Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq

I can’t really enlarge upon our life in the forest. It’s a matter of security. 

Edition: Text Publishing, 2018, 192 pages.

Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq, translated from the French by Penny Hueston, is a science fiction novel that’s been compared to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Set in a near future surveillance state with advanced robot technology and human clones (called “halves”) that are kept in a comatose state in specialized medical centres and harvested for organs, Our life in the Forest follows a woman, who is living with a group of people in a forest as a form of protest against the unethical practices of this future society. Over the course of the book, we learn what were the circumstances that motivated her to abandon her city life and settle in the forest. The book is written in the form of an intimate confession by the protagonist as a way for her to explain her decisions and keep her story alive for future generations.

Before her life in the forest, she was working as a psychologist and treating patients who had experienced some kind of trauma. One of her regulars was patient zero, the so-called clicker, who visits her to complain about the constant tedium of his dead-end job, which is to teach robots mental associations in order to make them appear more human, so that they could eventually replace humans in the jobs that require empathy.

You’re endlessly performing a task the mind can do but which discombobulates a robot. And which is nevertheless difficult to conceptualise. The only solution is to multiply the links, click, click, click, until the robot has been supplied with everything we could possibly have thought up until now, everything we could have felt, everything humanity could have experienced. 

Blue = sky = melancholy = music = bruising = blue blood = nobility = beheading.

We soon learn that, outside of her job, the narrator spends most of her free time visiting her clone, named Marie, who is kept in one of the vast medical centres. Despite the fact that the narrator has already received several transplants and is in need of more due to her declining health, she begins to feel repelled by the idea of harvesting Marie’s organs.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving too much away since the themes of the novel are closely linked to some of the major plot points. All I will say is that the book explores identity and the ethical questions concerning organ-harvesting. In this near-future scenario, the wealthiest people are able to significantly prolong their lives and their youth by replacing any of their organs with those of their “halves”, while the less rich only have jars with the most vital organs, and those, who can’t afford even the jars, receive no help at all, so one of the major topics of this book is how this kind of medical advancement might affect people from different socio-economic positions in society.

While the science fiction concept itself might not be that new, Out Life in the Forest felt like a well-crafted story with a clear message that challenges us to think about how such potential technological and medical advancements might affect the future.



Favourite Reads of 2018 & Most Anticipated Books of 2019

It’s that time of the year when every book-related news outlet, journal, or blog is unveiling their “best/favourite books of 2018” lists, and I can’t resist the temptation of scrolling through each and every one of these lists. Although I’m aware that these kinds of lists are entirely subjective and most often don’t really align with my own reading taste, I’m still always curious to find out which books make it onto these lists, and they seem to inspire me to reflect on my own reading year.

Overall, 2018 has been a great reading year for me. I made an effort to focus more on new releases in translation and this goal lead me to read the whole shortlist (as well as the majority of the longlist) of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and the new National Book Award for Translated Literature, and, once again, reconfirmed my love for translated literature. I’m not one of those highly organized people who keep a detailed spreadsheet to track their reading stats, but, according to Goodreads, the majority (~70%) of books that I’ve read this year have been translations, and I’m very happy about this achievement. One of my goals for 2019 is to maintain a similar balance.

It’s also been less than a year since I restarted this blog and I’m very grateful to all of you who have read and shared my posts, left so many thoughtful comments, and decided to follow this blog. Thank you so much for all the support and happy New Year! 🙂

Favourite Reads of 2018

It was a struggle to come up with my own list of favourite reads of 2018 and put them in any definite ranking, so the following list consists of the books that stood out to me the most this year, and I decided to arrange them by “date read” to avoid any specific ranking. Also, you can click on the title of each of the books to read my full review.

