Spring Abroad: Seeing the World Anew, with Books Beyond the Basics

Literate suspense for most readers; Awumey delivers a heartrending, perfectly crafted work; highly recommended for literary lovers; a classy puzzler to be read for plot, character, and atmosphere by a wide range of readers; a bracing intellectual conversation for sophisticates; great reading for all audiences

Ammaniti, Niccolò. Anna. Canongate. Mar. 2018. 272p. tr. from Italian by Jonathan Hunt. ISBN 9781782118343. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781782118343. F

In this international best seller, Premio Strega winner Ammaniti (The Crossroads) imagines postapocalyptic devastation wrought by a virus, a scenario seen frequently in literature today but vivified here. Red Fever has swiftly dispatched all adults, leaving children to grow up alone until they become old enough to contract the disease and die. In scorching language, Ammaniti describes a desolate world in which Anna fights to protect her little brother, Astor, strictly following instructions left by their dying mother. Returning home after foraging for food, Anna finds that Astor has been kidnapped by a group of feral children and goes after him, befriending ­unaccountably sunny Pietro and a fierce black dog as they head for an abandoned hotel where the children think a mysterious personage called the Little Lady can save them. The uneasy balance between the hopefulness of companionship, particularly familial, and the bleak lack of future the children can anticipate drives this novel. VERDICT Literate suspense for most readers.

redstarAwumey, Edem. Descent into Night. Mawenzi House. Mar. 2018. 160p. tr. from French by Phyllis Aronoff & Howard Scott. ISBN 9781988449166. pap. $20.95. F

In his West African homeland, idealistic young university student Ito Baraka, prone to debating the great philosophers and the poètes maudits to the wee hours, hears Congolese writer Sony Lab’ou Tansi declare, “A word is a dead body that aspires to resurrection.” Thus does Togo-born, Canadian-based Awumey show how words turn to action, how writing matters, using luminous, exacting prose to deliver the story of Ito’s involvement in a student protest in the 1980s. The response leaves blood slicking the campus and sends Ito and his fellow protestors to a prison camp where torture is routine and informing on others a desperate means of survival. Ito is kept alive there by fellow prisoner Koli Lem, who cheerfully advises him that he must endure—“You’ll become a great writer, you’ll be Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn!” Koli himself suffers a horrific fate, and after leaving prison and immigrating to Canada, Ito determines to honor his friend by telling the story of their protest. VERDICT A Prix Goncourt finalist (Dirty Feet) and winner of the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire (Port-Melo), Awumey delivers a heartrending, perfectly crafted work.

Kadare, Ismail. The Traitor’s Niche. Counterpoint. Jun. 2018. 208p. tr. from Albanian by John Hodgson. ISBN 9781640090446. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781640090453. F

Albania’s most prominent author—he claimed the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, among other honors—Kadare writes keenly about tyranny through the ages. Originally published in 1978 and appearing in the United States for the first time in a fine new translation, this work unfolds in the 1800s Ottoman Empire. Albania’s Ali Pasha, known as Black Ali, has fomented rebellion against the empire, and ­Hurshid Pasha must relieve him of his head or lose his own. In fact, traitors are being regularly decapitated, so much so that a special niche has been created to house their heads in a square in the imperial capital, the better to subdue the populace. Courier Tundj Hata does good business on the side as he storms through an eerie landscape to deliver heads, which are guarded by the hapless Abdulla, his personal life in tatters; life goes on as we learn that Black Ali rebelled as much for himself as for his people. VERDICT Though occasionally slowed by detailed historical layering, this piercingly beautiful work quietly delivers a persuasive sense of human violence.

Kempowski, Walter. All for Nothing. New York Review. (Classics). Feb. 2018. 368p. tr. from German by Anthea Bell. ISBN 9781681372051. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681372068. F

Published in 2006, this final work by major postwar German author Kempowski (Swansong 1945) takes place in East Prussia during the winter of 1944–45, as refugees flee west before the relentlessly advancing Soviet Army. Interestingly, it’s not the refugees but the once distinguished, now nearly destitute von Globigs who form the novel’s core. With Eberhard von Globig at a reasonably cushy job behind the lines, the tumbling-down manor house is occupied by his beautiful but vacuous wife, Katharina; their serious young son Peter, coming of age at exactly the wrong time; and Auntie, who single-mindedly runs the estate. People drop in, from a Nazi violinist and Peter’s fey tutor to a stuffy Baltic baron foisted on the family and a Jewish refugee Katharina helps less from conviction than passivity. But what astonishes throughout is the clearly delivered sense of how the von Globigs cling to the past and refuse to face what’s coming. Who will survive and, as the title suggests, what’s the point? VERDICT Penetrating work for readers of literary and upmarket historical fiction.

