvog, falls in love with her professor, Viktor Pavlovich. He’s eight years older and married. One day, the professor’s wife, Darina Dmitrievna, catches up with Maya at the tram stop and reveals that her husband loves Maya and has asked for a divorce. He wants to marry Maya and have children with her. But Darina Dmitrievna adds something else: “You’re Jewish and your children would be half Jewish. And you yourself know what the situation is now. You read the papers, listen to the radio. And then that shadow would fall on Viktor Pavlovich himself, too. Anything can happen. Don’t you agree? Babi Yar over there is full of half-bloods.”
It just so happens that three of my friends from writing workshops are coming out with their debuts this spring. As it turns out, this spring is a very strange time to be bringing out a book into the world — coronavirus has upended most book parties and closed many bookstores. Parties are moving online in some fun, creative solutions, yet I fear that many writers and many bookstores are going to suffer for it.
All that is an aside more than a preamble to my intro of four exciting new books. I know these projects closely, from reading multiple drafts, and I cannot wait to see how they look between the covers.
The Pelton Papers by Mari Coates, is a novel from the life of Agnes Pelton, a modernist painter who died in 1961 and is only now finally finds recognition. An exhibit of her work is currently on tour around the nation, and who knows how the coronavirus will affect people’s ability to view the art. Once you read the book, though, you are going to be looking for this art in every museum out there, my promise.
Home Baked by Alia Volz. I first heard a part of this memoir ages ago, when Alia performed it at a Litquake reading. I have the image of baby Alia in a stroller as her mother pushes her down San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, peddling pot brownies that she keeps in a duffel under the stroller. She’s known as The Brownie Lady and is selling to the local business people and street acts. Later, I’ve seen several iterations of Alia’s memoir in workshop, and I can’t wait to see how the scene I fell in love with fits in with the rest.
Kept Animals by Kate Milliken. In a typical workshop, people bring in about 15-20 pages of writing for participants to discuss. For novels, this can be deadly–the format completely breaks up the flow of a novel, and participants lose track of characters and story lines from one month to the next. Commenting is a challenge, because the participant really should hold most of her questions to herself. With this novel, I remember thinking, how is today’s chapter even a part of the same book? The pieces seemed to be so different from one another, and it took me a few months to start piecing it together in my mind. I’m so ready to just dive into this book.
BONUS: A few more exciting spring books by writers I admire. Please buy them and spread the word!
Translator and blogger Lisa C. Hayden is one of the most attentive readers of contemporary Russian literature I know. As soon as I had galleys, I sent her a copy of my book, more of a fan’s gesture than anything else. It’s wonderful to see that my book did resonate with her. As always, Lisa is an attentive and thoughtful in her analysis, and I love the company my book gets to keep on her blog–she reviewed it alongside two English-language books that sound like must-reads.
This sort of inexplicable success, often in stories that initially feel unremarkable, is one of my favorite sensations when reading. (I have a special affection for fiction that initially feels unremarkable but then finds something tranformingly transcendent.) Most of all, I don’t want to know how Olga does this. One thing I do know, though, is that she has lots of inexplicable successes in Like Water, both at capturing cultural and linguistic differences, and at capturing idiosyncrasies in ways that, taken together, not only broaden language but broaden our views of humanity.