31247641._UY630_SR1200,630_Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

A wild road trip on the “shadow highway” of America that takes the reader on a Lynchian journey, exploring the fundamentals of American culture. Set in an alternate near-future America, where the Twin Towers mysteriously reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota and seem to transmit music that differs depending on the listener in an America where all music is gradually disappearing. If that wasn’t weird enough, the towers are completely empty, except for one resident in one of the towers: the adult version of Jessie Presley, the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley, who is going mad from a voice in his head that doesn’t belong to him and strange memories of a life where he survived instead of his famous twin brother. This book won’t be for everyone, but if you’re fine with some weirdness and disorienting narratives that probe the cultural identity of America, I recommend this highly imaginative speculative fiction novel.

25403359The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt, translated by Nick Caistor

An atmospheric and satirical modern classic from Argentina, published in 1929, it follows Remo Erdosain, a lonely an dispossessed working class man living in Buenos Aires, who has fallen on hard times and gets involved with a group of revolutionaries, who are planning to overthrow the government and exact some kind of revenge on society for the neglect, humiliation and cruelty that they have endured all their lives. It soon becomes apparent that his co-conspirators are a group of disturbed individuals, following a cult-like leader called The Astrologer who is very charismatic but has no clear political ideology as a basis for their revolution.

36098957Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff

Another Argentinian novel, this time contemporary, about a young woman who has recently given birth to her second child but struggles with feelings of alienation and is yearning to break free from societal pressures and the mundanity of day-to-day family life. She feels as if her identity is being replaced by the roles that she is expected to perform and that drives her to the brink of insanity. It’s a very atmospheric story, written in a melancholy and, at the same time, a kind of darkly ironic tone, that it stays with you for a long time.

35830552I Still Dream by James Smythe

This book was one of the biggest surprises for me this year. The novel explores some big questions about the potential development and use of AI technology, our right to privacy and the border between man and machine. The central character, Laura Bow, is one of my favourite female characters that I’ve encountered in science fiction, and I could really relate to her love of music (the title of the novel is a reference to a song by Kate Bush), and how she tried to navigate an industry that is traditionally dominated by men. I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for an intellectually stimulating science fiction story.

cover134137-mediumActs of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, translated by Saskia Vogel

Ester Nillson, a writer and poet, embarks on an affair with a married actor called Olof Sten, hoping that he will leave his wife and their affair will turn into a long-term relationship. However, it doesn’t turn out that way and, instead, the book follows the relationship dynamic between two rather delusional people, who stubbornly refuse to accept the reality of the situation. The novel is a subversive, darkly comic, and feminist look at infidelity and the double standard that exists between men and women who are involved in these situations. Also, the satisfying conclusion to the relationship drama between Ester and Olof has really stayed with me.

61ITt8gqZmL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean

A multi-layered journey through the key moments of 20th-century Colombian history that showcases how violence is passed on from generation to generation and its lasting effects on the society. Part political thriller, part courtroom drama, part reportage, part conspiracy theory, and part autofiction, the novel mainly focuses on two defining murders of charismatic politicians in the history of Colombian politics – the assassination of General Rafael Uribe Uribe on October 15, 1914, and the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. The author presents himself as the narrator of the novel and through an encounter with the fanatic Carlos Carballo, who believes in a conspiracy theory that links these two assassinations, the narrator becomes intrigued and embarks on an investigation to find out the truth. I previously also really enjoyed The Sound of Things Falling by Vásquez, but this book put him on the list of my favourite authors.

6495110The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

This was my first experience with Jansson’s adult fiction. The True Deceiver is a skilfull character study of two women with very different personalities that plays with the reader’s, as well as the characters’ perceptions against the backdrop of the harsh, rural winter setting. Kari Kling is an unusual young woman with yellow eyes who is fiercely protective of her younger brother Mats. In order to ensure their financial security, she decides to ingratiate herself with the local recluse – a privileged, rather eccentric, and seemingly naive children’s book illustrator Anna Aemelin who rarely leaves the house and relies on other people to bring her all the necessary supplies. Katri and Anna represent two opposing worldviews on how to deal with their isolation and their interactions provoke a change in both characters. It’s a short, atmospheric read that makes you feel that something sinister is lurking just around the corner.

the-last-day-21The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas, translated by Marija Marcinkute

An excellent short story collection that brings together an assortment of characters, who are searching for some higher purpose in life and their mundane lives are interrupted by something strange that leads them to wrestle with some existential questions. A major theme of the collection is identity since the characters are forced to examine the layers of self-deception that they’ve constructed in order to deal with the reality of their lives.

