Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Peirene Press, 2018
Soviet Milk is a semi-autobiographical novel that considers the effects of the Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. Told in alternating first-person narration from the mother and daughter, the novel portrays the crushing effect that the Soviet regime had on the lives and dreams of ordinary people. At first glance this novel depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989, yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to provide – love, and the desire for life.
High Tide by Inga Ābele, translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Open Letter Books, 2013
Told more or less in reverse chronological order, High Tide is the story of Ieva, her dead lover, her imprisoned husband, and the way their youthful decisions dramatically impacted the rest of their lives. Taking place over three decades, High Tide functions as a sort of psychological mystery, with the full scope of Ieva’s personal situation, and the relationship between the three main characters, only becoming clear at the end of the novel.
Five Fingers by Māra Zālīte, translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017
Five Fingers is the story of five-year-old Laura, who was born in one of Joseph Stalin’s prison camps in Siberia. When the book opens, she and her parents are on their long journey back to Latvia, a country Laura knows only from the exuberant descriptions that whirled about the Gulag. Upon her arrival, however, she must come to terms with the conflicting images of the life she sees around her and the fairytale Latvia she grew up hearing about and imagining. Based on the author’s life, Five Fingers tells the story of a girl who moves between worlds in the hopes of finding a Latvia that she can call home.
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš, translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Arcadia Books, 2014
A political allegory with magical realism elements, this novel transports the reader between 18th century Baltic gentry and the narrator’s life in the modern world. When Baroness Valtraute von Bruegen’s officer husband’s body is severed in two, she is delighted to find that the lower half has been sewn onto the upper body of the humble local captain Ulste. She conceives a child only to see the return of her husband in one piece. Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is a multi-generational story that looks at three periods of occupation in Latvia and explores the nature of identity, both individual and national.
Nakedness by Zigmunds Skujiņš, translated by Uldis Balodis
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2019
Set in the 1960s, Nakedness is the tale of a young man who has just completed his military service and gone straight to Randava to surprise Marika, the beautiful woman with whom he’s been corresponding for some time. The two have never met in person however, and when the young man arrives at her door, he quickly becomes entangled in a bizarre mystery: Marika claims that she has never written to him; in fact, she appears to be involved with someone else. And none of her flatmates will admit to sending the letters. Humiliated, he prepares to return to Riga, but is convinced by one of Marika’s flatmates to stay a little longer – a decision that throws him even deeper into the web of conflicting relationships he has unwittingly entered. Each clue he uncovers only makes things more confusing, and eventually the young man’s own secrets and mendacity are also revealed. The nakedness that results from being deprived of our deceptions can be unpleasant, but it may be a necessary part of growing up and facing the world.
18 by Pauls Bankovskis, translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018
As the First World War comes to an end, chaos takes over in much of Europe and even the victor’s sense that the old certainties have been lost in the massacre. In Latvia, it appears that two centuries of Russian rule are coming to an end, but other powers and destabilizing factors persist. 18 examines this most important of years in Latvian history and reveals how a new republic emerged from disorder and chance. Painstaking in his research, the author even walked himself the full length of the escape route to Finland taken by his protagonist. This is the story of a year and its far from unified people. Two different Latvias, almost a century apart, one looking uncertainly to the future and the other uncomprehendingly to the past, inhabit very different eras and use each other to inform their own actions.
The Green Crow by Kristīne Ulberga, translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018
Institutionalized in an asylum, a woman with a record of hallucinations commits her life story to paper. She records, from the age of six, her earliest memories of a drunken and abusive father, the strange men her mother introduced to repair the family, the imaginary forest to which she would run for safety and the enormous talking green crow who appeared when she most needed him. The green crow is a conceited, boisterous creature who follows the novel’s nameless protagonist throughout her life, until the day that the crow’s presence begins to embarrass her. Confined to a tedious domestic life, she is desperate to hide the crow’s very existence. Failing to do so, she winds up in a psychiatric hospital. This is a story about the desire to be understood and accepted, and the desperate actions that people sometimes take to conform to the expectations of others, even when it might not be necessary.
