The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead Chanelle Benz (USA) ECCO, 2017.


This collection of short stories is very well written, intelligent, and while not my favourite subject matter, simply fun to read. This in spite of the theme of violence and death which run through the stories. Benz sets her stories in varying historical settings and is quite adept at each that she offers. Characters are either the victims of violence or use violence to solve a problem. Overall, a good exploration of how violence tends to invade our lives and guide us in our decision making. I would not mind being able to write stories of this caliber.

Breathing Into Marble

Breathing Into Marble Laura Sintija Černiauskaite (Lithuania): 2006?; translated by Marija Marcinkute, Noir Press, 2016.


This family drama/thriller is published by the fairly new Noir Press out of the UK. Their focus is on Lithuanian fiction in English translation. It is the first of their five highly anticipated published books that I have obtained and read and I was vastly disappointed. First off, there were many typos and other mistakes, seemingly having missed the editing process. This always makes for a more difficult read. Second, the novel is overstuffed with metaphor and simile. Again, it was difficult to get into the story reading all of them, many of them not even very good. The basic premise, the adoption of a boy who wreaks havoc on a family and the subsequent unraveling of that family, is fairly straightforward and a good premise. The prose, however, simply did not live up to this storyline. I have read several reviews which posit that this is an excellent and beautifully told story. I disagree.

The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed Szilárd Borbély (Hungary): 2013; translated by Ottilie Mulzet, Harper Perennial, 2016.


There is plenty of cruelty and loneliness in this Hungarian novel, which reads more like a memoir than a novel. There is the cruelty of the two world wars, the cruelty of men towards women and children, the cruelty of spouses, the cruelty of children, and the cruelty towards animals. Overriding all of this is the geographical and historical cruelty in the village at the centre of this story. All this cruelty unfolds through the narrative of the central child narrator growing up in this Hungarian village on the border of Romania. He is a lonely character and notices the loneliness of everybody around him, which he comes to understand through the loneliness of prime numbers, a wonderful addition to the storytelling.

Central to the story is also the brutal poverty the child's family and the village as a whole lives in. Borbély depicts excruciating scenes of this poverty and the emotional and psychological impact it has on characters throughout the history that unfolds. The Dispossessed is a wonderful, albeit, sad novel which I highly recommend.

My Heart Hemmed In

My Heart Hemmed In, Marie Ndiaye (France): 2007; translated by Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press, 2017.


In this slightly strange, absurdist novel, the main character, Nadia, finds herself and her new husband ostracised by her community. Nadia dislikes most everybody and everything and spends the narrative trying to understand how this has led her to the dire straights she finds herself in. The psychological exploration is fascinating and the prose moves quickly and effortlessly to its grand conclusion.

I Am the Brother of XX

I Am the Brother of XX Fleur Jaeggy (Switzerland): 2015; translated by Gina Alhadeff, New Directions, 2017.


This slim short story collection is challenging, bleak and thoroughly enjoyable. While reading I was reminded of Thomas Bernhard, with similarities between the two authors in subject matter, style, and aesthetic. There is enough death, melancholy, mystery, and overall darkness to please the most pessimistic reader. This is my first Jaeggy reading but I will certainly give her other translated books a go: a second short story collection, two novels and an essay collection. I Am the Brother of XX also deserves a second reading.

The Dinner

The Dinner Herman Koch (Netherlands): 2009; translated by Sam Garrett, Hogarth, 2013.


I did not think I would enjoy this novel as it is immensely popular and most of my reading is of books which are not immensely popular. I was, however, surprised by how much I like The Dinner. The bulk of the action takes place over a dinner in a restaurant with two adult brothers and their wives as they plan to discuss the crime their two teenage boys have committed, The book is well written, fast-paced, and quite suspenseful. None of the characters are very likeable but that adds to the drama as it unfolds as one wonders, what are they going to do/say next?

The narrative also presents discussions throughout concerning morality, victims, the use of violence, and the self-deception we use to convince ourselves of our own health or the health of our relationships, although none of it in very great depth. While some may find the actions and philosophies of the characters, as well as the ending, off-putting, I found them to be a solid investigation and framework for discussion.