33534091Katalin Street by Magda Szábo, translated by Len Rix

My first experience with Magda Szábo’s fiction and I loved this psychologically nuanced story about the lives of three neighbouring families that live on Katalin Street in pre-war Budapest against the backdrop of significant periods in Hungarian history – the interwar period, the German occupation and Communist rule. It’s a melancholy story about the unreliable nature of memory and how people, often unintentionally, inflict suffering on those that they love. It was such a well-crafted book that I look forward to picking up more of Szábo’s work, in particular, her most famous novel, The Door.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover551706-20180413-disoriental

A sprawling story about one Iranian family against the backdrop of some of the key moments in 20th century Iranian history. The book follows Kamiâ Sadr as she sits in a fertility clinic in Paris and recalls her family’s history, her relationship with her dissident parents and other relatives, and her experience of fleeing Iran to move to France. The author seamlessly interweaves the politics and cultural aspects of Iran with the multi-generational family story. Shifting back and forth between different time periods, the novel is an insightful and moving examination of Iranian history, grief, the immigrant experience, and identity, both cultural and individual.

41451467Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

I haven’t read that much science fiction or fantasy this year, because I felt that I needed a break from these genres, but I’m glad I made an exception for this dark and psychological fantasy novel that follows Sasha Samokhina who is manipulated by a sinister stranger into attending a strange Institute of Special Technologies in rural Russia, where she is forced to keep up with an incredibly demanding study schedule that doesn’ seem to have a purpose at first, but eventually leads to a significant transformation and provides her with a new understanding of the mysteries of existence. It was one of my most engrossing reading experiences of the year.

Most anticipated books of 2019

In addition to reflecting on my favourite reads of the year, I’d like to mention some upcoming releases that I’m really looking forward to reading in 2019.

optic-nerve-maria-gainza-9781787300279Optic Nerve by María Gainza, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (Harvill Secker)

The novel follows an Argentinian woman who is obsessed with art and her life story is fundamentally linked to the pieces of art and artists that matter to her. What I gather from the synopsis is that the novel consists of different episodes from the lives of famous artists that have some kind of meaning in the narrator’s life in Buenos Aires, and together they form an impression of the main character.

children-of-the-cave-virve-sammalkorpi-9781908670502Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah, Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press)

Published as part of their There Be Monsters series, the novel is set in 1819 and follows a young assistant to a notable French explorer who sets off on a journey to the Russian wilderness. They soon discover a group of creatures living in a cave: children with animal traits. But are they animals, or human? This sounds like it’s going to be a dark, but very intriguing story.


mouthful-of-birds-samanta-schweblin-9781786074560Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld Publications)

I really enjoyed her strange and unsettling novella Fever Dream, so I look forward to reading more of her work. I hope these stories are just as dark and suspenseful as her most famous novella.



61N+U0SnDaL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton), the first book in his planned Dark Star trilogy.

I was very impressed by his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings which won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, so I’m very excited to check out his foray into the fantasy genre. Inspired by African history and mythology, the book is described as a fantasy saga that explores the fundamentals of truth and the limits of power. The book follows a mercenary called Tracker, who reluctantly joins a group of unusual and enigmatic characters that have come together to track down a mysterious boy, who disappeared three years earlier. the search takes them on an adventure through different cities, dense forests, and deep rivers, where danger lurks at every step. As they struggle to survive, they start to question: Who, exactly, is this mysterious boy and why is he missing?

balco-atlantico-jerome-ferrari-9780857059932Balco Atlantico by Jérôme Ferrari, translated from the French by David Homel (MacLehose Press), the sequel to his 2012 Prix Goncourt winning novel The Sermon on the Fall on Rome.