The Secret Box by Daina Tabūna, translated by Jayde Will
Published by The Emma Press, 2017
A short story collection about girls on the cusp of womanhood, who are constantly confronted with surprises which might change everything. Two siblings realize they’re too old to be playing with paper dolls and begin to re-examine their close relationship. A girl who dreads visiting her religious grandmother develops her own fixation with Jesus. And a disaffected young woman, listlessly wandering the streets, stumbles into an awkward relationship with an office worker. The narrators of these three stories each try, in their own way, to make sense of how to behave in a world that doesn’t give any clear answers.
Narcoses by Madara Gruntmane, translated by Marta Ziemelis
Published by Parthian Books, 2019
Narcoses is a collection of fresh, powerfully feminine and open poetry, inspired by the author’s honest personal experiences. Full of life and love, joy, and pain, Narcoses is written with keen psychological insight and a courageous amount of self-awareness, to establish an intimacy and trust between poet and reader.
Beasts by Krišjānis Zeļģis, translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019
Beasts takes the perspective of the educated and curious city dweller who ventures into the natural world. Krišjānis Zeļģis’ writing focuses on the intriguing unpredictability of wild beasts to explore human nature, relationships, fear, and love. His poetry is dark, sometimes angry, often funny, capturing the entirety of the natural world in honest but delicate detail.
Phenomena by Eduards Aivars, translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019
In Phenomena, Eduards Aivars’ wry observations transform the mundanity of every day into words of quiet, thought-provoking beauty. Following his innovative principle of composition, the collection features many poems with long, expositional titles, which then culminate in a select few words, for example, The sad tale of the long-anticipated air pump, or The intense but fleeting urge for domesticity and commitment. Aivars talks about people, love and the life of a poet in this witty, reflective and unique collection.
30 Questions People Don’t Ask: Selected Poems by Inga Gaile, translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Pleiades Press, 2018
“The poems of Inga Gaile offer an urgent and at times mythic vision of the self-trapped inside the claustrophobic press of history, nature, technology, and conflict. And yet the speaker’s tone is often conversational, casual—even as she remains steadfast in her desire to right the world (no matter how impossible that task might be). Just when the poems begin to feel timeless and elemental—built of snow, blood, beasts, sex, and violence—an Iphone shows up to locate us clearly in our present moment. This work is deeply original, virtuosic in its use of metaphor and its complex engagement with global politics, and utterly of the 21st century—born of a hopeful longing for meaningful human connection coupled with a suspicion that such connection has too often become impossible.” – Wayne Miller
“Inga Gaile’s poems re-center subjects of feminism and gender. The collection is a haunting of Zirgu Pasts, myths of half-child bears, voices of buried daughters in relentless lines of heart-beating rhythm and no-nonsense questions digging into protest. Repetition becomes the site of trauma and recovery. The poems perform tragedy on stages of forest churches and icy tongues. Between daughters and mothers and grandmothers, the poems show life as it exists, as both miracle and fog. It is with mathematical precision that she unfurls wounds of history, criticizes emotional sincerity, and complicates witness and testimony.” – E. J. Koh
Come to Me by Kārlis Vērdiņš, translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Arc Publications, 2014
A poetry collection that suffuses a modern sensibility with urban sophistication. In everyday scenes, he shows us what’s most noble in human relationships, alongside the basest fears and anxieties. Irony and sarcasm somehow never seem to obscure the warmth of Karlis’s voice and his attention to intimate details. This book represents Karlis at the peak of his poetic power: gripping, vivid and not a little romantic. Karlis himself says: “I try to say something that I would like to present as beautiful or, on the contrary, something that can not and must not be taken as beautiful.“
All I Have Is Words by Knuts Skujenieks, translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Guernica Editions, 2018
“For various reasons but particularly due to political censorship, my poetry, written in prison, was published as a collection only in 1990. I myself, following several rejections by publishers, was not in a hurry to go public with the poems from those years, wanting my imprisonment experience to speak with a more mature and deeper voice. In the introduction to the first of the several books now published I wrote: “I have been unwilling to make claims of uniqueness for my life’s most difficult period–those seven years of imprisonment. That which for me personally was a tragic exceptional experience, for my people was a horrific historical norm.” — Knuts Skujenieks
Doom 94 by Jānis Joņevs, translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Wrecking Ball Press, 2018
Doom 94 is set in the 1990s in the Latvian city of Jelgava and looks at the craze during this period for the alternative culture of heavy metal music. The novel is simultaneously an intimate and humorous diary of a teenage boy trying to find himself by joining a subculture, as well as a detailed portrayal of the beginnings of the second independence of Latvia. Doom 94 is a portrait of a generation in the 1990s who were searching for their own identity and were part of the alternative subculture. This is a moving coming-of-age story about those teenage years when everybody is against the whole world and tries not to become ‘one of them’. But can one keep that promise?
