Worldwide Pearls: Ten Top Titles for Winter Reading

Drawing on personal experience, Bodrožic´ is remarkably adept; Franzosini’s English-language debut is irresistible biographical fiction; for sophisticated readers and lovers of smart, spooky tales; multi-award winner Ørstavik offers an unsettling read that most will enjoy; a darkly propulsive nail-biter overlain with a vivid and piercing study of class tensions

Bodrožic´, Ivana. The Hotel Tito. Seven Stories. Nov. 2017. 176p. tr. from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursa. ISBN 9781609807955. $21.95; ebk. ISBN 9781609807962. F

For the young protagonist of Bodrožic´’s debut novel, winner of France’s Prix Ulysse and several Croatian and Balkan-area awards, ordinary worries about boys, clothes, and grades are set against a horrific backdrop. The book opens in summer 1991 as the Croatian war for independence flares up in her hometown of Vukovar, and she’s sent to the coast with her older brother. But while her mother eventually joins them, her father stays behind to fight with the Croatian forces and ends up at Vukovar hospital, which astute readers will remember as the site of a terrible massacre. Squatting in an abandoned apartment, then a former political school (contemptuously called the Hotel Tito by its disillusioned residents), the siblings are now refugees, living with hundreds sharing their plight and regarded with contempt by those who don’t. VERDICT Drawing on personal experience, Bodrožic´ is remarkably adept at blending a coming-of-age story about a girl who both knows and doesn’t know what’s happening with a starkly, almost matter-of-factly delivered picture of suffering we should not forget.

Fo, Dario. Holy Jester! The Saint Francis Fables. Opus. Dec. 2017. 160p. tr. from Italian by Mario Pirovano. illus. by the author. ISBN 9781623160821. $38.95. F

As Nobel Prize winner Fo explains in his introduction, in the Middle Ages, jesters were both loved (by the multitudes) and reviled (by those in power who suffered their barbs), and St. Francis of Assisi took the appellation Holy Jester as a matter of pride. After Francis’s death, the Vatican remade the rogue friar—famed for his gutsy, performative sermons—into a docile soul. Here, Fo uses a witty vernacular to resurrect the real Francis in fables that take him from his stone masonry days through his work for the church. In “Francis Meets the Wolf in Gubbio,” he’s determined to chat with a marauding wolf despite protests: “You’ve gone crazy again. First you embrace the lepers, then you strip off naked in the church and now you want to talk to wolves! Why don’t you just write the Wolf a letter instead?” What follows is a reflection on our responsibilities for our actions, with the wolf later helping Francis out of a scrape. VERDICT A bold, bright Francis for our time, with illustrations to match, and charmingly translated.

Franzosini, Edgardo. The Animal Gazer. New Vessel. Jan. 2018. 128p. tr. from Italian by Michael F. Moore. ISBN 9781939931528. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781939931542. F

Brother of the famed auto­maker, the eccentric, ever dandily dressed Rembrandt Bugatti moves from Milan to Paris to pursue his artistic inclinations and ends up casting his bronzes at the foundry used by new friend Rodin. (In a flashback, we get a sparkling anecdote about the two brothers burying three automobile engines in ­Ettore’s backyard.) Rembrandt becomes increasingly intrigued by the animals at the zoos in Paris and ­Antwerp, observing them carefully and seeming to understand and empathize with them, as evidenced by his massive sculptures. The tone is mellifluous throughout, and it all sounds charming. But the reader has already been jolted awake on page two, as Rembrandt’s concierge observes offhandedly, “The Germans continue to advance,” and the narrative is soon thrust into World War I. Bombs are pouring down on Antwerp, and zoo officials are forced to make a terrible decision about their animals that shocks Rembrandt—and readers—to the core. ­VERDICT Multi-award-winning Italian author Franzosini’s English-language debut is an irresistible, elegantly conceived example of biographical fiction.

Kawabata, Yasunari. Dandelions. New Directions. Dec. 2017. 128p. tr. from Japanese by Michael Emmerich. ISBN 9780811224093. pap. $14.95; 9780811224109. F

Left incomplete when he committed suicide in 1972, Nobel Prize winner Kawabata’s meditation on madness is nevertheless wholly satisfying. Ineko has been taken to the Ikuta Mental Hospital by her mother and her lover, Mr. Kuno, who wants desperately to marry Ineko. But she suffers from a bizarre and exceedingly rare affliction: she is sometimes unable to see the body of Mr. Kuno. The pearlescent prose relates a sparring, increasingly agitated exchange as the mother and lover walk away from the hospital with Ineko ringing its bells in the background. Why is Ineko so disturbed? Does it have anything to do with the accidental death of her father, a solider during the war, as the two rode horseback together? Is Mr. Kuno right that “sanity and madness are two sides of the same coin”? Why does Mr. Kuno think he sees, improbably, a white rat and a white dandelion? VERDICT Philosophical yet touched by an eerie magic; for sophisticated readers and lovers of smart, spooky tales.

Khoury, Najla Jraissaty. Pearls on a Branch: Tales from the Arab World Told by Women. Archipelago. Mar. 2018. 270p. tr. from Arabic by Inea Bushnaq. ISBN 9780914671961. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780914671893. F/FOLKLORE

Collected by Khoury as the basis for plays performed by the traveling theater group she founded during Lebanon’s civil war, these tales are radiant with sunlight and flowers, jinns and spirits, palaces and sultans. The setting you might expect, which makes them refreshingly different and a pleasure to read. Yet the themes will resonate with anyone who loves fairy tales and folklore, pointing out commonalities within the Middle East framework. From comeuppance and transformation, sly tricksters tricked, good people rescued from bad ogres, wishes satisfied, beautiful young women finding the right (rich or royal) man, and love finally requited, readers will recognize where they are. “O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend!” mirrors Snow White’s story astonishingly (“O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend”/ Is there anyone like me in the land”) though in its own way is more disturbing. Beautifully translated, these pieces ring with numerous, addictive songs and chants. VERDICT An absolute delight for readers young and old.