I was impressed by his short, philosophical novel The Principle about the physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was involved in the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb.

The synopsis suggests that Balco Atlantico is about the relentless pursuit of happiness and fulfilment that leads to despair and disillusionment. In a village square in Corsica lies the body of ardent nationalist, Stephane Campana, shot down at close range. And over his body weeps Virginie, the young woman who has venerated Stephane all her life – a veneration that has led her to abandon herself to him and his twisted desires completely. Meanwhile, brother and sister Khaled and Hayet, who once gazed out to sea from the shoreline path known as “Balco Atlantico” and dreamed of a better future, are now stranded in Corsica.

9781936932481_FCMars by Asja Bakić, translated from the Bosnian by Jennifer Zoble (The Feminist Press at CUNY)

Mars is a collection of feminist science fiction stories that explore the themes of knowledge, freedom, and power by showcasing different universes, where every character is tasked with making sense of their strange reality.


51FMtarfzYL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Grove Press)

Inspired by his own father’s struggles with mental illness, David Vann explores the destructive effect that the dark logic of depression has on the main character’s life and his relationships with family and friends, and his persistent struggle to wrench himself free from his thoughts that have the potential to lead him to his end. I really enjoyed Vann’s lyrical writing in Bright Air Black, which is a retelling of the story of Jason and Media, so I can’t wait to read his latest novel.

the-little-girl-on-the-ice-floe-adelaide-bon-9781609455156The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adélaïde Bon, translated from the French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions)

When Adélaïde’s parents find her mute and unable to explain why she is crying, they bring her to the police station and file a complaint against “X” for sexual assault. Adélaïde grows up without showing any outward signs of damage. As a teen and then as an outwardly cheerful young woman, she suffers in silence, battling her demons alone. Twenty-three years later, Adélaïde receives a call from the juvenile squad. An investigator has reopened the classified case of “the electrician” and DNA analysis points to a man known to the police as a serial burglar. He is subsequently charged with assaulting 72 minors between 1983 and 2003, and it is suspected that he has hurt hundreds of others who never filed complaints. In the spring of 2016, at the Paris city court, along with 18 other women, Adélaïde confronts the rapist who destroyed her life. This sounds like a terrifying but important read.

77-guillermo-saccomanno-978194095389277 by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (Open Letter)

This is another Argentinian book that I can’ wait to read. Its been described as a haunting, dream-like novel about absence and the clash between morality and survival when living under a dictatorship. Set in 1977 Buenos Aires, in the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, tries to keep a low profile as one-by-one, his friends and students begin to disappear. When Esteban, one of Gómez’s favourite students, is taken away in a classroom raid, Gómez realizes that no one is safe anymore, and that asking too many questions can have lethal consequences.

abel-and-cain-david-dollenmayer-9781681373256Abel and Cain by Gregor Von Rezzori, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough (NYRB Classics)

This edition actually includes two of the author’s novels that have been collected for the first time in one volume and presented as the author had originally intended. It’s a sprawling story that takes on the Jazz age, the Anschluss, the Nuremburg trials, and postwar commercialism. The central character is the unnamed narrator, holed up in a Paris hotel room and struggling to write his novel about love and work, sex and writing, families and nations, and human treachery and cruelty. But how can a man who lived in a time of lies know himself? And is it even possible to tell the story of an era of lies truthfully?

the-polyglot-lovers-lina-wolff-9781911508441The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel (And Other Stories)