The Book of Riga, edited by Becca Parkinson & Eva Eglaja–Kristsone, translated by Kaija Straumanis, Suzanne McQuade, Uldis Balodis, Ieva Lešinska, Mārta Ziemelis and Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Comma Press, 2018
Riga may be over 800 years old as a city, but its status as the capital of an independent Latvia is only a century old, with half of that time spent under Soviet rule. Despite this, it has established itself as a vibrant, creative hub, attracting artists, performers, and writers from across the Baltic region. The stories gathered here chronicle this growth and on-going transformation, and offer glimpses into the dark humour, rich history, contrasting perspectives, and love of the mythic, that sets the city’s artistic community apart. As its history might suggest, Riga is a work in progress; and for many of the characters in these stories, it is the possibilities of what the city might become, more than merely what it is now, that drives the imagination of its people. A short story collection featuring Pauls Bankovskis, Ilze Jansone, Arno Jundze, Sven Kuzmins, Vilis Lācītis, Andra Neiburga, Gundega Repše, Dace Rukšāne, Juris Zvirgzdiņš & Kristine Želve.
Insomnia by Alberts Bels, translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019
Originally written in 1967 and not released in its uncensored form until 2003, Bels’ infamous novel, Insomnia concerns the taboo subject of the Latvian Legion and the atmosphere of inertia and paralysis in Soviet-era Latvia. The story is told through the thoughts and emotions of the main character, portrayed as an outwardly apathetic man and typical of Bels’ characters in the 1960s and 1970s – a period marked by powerless and stagnation amongst ordinary people. The protagonist lives by a principle of non-involvement, content with the small material advantages of a mediocre existence— an old car, a small room in a communal apartment, a television set. The paralysis of spirit is most apparent in the depiction of the everyday minutiae as well as in the nighttime monologues of the building’s other inhabitants. He feels free only at night, in his room, when his work no longer dominates his thinking, when the surrounding sounds of the apartment house have died down, and when he is able to escape the oppressive presences of things and of people that hang over him during the day.
The Cage by Alberts Bels, translated by Ojars Kratins
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 1990
The Cage is a story of suspense by one of Latvia’s leading novelists. Valdis Struga, a detective at the Riga militia’s division of missing persons, has just been fantasizing about disappearing when he is called upon to locate Edmunds Berz, a privileged architect who has vanished without a trace. His protagonist’s search gives Bels an opportunity to sketch Latvian society and to introduce a range of citizens. As Struga investigates and as the narrator presents the viewpoints of related characters (Berz’s wife, boss, colleagues, etc.), striking parallels between hunter and hunted emerge.
In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis, translated by Uldis Balodis
Published by Momentum Books, 2018
Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863–1908) is the most notable Latvian writer of late 19th and early 20th century. The novella In the Shadow of Death can be considered as the beginning of existentialism in Latvian literature, which even predates the development of existentialist literature in Western Europe. In the Shadow of Death is set on a detached, drifting piece of ice in the sea, with fourteen fishermen on it. After a number of days spent at sea in hopelessness, they are finally found. It turns out, however, that the boat is unable to carry all of them; this is followed by the tragic conclusion – drawing of lots to ascertain, who will have to stay on the piece of ice: people, with such choice put before them, are forced to show their true colours. The existential situation marks the presence of death in people’s lives since birth and the unpredictable character of life.