Ready to Burst

Ready to Burst Frankétienne (Haiti): 1968; translated by Kaiama L. Glover, Archipelago Books, 2014.


The storyline in Ready to Burst is easy to follow: Raynand and Paulin are two young men struggling through life in Port-au-Prince. They experience "...endless bad luck on the paths of sorrow" in their loves, ambitions, and goals. Raynard is alone in life and has difficulty negotiating his life in Haiti, while Paulin is slightly better off and is concerned with writing a novel which turns out to be Ready to Burst.

Both Paulin's novel and Ready to Burst are written from the point of view of Spiralism which views life as unfolding in an upward moving spiral. The novel is weakest on this point as I was left with a less than adequate understanding of Spiralism and its connection to historical Haiti. Granted, that could be the fault of my own ignorance and not of the writing, however, it did make for a bit of difficult reading. Even so, I found this aspect the most intriguing and it makes me look forward to Frankétiene's Ultavocal which is slated for a 2018 publication and supposedly covers Spiralism in depth.

Death With Interruptions

Death With Interruptions José Saramago (Portugal): 2005; translated by Margaret Jill Costa, 2008.


Saramago's 2005 novel is a fable where death ceases to occur one New Year's Eve. It seems like two novellas spliced together, albeit with continuities between the two pieces. The first half has a more societal level examination of what would occur should people stop dying. This half contains some astute observations on the ramifications of this occurrence, with plenty of humour to move the story along. 

The second half contains a more individual perspective as it explores a situation involving a cellist who does not die and his relationship to death. This half has more the feel of an independent short story without not enough provided to connect it to the novel as a whole or to propel the fable. Still, it is a good short story in spite of its typical male/female relationship struggles. The novel as a whole, was good reading but not nearly as good as Saramago's Blindness.

Homesick for Another World

Homesick for Another World Ottessa Moshfegh (USA): 2017.


This is a wonderful collection of 14 short stories dealing with personal degradation, loss, and striving for connection. They are all quite bleak, yet immensely entertaining and satisfying. None of the stories contain an overriding plot to keep the story moving, it is simply a picture of a life or lives, and consequences to decisions people make in a lifetime and day to day. The stories remind me of the better ones from Lucia Berlin that I have enjoyed so much.

The final story, "A Better Place," is a bit different than the rest but also summaries all the others quite well. It captures the essence of the title of the collection and explores our desires for someplace better through the eyes of two small children. Again, there is no ultimate resolution, but one is left, like in the other collected stories, wondering what keeps us coming back for more, dealing with our defects, and carrying on another day. Highly recommended.



The New Sweet Style

The New Sweet Style by Vassily Aksyonov (Soviet Union): 1999; translated by Christopher Morris, 1999.


I am not a trained literary critic or book reviewer, however, I do read quite a bit. In order to keep this blog more 'live' I am going to offer my amateur thoughts concerning the books I read. Most of them are books in English translation, but there is a scattering of books written in English, especially short stories as that is my focus for this year. And so, lets start with The New Sweet Style

I have read other books by Askyonov, specifically, The Winter's Journey, Generations of Winter, The Island of Crimea, and The Burn. all of which are worthy of reading time. So is this current book, which is almost two decades old. His coverage of the happenings in Russia and in the United States at the time resonate in today's political and social world. Things haven't actually changed that much. The book is a fairly difficult read but enjoyable all the same. The main character, Alexander Korbach, is a likeable man with a plentitude of talents, which help him negotiate the difficulties he has in Russia and during his emigration and settlement in America. The author moves around in time and point of view frequently, and also introduces several metafictional techniques throughout the novel. While some scenes and outcomes are predictable or drawn out, the overall narrative is fast-paced, fun, and stimulating.

The final section of the book (Part XII), with four short chapters, I found to be the weakest and least enjoyable of the novel. Characters go through some strange transformations and a general lunacy takes over until the conclusion, where all the characters from the book reunite. Still, in spite of the less than satisfying ending, this is a strong, challenging, and pleasant read.