I’ve been meaning to read something by Lina Wolff for quite some time and the premise of this book sounds very strange and intriguing so I might start with this one. Ellinor is thirty-six. She wears soft black sweatpants and a Michelin Man jacket. She fights. Smart and unsentimental, she tries her hand at online dating, only to be stranded by a snowstorm in Stockholm, far from her village in the south of Sweden. Ellinor finds herself at the heart of an intrigue involving an ex-wife who happens to be a blind medium, an overweight literary critic with a Houellebecq obsession, and a manuscript: a very important manuscript. Cut to Max Lamas, its author, who dreams of a polyglot lover, a woman who will understand him, in every tongue. His search takes him to Italy, where he befriends a marchesa on the brink of ruin, and where her granddaughter, Lucrezia, brings this tale to its final, shocking conclusion.

9781566895460_FC_1024x1024Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott (Coffee House Press)

A writer fills a notebook with exercises to improve his writing believing that this will lead to improvements in his character. His determination and commitment despite interruptions, distractions, highly inventive procrastination and worries about his mental health. What appears to be merely a functional exercise transforms into reflections and anecdotes about life, coexistence, writing, sense and the senselessness of existence.

9780374720612Valerie by Sara Stridsberg, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A reimagining of the life of Valerie Solanas—the writer of the infamous SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol—who, in April 1988, was discovered dead at fifty-two in her hotel room, in a grimy corner of San Francisco, alone, penniless, and surrounded by the typed pages of her last writings. In Valerie, Sara Stridsberg revisits the hotel room where Solanas died; the courtroom where she was tried and convicted of attempting to murder Andy Warhol; the Georgia wastelands where she spent her childhood, where she was repeatedly raped by her father and beaten by her alcoholic grandfather; and the mental hospitals where she was shut away. Through imagined conversations and monologues, reminiscences and rantings, Stridsberg tries to reconstruct this most intriguing and enigmatic of women.

Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Darkness. “In the beginning was the Word.”

Edition: HarperCollins, 2018, 416 pages.

One of the most engrossing reading experiences of the year, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, is a dark and philosophical fantasy novel that examines the fundamentals of existence and will most likely appeal to fans of X-Men comics, Lexicon by Max Barry, and The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.

“I want to give you a task to perform. It’s not hard. I never ask for the impossible.”

The story follows Alexandra “Sasha” Samokhina, who, while vacationing at the beach with her mother, encounters a mysterious stranger, Farit Kozhennikov, who manipulates her into performing strange tasks with an even more peculiar reward. As Sasha soon finds out, the price for disobeying is terrible, so she agrees to comply with the stranger’s bizarre requests. This all takes her on an increasingly strange path that leads to a mysterious Institute of Special Technologies, located in a small town in rural Russia, with weird teachers and students. Sasha and her classmates are forced to attend very unconventional courses and the study schedule is gruelling. Moreover, every failure or misstep results in a terrible punishment, but, instead of the students, it’s their loved ones who have to pay the price. Ironically, the demanding and exhausting study process at this strange institute, where they spend long nights cramming for exams with no concrete aim in sight, felt like a pretty accurate depiction of academic life (except for the incredibly cruel punishments, of course).

This is a very difficult book to summarize without revealing too much, so I’ll just say that, as the story develops, it gets progressively weirder, darker and more philosophical. In a good way. Even though I’m still not entirely sure that I understood all the underlying philosophical concepts.

There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.

Readers and reviewers often describe a book as engrossing or that they couldn’t put it down, but, in my experience, these kinds of reading experiences are actually very rare. I’m an avid reader but I can recall only a small number of books that really provided me with the experience of being completely transported into another world and not wanting the book to end. I’m happy to report that Vita Nostra was one of those experiences. There’s been an interesting trend in fantasy fiction in recent years, where authors try to incorporate elements from Russian culture and mythology into their worldbuilding, however, unfortunately, the end results are often full of obvious errors that immediately pull me out of the story, so it was very refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the Russian setting actually feels authentic.