Krasznahorkai, László. The World Goes On. New Directions. Dec. 2017. 288p. tr. from Hungarian by George Szirtes & others. ISBN 9780811224192. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811224208. SHORT STORIES

In the opening piece in Man Booker International Prize winner Krasznahorkai’s near-mystical new work, a wanderer seeking to leave a forbidding place at first finds his hands and feet bound, then manages a “forced march” before falling over exhausted and realizing that he will die “there at home, where everything is cold and sad.” Rather like life darkly perceived or the depths of depression. The piece perfectly sets up what follows: dense, stylized meditations that aren’t exactly fiction or essay or philosophical treatise but something sui generis, representative of Krasznahorkai’s unique mind. A lecturer’s investigation of melancholy, reflections on moral law inspired by Nietzsche’s paralysis after witnessing a horse’s beating—these are the wonders and challenges found here. VERDICT Definitely for high-end readers; for the curious, a good place to start.

redstarKröger, Merle. Collision. Unnamed. Nov. 2017. 240p. tr. from German by Rachel Hildebrandt & Alexandra Roesch. ISBN 9781944700195. pap. $15.95. F

“Spirit of Europe | Deck 12.” “Siobhan of Ireland | Deck A.” “Raft | No Name.” These stark chapter titles from German author Kröger (Cut!) suggest that her narrative takes place mostly on water—in this case, the Mediterranean Sea—and brings together vessels of very different provenance. Laden with self-indulged passengers, the cruise ship Spirit of ­Europe must stop its engine as a disabled raft carrying refugees approaches and calls the Cartagena Rescue Center for help. Algerian Karim Yacine, who steers the raft, knows that he’ll be arrested for human trafficking if he sets foot in Spain again. His story alternates with those of numerous crew and passengers aboard the other vessels in the area, including Spirit of Europe’s Lalita Masarangi, a Nepalese security officer entranced with dreadlocked Asian singer Jo. Quick-step, rat-a-tat prose deftly captures the human drama of haves and have-nots amid an ongoing refugee crisis, and when Jo disappears, the book becomes a political thriller as well. VERDICT Both sobering and breathlessly absorbing reading that will engage a sharp audience.

Maurensig, Paulo. Theory of Shadows. Farrar. Jan. 2018. 192p. tr. from Italian by Anne Milano Appel. ISBN 9780374273804. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780374715915. F

“You cannot write a story centered on a crime without unmasking the killer,” laments the putative author, who explains that he is writing a novel so that he can revisit the mysterious death of world chess champion ­Aleksandr Aleksandrovich ­Alekhin in steamy 1946 Estoril, Portugal. Born in Moscow but traveling on a French passport, Alekhin has been alternately accused of being a Soviet spy, a Nazi collaborator, and a British double agent. Everyone agrees that he is arrogant, even “the sadist of the chess world.” When he’s found sitting in front of a chessboard in his hotel room with his overcoat on and a plate of meat by his side, his death is quickly ruled accidental (from choking on the meat), though there’s no end to the enemies who might have relished knocking him off. As the novelist investigates, tracking down the surviving and now quite elderly players in the drama (from a waiter to the doctor who certified Alekhin’s death), a portrait emerges of World War II intrigue; a brilliant, unsettling man; and the way the creative act and a murder investigation become parallel. That the killer isn’t entirely unmasked only adds to the frisson. VERDICT A classic intellectual thriller, well conceived and executed.

Ørstavik, Hanne. Love. Archipelago. Feb. 2018. 180p. tr. from Norwegian by Martin Aiken. ISBN 9780914671947. pap. $17. ebk. ISBN 9780914671954. F

In a tale of heightened domestic suspense, single mother Vibeke goes about her life, reflecting on the success of a business venture and daydreaming about a handsome engineer even as she heads to the library. Meanwhile, son Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club, encountering a chatty neighbor and a girl who lends him mittens. Mother and son have just come to this remote Norwegian village, and as the narrative unfolds, they move in different trajectories, with Jon contemplating his mother while she has little thought of him; she’s even forgotten that it’s his birthday. It’s peculiar that Jon is wandering around on a cold winter’s night, inadequately dressed and increasingly worried about getting home, and the creeping sense of unease is racheted up by the cool, lucid prose and how the paragraphs shift between mother and son, clarifying how close they should be and how close they aren’t. VERDICT Multi-award winner Ørstavik (The Blue Room) offers an unsettling read that most will enjoy.

Slimani, Leila. The Perfect Nanny. Penguin. Jan. 2018. 240p. tr. from French by Sam Taylor. ISBN 9780143132172. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780525503897. F

This spare domestic thriller, the first book by a Moroccan-born woman to win the Prix Goncourt, starts out innocuously enough with French Moroccan lawyer Myriam struggling with two young children and ashamed of being a stay-at-home mom. When she decides to return to work, she and husband Paul interview a number of unsuitable candidates as nanny until coming upon the supercompetent, highly recommended Louise, whose delicate blonde looks belie her powerhouse capabilities. At first, Louise does her job with gusto, truly taking to the children; Myriam and Paul are relieved, though Myriam feels a bit edged out as mother. But as family and nanny become more entwined, with the family even inviting Louise on vacation, resentments grow on both sides. Louise becomes increasingly sullen, and a sudden act of violence shocks the narrative to life, even as we learn Louise’s unfortunate backstory. VERDICT What initially feels like routine, unremarkable women’s fiction morphs into a darkly propulsive nail-biter overlain with a vivid and piercing study of class tensions. For most readers.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ


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