Monday, May 9, 2011

New Books from Around the World

My TBR list for the next month or two. See, I go to this great secondhand bookstore right up the street from me intending to buy gifts for some upcoming birthdays, and instead I find all these great international titles and end up shopping for myself! (The first one, however, is the upcoming Peirene Press release, so that's a review copy.)

Moody Scandinavian thrillers and Asian coming-of-age seem to be the big themes.

Netherlands (2007)

A story about anger, aggression and the desire for intimacy by a rising star of modern Dutch literature.

A professional boxer and a family man meet by chance on a journey to the Pamplona Bull Run. The boxer is fleeing an unhappy love. The father hopes to escape his dull routine. Both know that, eventually, they will have to return to the place each calls “home”.

Egypt (1943)

Written in the 1940s, this novel by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Mahfouz deals with the plight of impoverished classes in an old quarter of Cairo. The lives and situations depicted create an atmosphere of sadness and tragic realism. Indeed, few of the characters are happy or successful. Protagonist Hamida, an orphan raised by a foster mother, is drawn into prostitution. Kirsha, the owner of a cafe in the alley, is a drug addict and a lustful homosexual. Zaita makes a living by disfiguring people so that they can become successful beggars. Transcending time and place, the social issues treated here are relevant to many Arab countries today. With this satisfying tale, Mahfouz, often called the Charles Dickens of Arabic literature, achieves a high level of excellence as a novelist and storyteller. Highly recommended.

Germany (2000)

Nobel laureate Grass's deft new collection of stories thoroughly and intimately marks the passing of the 20th century. Comprising 100 monologues, each named after a year of the century and spoken by characters who represent a broad spectrum of German society, the work becomes the literary equivalent of a choral symphony. The stories include the reminiscences of ex-Nazis about their activities in 1934; a dead woman's perspective on Germany after the crumble of the Berlin Wall (1999); a delirious letter by the turn-of-the-century poet Else Lasker-Schüler (found by the story's narrator in a used book), in which she imagines herself to be 20 years younger than she is (1901); and the author's descriptions of his beleaguered personal life (1987). Several entries establish some continuity from year to year, while other segments clash brilliantly with each other. The volume progresses less like a narrative than like an argument, each year's oral history advancing the thesis that history and personal identity are inextricably linked. . . Grass (The Tin Drum) concludes with the memories of a 103-year-old woman who has been brought back to life by her novelist son for the purposes of his fiction. As she says: "I'm also looking forward to the year 2000. We'll see what comes of it... "

Sweden (1999)

Eric Winter, at 40, is Sweden's youngest chief inspector, but his brow is already starting to furrow in the manner of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander. In this American debut of what promises to be a superior procedural series, a plethora of seemingly insoluble problems contribute to Winter's sense of growing discontent: his father is dying in Spain; his pregnant girlfriend is moving into his apartment; and a bloody double murder suggests a serial killer. As in the Wallander series, the focus here lands not only on the hero but also on his entire team, as Edwardson details the slow grind of the investigative process. The action, beginning in fall 1999 and extending into spring 2000, effectively uses the Y2K panic to heighten the sense of troubled waters approaching that grips Winter and those around him. The comparison to Mankell is obvious, but in many ways, this series harkens further back, to Sjowall and Wahloo's early Martin Beck novels, in which another youngish Swedish inspector was beginning to realize that sometimes a crime's solution solves nothing.

Denmark (1992)

A stunning literary thriller in the tradition of Gorky Park and the novels of John Le Carré.

Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is the daughter of a Danish doctor and an Inuit woman from Greenland. Raised in Greenland, she lives in Copenhagen and, as befits her ancestry, is an expert on snow. When one of her few friends, an Inuit boy, dies under mysterious circumstances, she refuses to believe it was an accident.

She decides to investigate and discovers that even the police don't want her involved. But Smilla persists, and as snow-covered Copenhagen settles down for a quiet Christmas, Smilla's investigation leads her from a fanatically religious accountant, to a tough-talking pathologist, to the secret files of the Danish company responsible for extracting most of Greenland's mineral wealth. Finally, she boards a ship with an international cast of villains - and a large stash of cocaine - bound for a mysterious mission on an inhospitable island off Greenland.

China/France (2001)

As the Japanese military invades 1930s Manchuria, a young girl approaches her own sexual coming of age. Drawn into a complex triangle with two boys, she distracts herself from the onslaught of adulthood by playing the game of go with strangers in a public square - and yet the force of desire, like the occupation, proves inevitable. Unbeknownst to the girl who plays go, her most worthy and frequent opponent is a Japanese soldier in disguise. Captivated by her beauty as much as by her bold, unpredictable approach to the strategy game, the soldier finds his loyalties challenged. Is there room on the path to war for that most revolutionary of acts: falling in love?

Japan (1988)

In this translation of a best-selling novel first published in Japan in 1987, the young narrator, Mikage, moves into the apartment of a friend whose mother is murdered early in the tale. What seems like a coming-of-age melodrama quickly evolves into a deeply moving tale filled with unique characters and themes. Along the way, readers get a taste of contemporary Japan, with its mesh of popular American food and culture. Mikage addresses the role of death, loneliness, and personal as well as sexual identity through a set of striking circumstances and personal remembrances. "Moonlight Shadows," a novella included here, is a more haunting tale of loss and acceptance. In her simple and captive style, Yoshimoto confirms that art is perhaps the best ambassador among nations.

All reviews are from either Amazon or Barnes & Noble.


Emily said...

I do love the Pierene Press aesthetic; I keep meaning to pick up some of their titles one of these days.

JoAnn said...

Great finds! I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on Mahfouz (need to read more of his work). After reading Kitchen, I bought two other Yoshimoto novels, but haven't gotten to either yet.

Anonymous said...

great books I loved Kitchen and my century is one of grass's best in my opinion ,all the best stu

Wendy said...

I'm looking forward to getting my review copy of Tomorrow Pamplona! Thanks for sharing all these other finds, too - they look very good :)

Richard said...

Midaq Alley is one of the Mahfouz titles I'd like to read once I eventually forget about how crappy the last several hundred pages of The Cairo Trilogy turned out to be. That may be a while unfortunately.

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: I've actually kept a couple of their books I wasn't crazy about just because the complete set looks so nice on my shelf.

JoAnn: I recommend Miramar. The Cairo Trilogy was a BIG let-down (look at Richard's comment below).

Winston: I haven't read Grass yet but I'm very much looking forward to Kitchen. My reading of contemporary Japanese literature doesn't extend beyond Murakami, unfortunately.

Wendy: I just got mine yesterday so yours should be coming soon!

Richard: Well, I'll let you know if Midaq Alley is more Miramar or Kamal whining page after page after page.

mel u said...

I love Kitchen-I have not found my way into much Scandanavian fiction as of yet-I enjoyed your post a lot

Anonymous said...

See, that always happens! Were you even able to get the presents or hoarded everything for yourself? :D

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