Overall, this was a suspenseful, imaginative, and smart fantasy novel with a strong,  clever, and assertive main character that explores the mysteries of the universe and transformative nature of deep intellectual studies. The story also serves as a great allegory for the transformation, both physical and psychological, that young adults go through as they grow up and mature. Highly recommended!


Disoriental by Négar Djavadi

Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive. Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.

Edition: Europa Editions, 2018, 320 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

What is, first and foremost, a fascinating semi-autobiographical novel about the history of one Iranian family over multiple generations, Négar Djavadi’s debut novel Disoriental, skilfully translated from the French by Tina Kover, becomes a reflection on some of the key events in 20th century Iranian history. On a more personal level, it’s a nuanced examination of the different facets that form the central character’s identity.

In the waiting room of a fertility clinic in Paris, the narrator, 25-year old Kamiâ Sadr, is thinking about her future that triggers the memories of some of the dramatic events from her own past, as well as the stories of her ancestors in Iran.

I carry within me the same kind of crazy feeling as the hero of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, who breaks out of a black-and-white film into the real, full-color world, where he thinks it’s possible to forget the past. I’m always chasing after the present. But the present doesn’t exist. It’s only an intermission, a temporary respite, which might at any moment be swept away, destroyed, pulverized, by the escaped djinns of the past.

Beginning with the story of her great-grandfather, Montazemolmolk, who had fifty-two wives and twenty-eight children, Disoriental primarily focuses on the story of the family of Darius Sadr, an intellectual and dissident, who openly criticised the Shah regime and, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, was also opposed to the policies of the Khomeini regime, and, as a result, was forced to flee Iran and go to exile in France. Later, at the age of 10, Kamiâ, accompanied by her mother and sisters, also fled Iran to join her father in France.

The book is a very engaging family saga that provides valuable insights into Iranian culture and history, as well as, on a more personal level, it shows how Kamiâ’s past experiences and upbringing has shaped her life and identity. She’s a very astute observer of the world and people around her. For example, one such interesting observation concerns the issue of integration into French society that gives us a sense of what it’s like to try to balance two cultures that are equally important parts of someone’s identity.

[…] to really integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make “an effort at integration” would dare look them in the face and ask them to start by making the necessary “effort at disintegration.” They’re asking people to stand atop the mountain without climbing up it first.

The narrative shifts back and forth between different periods in Kamiâ’s life and is intertwined with significant incidents in her family’s history that have had a lasting effect on their lives over multiple generations. I loved how the author managed to explain the political and cultural aspects without disrupting the flow of the narrative. It’s not a very long novel, but, in the end, I felt that it took me on an epic journey that educated, entertained, and moved me, and I would love to see this book turned into a film. It was a pleasure to listen to such a great storyteller as Kamiâ, and I think the book deserves even more recognition than it has already received. I’m certainly hoping to see Disoriental among the nominees of the 2019 Man Booker International prize.


Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

He seduced us all with his words – and Truman knows full well the power of words. They’re both armour and weapon, the one thing he’s sure of. They alone have never failed him, their lyricism hinting at the beauty trapped within his stunted body, not to mention his conflicted soul.

Edition: Cornerstone, 2018, 480 pages.

In her debut novel, Swan Song, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott reimagines the decline of Truman Capote due to the backlash that followed the publication of Capote’s infamous short story La Côte Basque 1965 in the November 1975 issue of Esquire magazine, the first excerpt from his unfinished novel Answered Prayers. Capote’s intention was to expose, in what he believed would be his most ambitious work, the scandalous secrets of his Swans: a group of wealthy, stylish, influential New York socialites, including Nancy “Slim” Keith, Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marella Agnelli, and Lee Radziwill, who accepted Capote into their social circle, and, as it later turned out, unwisely trusted him with their private thoughts and, often salacious, secrets.