redstarMandanipour, Shahriar. Moon Brow. Restless. Apr. 2018. 480p. tr. from Persian by Sara Khalili. ISBN 9781632061287. pap. $21.99. F

Written in the heightened language of dreams, if dreams were always so dark, this long-anticipated work from exiled Iranian award winner Mandanipour (Censoring an Iranian Love Story) features Amir Yamini, a young wastrel given to drinking, womanizing, and blasphemy, who shames his devout Iranian family and is finally carted off and flogged by the Revolutionary Guards. He ends up a soldier fighting against Iraq, is hit by shrapnel, and after losing an arm and much of his memory, is confined to the mental hospital from which his mother and sister rescue him after years of searching. Frustrated but loyal sister Reyhaneh is willing to help him recall his life and find Moon Brow, the woman he repeatedly envisions, her face hidden by the glow of a crescent moon, and the novel winds toward that goal through a labyrinth of gorgeously rendered scenes. These scenes are ingeniously imparted by two scribes: Amir’s more manageable self, reputedly perched on his right shoulder, and a demonically angry self perched on his left, mirroring his split soul and that of his country. VERDICT Highly recommended for literary lovers.

Øyehaug, Gunnhild. Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life. Farrar. Jun. 2018. 256p. tr. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson. ISBN 9780374285890. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780374715007. F

Obsessive, somewhat prissy literature student Sigrid ponders the significance of women wearing oversized men’s shirts and falls for older poet Kåre Tryvle, believing that she can read his whole soul from the beautiful eyes in his author photo. Preening if clueless Kåre tries to strike the right image in front of an audience but profoundly mourns the end of his relationship with wire-taut Wanda, bassist in a rock band. Wanda looks tough but had tenderly feared for her love of Kåre when a conversation about Kill Bill: Vol. 2 clarified their differences. Linnea frantically plans a film, inspired by her affair with literature professor Göran, while producer Robert is too enamored of her to explain that funding has fallen through. Performance artist Trine wanted love and fame but got a child, while hapless Viggo tries to grow beyond childhood bullying and reconcile with his grandmother’s death. In this absorbing, smoothly written work, Norwegian award winner Øyehaug (Knots) works by portraiture to delineate contemporary life, as characters cross paths, link and unlink, and don’t always find happiness. ­VERDICT Solid, discussable work for smart readers. [See Prepub Alert, 12/11/17.]

Sakal, Moshe. The Diamond Setter. Other Pr. Mar. 2018. 304p. tr. from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. ISBN 9781590518915. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590518922. F

Lapidary indeed; best-selling Israeli novelist Sakal’s first work translated into English comprises multiple incisively crosscut stories centered on a supposedly cursed blue diamond stolen from a statue in India, passed through various royal European households, and eventually given by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to a Syrian Jewish girl who dazzled him with her singing. A shard of the diamond, inherited by Tel Aviv jeweler Menashe Salomon and stolen from his shop, is returned (circuitously) by Fareed, who sneaks into Israel illegally from Damascus and thereafter becomes involved with both Menashe’s nephew Tom, an aspiring writer who works at the shop, and Israeli soldier Honi, originally sent to close the premises for demolition. That free-and-easy love triangle reflects—and is ultimately linked to—a triangle combining Menashe’s parents and an Arab girl named Laila, as Sakal unfolds his characters’ intricate connections with aplomb. VERDICT Figuring out all the connections is investigative if sometimes demanding fun; what’s best is the unselfconsciously sensuous writing (with a range of sexuality easily accepted) and the beautifully depicted sense of a time gone by when borders were open and Jew and Arab commingled.

redstarStarnone, Domenico. Trick. Europa. Mar. 2018. 176p. tr. from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. ISBN 9781609454449. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781609454456. F