Dog Town by Luīze Pastore, illustrated by Reinis Pētersons, translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Firefly Press, 2018
Jacob Bird lives in Riga with his father. Jacob loves maps like his dad, and is fascinated by the legend which warns that no one must say “Riga is ready” or the river will flood the town, tall ships will sail down the main street, and the city will have to start all over again. One day Jacob mutters the fateful words. But all that happens is he is sent to live for the summer with his grumpy cousin Mimi and Uncle Eagle, because his dad is too busy to look after him. But strange things are afoot in the run-down Maskatchka district of Riga, where Jacob now has to live. Evil Skylar Scraper’s scheme to transform it into a concrete jungle is being fought tooth and paw by the stray dogs, lead by their fierce commander Boss, his mate Bianca, and their twin puppies. Jacob is astonished when Boss starts to talk to him but hurt when Mimi doesn’t want him to join their fight against Skylar. Then Bianca goes missing and Jacob’s maps may be the only thing that can bring her home and save the talking dogs of Maskatchka.
Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks
Published by Pushkin Press, 2018
Raised by her Latvian grandparents in Washington State, Inara Verzemnieks grew up among expatriates, scattering smuggled Latvian sand over the coffins of the dead, singing folk songs with other children about a land none of them had visited. Her grandmother’s stories re-created in vivid, nostalgic detail the family farm she’d left behind during the Second World War. In the fighting, her grandmother Livija and her grandmother’s sister, Ausma, were separated and would not see each other again for more than fifty years. Journeying back to the remote village where her family broke apart, Inara comes to know Ausma and the trauma of her exile to Siberia under Stalin, while reconstructing Livija’s survival through her years as a refugee. In bringing together these two sides of the family story, the author honours both sisters in a moving account of loss, survival, resilience, and love.
One House For All by Inese Zandere, illustrated by Juris Petraskevics, translated by Sabīne Ozola and adapted by Lawrence Schimel
Published by Book Island, 2017
Raven, Crayfish, and Horse have always been best friends. They’re grown up now and would like to start a family. They want all their families to live together and start planning to build a house. But what should that house look like? Will they find a solution that works for all of them? One House For All is a universal story about compromise and collaboration for young readers.
The Noisy Classroom by Ieva Flamingo, illustrated by Vivianna Maria Staņislavska, translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by The Emma Press, 2017
It isn’t easy being a kid – especially not in the noisiest class in the school. Some days, you struggle with algebra or too much homework. Sometimes, one of your fellow pupils just won’t SHUT UP. And sometimes, the hardest thing is just trying to fit in. When the class feels like a many-headed dragon, how can you find a place for yourself? Would you feel less lonely if you could smuggle in a cat? And when your parents are fighting, don’t you find yourself looking into other people’s windows on the walk back home?
Ieva Flamingo’s children’s poems capture the emotional highs and lows of childhood with a sharp, surreal eye and a touching sympathy. The Noisy Classroom is a friend of a book: the poems here understand the pressures faced by children, but they also take in stressed parents, overworked teachers who dream of holidays in Iceland, and the fairies who clean the school at the end of the day. Not to mention the headmaster: after all, he was young once too.
The Book of Clouds by Juris Kronbergs, illustrated by Anete Melece, translated by Māra Rozīte & Richard O’Brien
Published by The Emma Press, 2018
If you look up on a cloudy day, you’ll see a whole new surprising world above you – the world of clouds! The Book of Clouds is an introduction to this world – and the guide you’ll want by your side to help you understand it. A mix of dreamy fantasy and scientific fact, this is the perfect gift for any child with their head stuck in the clouds – and for anyone who has ever wondered what’s up there in the skies above. This book is ideal for children to use as a starting point for their own imaginative creative play. It is full of playful poems, inspiring, anarchic illustrations, and guides to all of the different aspects of clouds that you could want to know about.
Queen of Seagulls by Rūta Briede, translated by Elīna Brasliņa
Published by The Emma Press, 2018
Do you know your neighbours? But do you really know them? In this delightfully subversive, comic contemporary fable, written for children and adults alike, you will be reminded that everyone you know – even your most boring or annoying neighbour – might be leading a life full of magic and wonder…
Renata may not seem like your average hero. She’s an angry neighbour who complains about the people around her, steals food that has been left out for the birds, and yells if she ever hears music. But there is much more to her… what are the seagulls trying to tell her? And what does the accordionist’s mysterious song really mean? In order to find out the answers to these questions, Renata needs to learn about herself, and overcome her past mistakes. Everyone has secrets and problems. How do we overcome them and build a better life for us and those around us? Renata needs to work that out – and she’s going to take you along on her magical journey of self-discovery… This is a story of true love amid the seagulls!