The book offers an interesting interpretation of what might have motivated Capote to commit such a callous act of betraying his friends and suggests that he wanted to get some sort of revenge on the rich and powerful, who he blamed for the loss of his mother. The reasoning was rather strange, but, in the light of his eccentric personality, I guess that kind of makes sense. The book also suggests that Capote hadn’t really thought through the consequences that might follow his actions.

19751101In the end, the book-in-progress actually turned into a swan song for Truman Capote himself: with the publication of this La Côte Basque 1965, he had essentially committed social suicide. Suddenly abandoned by the Swans, Capote fell into a downward spiral, fuelled by his destructive relationship with drugs and alcohol, that ultimately lead to his premature death.

The story is mainly told from the point of view of the Swans, who loved Capote and felt betrayed and humiliated by his actions. The narrative shifts between these socialites and forms a vivid portrait of their luxurious, indulgent lifestyles, their shallow, vindictive personalities, and how, later on, each of them dealt with the scandal. It’s quite a long novel and the author goes into great detail in describing the relationship dramas among the high-society men and women, so, at times, the novel starts to feel like a literary gossip column, which would have been more fun to read, if I hadn’t had to google most of the names that were mentioned in the book. In some parts, this made the reading experience a bit tiresome, however, I suspect that other readers with more previous knowledge about these famous, extremely rich people might find this aspect of the book more enjoyable. It’s clear that the author had done a lot of research in the process of writing this story.

My favourite parts of the novel were the chapters that focused on Capote and gave some insight into his personal history and over-the-top personality. Seeing the way in which his life unravelled after the publication of the excerpts from his planned novel almost reads like a cautionary tale about how a person can climb right to the top of the social ladder, and then, somewhat unwittingly, trigger his own downfall and self-destruction.


Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya

Edition: Knopf Publishing, 2018, 256 pages.

Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya, beautifully translated from the Russian by Anya Migdal, is a collection of 18 short stories that skilfully cover an array of different topics such as love, loneliness, loss, travel, art, literature, the writing process, and identity, both individual and cultural.

The stories that stuck out to me the most were the auto-fiction and essayistic pieces dealing with questions of identity and the range of conflicting emotions that come with being an expatriate. Since the author has spent long periods of time travelling and living in other countries, I assume that she drew inspiration for some of the stories, such as Smoke and Shadows and Aetherial Worlds, from her own experiences. Her insightful observations on Russian identity, compared to other nationalities, were particularly amusing to read because Tolstaya has such a delightfully biting sense of humour. I just adore this type of writing that manages to be in equal parts lyrical, thought-provoking, and sarcastic.

In one of the stand-out stories, Official Nationalities, the author reflects on the three defining features of Russian people, one of them being the concept of “Let’s hope.”:

This “Let’s hope” is a built-in denial of causality, it’s a lack of belief in the material nature of our universe and its physical laws. Remember this and carve it in stone.
“We should attach this part with screws, otherwise it might fall off along the way.”
“Ah, let’s hope it doesn’t.”

In a similar way, Faraway Lands offers an interesting meditation on the behavioural differences between a Russian and a (Western) European man via the classic concept of “the drinking man:

European literature, cinema, and anecdotal observations all paint the same picture: a lonely, middle-aged man, drinking alone but with dignity […]. He is contemplating his loneliness, we surmise, the meaninglessness of existence, the impossibility of emotional attachment, and the passing of the more-or-less good ol’ days. […] Meanwhile – as you rightly know – a Russian man who is lonely and sad in a bar is unimaginable. Upon entering any establishment for the purpose of drinking, he immediately seeks out company, instantly infiltrates it, and, without delay, forges a quick, if shaky and dangerous, friendship while stepping on everyone’s toes and violating personal boundaries that his drinking buddies didn’t even suspect existed.