In this follow-up to his bitingly insightful Ties, Premio Strega winner Starnone again explores complex familial relationships. A famous illustrator losing his predominance, 70-plus Daniele ­Mallarico winds up tending his preternaturally smart four-year-old grandson Mario when Mario’s at-odds parents head to a mathematics conference. As a grandfather, Daniele is no sweetheart, often tetchy and dismissive of his young charge; Mario gives as good as he gets, and their dialog snaps, crackles, and pops deliciously. As Lahiri’s introduction explains, the Italian title Scherzetto derives from the verb scherzare, to joke or play, and there’s certainly playfulness here, but with an edge. The novel takes place during four cold November days at the Naples apartment Daniele inherited from his parents and where his daughter’s family now lives; for Daniele, aching memories thus vie with present awareness of his waning powers and his concern for Mario—“I don’t know if I’m scared for the child or scared of the child”—to create a palpable sense of urgency. VERDICT A superb, sometimes unsettling inter­generational portrait hitting on basic truths.

Suter, Martin. Allmen and the Dragonflies. New Vessel. May 2018. 187p. tr. from German by Steph Morris. ISBN 9781939931573. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781939931597. F

As in The Last Weynfeldt, popular Swiss author Suter combines sleight-of-hand suspense with stunning art and slightly worn Old World elegance to create a smartly entertaining read. Johann Friedrich von Allmen has depleted the family fortune after living a life of sophisticated sybaritic enjoyment. He’s downsized to the garden house on his former Zurich estate, where he lives with his Guatemalan butler Carlos, but he hasn’t downsized his sumptuous tastes and is struggling to figure out how to pay his debtors. Then at the opera, he meets the stunning Joëlle and ends up at her father’s well-appointed mansion, where he steals one of several bowls beautifully etched with dragonflies. Selling the bowl to his usual dealer brings him plenty of ready cash but gets the dealer shot; stealing the remaining bowls leads him to their provenance and a complex scheme involving two wealthy families that he debonairly works to his advantage. ­VERDICT A classy puzzler to be read for plot, character, and atmosphere by a wide range of readers.

redstarUgresic, Dubravka. Fox. Open Letter. Apr. 2018. 308p. tr. from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac´ & David Williams. ISBN 9781940953762. pap. $16.95. F

In this remarkably engaging novel-cum-meditation, Croatian-born, Netherlands-based Ugresic (The Museum of Unconditional Surrender) opens with an intensive examination of early 20th-century Russian author Boris Pilnyak’s “A Story About How Stories Come To Be Written,” tracking its roots to Japanese author Jun’ichiro¯ Tanizaki’s A Fool’s Love, an “I-Novel” or “novel of the self.” Her own sui generis I-novel is set variously at a literary conference in Italy, a house she’s gifted in a Croatian village, and a classroom of unresponsive students. Here, the speaker deftly blends consideration of “newcomers” (Ugresic herself is an exile, forced from home for opposing nationalism during the Yugoslav Wars), the value of literature in a world driven by pop culture and commercial flash, the role of women as writers vs. muses, and the recognition that “the only thing ­unambiguous and constant is loss.” Under­lying the probing narrative is the Eastern European folkloric concept of the fox as cunning and treacherous—a sly trickster who, like writers, stands outside the circle of society. VERDICT A bracing intellectual conversation for sophisticates.

Vodolazkin, Eugene. The Aviator. Oneworld. May 2018. 368p. tr. from Russian by Lisa C. Hayden. ISBN 9781786072719. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781786072726. F

Vodolazkin’s second novel to be translated into English is stylistically different from its brightly filigreed, 15th ­century–set predecessor, ­Laurus, but preserves that novel’s sweep and passion for history. Awakening in a Russian hospital, Innokenty Petrovich Platonov initially remembers nothing, then begins recalling events surrounding the Russian Revolution, a girl he loved named Anastasia, and his eventual internment at the infamous labor camp on the Solovetsky Islands. But he’s puzzled: his doctor wears a three-piece suit—so un-Soviet—and his pill bottles are dated 1999. It turns out that Platonov was cryogenically frozen and has just been thawed, and as he and his medical team work to introduce him into the modern world, the novel offers the pleasures of a time travel narrative without the usual hokeyness. Points of contrast are as large as politics and as small as talking (“people did not economize on speech before”), and as the writing, never portentous, blows like fine, dry snow across the pages we urgently ask, why was Platonov frozen, and will he adapt? ­VERDICT Great reading for all audiences.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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