The characters in many of these stories seem to be longing for some kind of escape and seeking a special, magical place or, as the title suggests, aetherial world, which exists somewhere in their peripheral vision, and might be perceived, if only they looked closer and inwardly, without getting distracted by other things. Interestingly, this concept of an aetherial world appears in the collection in different forms. In the title story, Aetherial Worlds, it refers to an unfinished patio overlooking lush gardens, while in another story, 20/20, the aetherial world is described as a kind of nowhere place:

It’s the most important place in the world — nowhere. Everyone should spend time there. It’s scary, empty, and cold; it’s sad beyond all bearing; it’s where all human communication is lost, where all your sins, all your shortcomings, all lies and half-truths and double-dealings emerge from the dusk to look you in the eye with neither disapproval nor empathy, but simply and matter-of-factly.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Square which is a fascinating reflection on the famous painting The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. It discusses the significance of this iconic painting in the context of art history and the development of modern art by defining the fundamental differences between “pre-Square” and “post-Square” artists.

This collection was my first read by this author, and I think it served as a great introduction to her writing. As with most short story collection, I enjoyed some stories more than others, but, overall, I highly recommend this collection and look forward to exploring more of her work in the future.


We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

A girl with a guitar never has to apologize for anything.

Edition: Quirk Books, 2018, 336 pages.

In the 1990s, Kris Pulaski was the guitarist of a heavy metal band called Dürt Würk, and even though the band gave their best to succeed, Dürt Würk didn’t get their big break, so, twenty years later, we see Kris, who is now in her forties and broke, working as a hotel receptionist at a Best Western, where she has to deal with annoying, drunk guests.

The premise of We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix immediately appealed to me because of the heavy metal aspect and, in essence, the novel is a fast-paced, supernatural story that reflects on modern-day consumerism and looks at how far some people would be willing to go in the name of fame and success?

“Now, people sell their souls for nothing. They do it for a new iPhone or to have one night with their hot next-door neighbor. There is no fanfare, no parchment signed at midnight. Sometimes it’s just the language you click in an end-user license agreement. Most people don’t even notice, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. They only want things. So they sell their souls, and they go to sleep, and the Special Ones crawl out of the dirty corners and lap them up. They control everything, they keep us hungry, they keep us in pain, they keep us distracted. Have you noticed how soulless this world has become? How empty and prefabricated? Soulless lives are hollow. We fill the earth with soulless cities, pollute ourselves with soulless albums. When the soul is removed it leaves a hole, and we try to fill that hole with so many things—the internet, and conspiracy theories, and CNN, and drugs, and food, but there is only one thing inside that hole, Kris, and that is Black Iron Mountain. It is our jailer, and this is our jail: an eternal, insane hunger that can never be satisfied, a wound that can never be healed, an unnatural desire to consume. Our hunger traps us inside a prison as big as the world.”

As the story develops, we find out just how close Dürt Würk was to making it big, and how it all came crashing down when their lead singer, Terry Hunt, decided to betray his bandmates and go solo, while continuing to use the band’s old material. Terry goes on to achieve phenomenal fame with his metal band Koffin, and the announcement of Koffin’s epic farewell tour sparks Kris’s determination to reconnect with her old bandmates and confront Terry about the events that lead to the dissolution of Dürt Würk. Along the way, she gets involved in a conspiracy, which suggests that Terry’s stardom might have come from some kind of Faustian deal, as suggested by the title of the book. Kris sets out to uncover the truth and races against time to stop an evil force from taking over the world.

The story takes some time to gain momentum and the horror elements really start to appear only around the midpoint of the book, but, overall, We Sold Our Souls is an engrossing and spooky love letter to heavy metal music, and Kris’s passion for the genre made me quite nostalgic to revisit some of the bands that are mentioned in the book. As expected, metal music plays a significant part in the narrative and each chapter heading is a fun reference to a song title. The book also makes some strong statements about the meaning and appeal of heavy metal music, and it obviously comes from a place of love for the genre. If you’re looking for a fun, spooky Halloween read with a strong female lead, I suggest giving this book a try.