ELEMENTAL (Calico Series)

Elemental
(Calico Series)
Two Lines Press — 9th March 2021
ISBN: 9781949641110
— Paperback — 240 pp.
Cover Design: Crisis


The eight stories of this anthology span the globe and language, but also span a wide range of approaches to the Elemental theme. Most approach the term from in the classical sense of the Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, but others also incorporate actual physical elements from the Periodic Table. Though not ever speculative, the literary tales frequently incorporate magical realism into the plots, with nods to mythology. Some of the authors chose to make the elements into something akin to characters themselves. Many place the elemental theme into the central turning point of the plot or character development. Others treat the theme of elemental more subtly, and some also approach it in broad terms of how humanity is impacted as a part of nature – even when humanity tries to bend nature to its will.

In this sense Elemental is very much an ecological anthology, a look at how humans impact the abiotic environment and vice versa. Like all literature, it’s also at heart an investigation of humans, their interactions and foibles. More particularly to the anthology’s theme, it’s often about humans trying to find connection and freedom in the natural world.

The stories span vastly different styles, but all appear beautifully rendered into English. Each story begins with a title page, featuring a duo-toned photo and a quote from the story that both connect to the Elemental theme. Most enjoyably, the quote is rendered not just in the English translation, but in the original language script as well.

I enjoyed and appreciated some stories more than others, of course, but I would not say there’s a bad story in this bunch. For most it’s their first appearance in English, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, many are actually excerpts from novel-length works. In retrospect after reading, this isn’t surprising, as many of these worked for me as themed mood pieces, but the ‘plots’ often felt unresolved, fragmentary. I dislike excerpts for precisely this reason. On the other hand, I can give a pass to excerpting in this case of literature in translation, given the full texts are otherwise just not accessible to me. This has given me a chance to discover several new voices. However, now let’s get the actual full works published. I wish the editors (who are the editors by the way? – it’s not actually credited anywhere) had indicated when works were excerpts or not. An appendix does provide nice biographies on the authors and their translators.

On to thoughts on the individual selections:

“Precious Stones” by Erika Kobayashi, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom — The anthology starts with the longest work, one of the best, and one representative of the varied styles and approaches to the elemental theme. Its length is particularly well used to explore a varied complexity beyond what the other shorter works here have room to offer. It’s a hard one to summarize. A woman experiences vivid dreams of her deceased grandmother, who simultaneously in those past moments has visions of a future granddaughter there regarding her. The two seem linked by an inherited jewel, the last real remnant of a jeweler family that previously lost all. With her family beset with cancer across generations, the woman, her mother, and her sisters visit a spa/shrine with a radium pool that is fabled to cure all sorts of ailments. But the sisters also trade urban legend tails of an ageless man who wanders a housing development near their home and tunnels being drilled into the Earth. A man who it is said can also help cure diseases through sex. How does this all come together? You’ll have to read; it is fantastic. The theme tackles themes of family, illness, and inheritance in a cultural context that references a famous, mythical poet who is linked to the shrine. It introduces elements that crop up in other stories in the collection: the magical realism, nods to mythology, and of course approaches to the theme of elements earth and water.

“Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth” by Farkhondeh Aghaei, translated from the Persian by Michelle Quay — After meeting an Iranian man while abroad, a woman returns home to familial expectations that she will marry him. The parents of the couple arrange her to visit the home of his parents and make a good impression, despite her lack of enthusiasm. During a visit, a sudden storm and flash flood sweep her away to the banks of a river, where other moss-covered women have been deposited. What begins as a very conventional story goes into fantastical, symbolic directions with a feminist viewpoint. A later story uses a similar idea of natural climatic elements sweeping someone away.

“Ankomst” by Gøhril Gabrielsen, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin — A touching fragment featuring a woman who has been deposited at the Northern edges of the world, 100s of kilometers from any other human contact, to study birds and climatic patterns. Despite this isolation, she keeps contact with her partner who is scheduled to soon join her there, but she also uses this isolation to become reawakened by the natural world and its staggering power and beauty.

“We Have Lived Here Since We Were Born” by Andreas Moster, translated from the German by Rachel Farmer — A man visits a mining operation to oversee/check up on their status/progress. This is another example of a story that starts somewhat conventionally, but proceeds into directions increasingly surreal and perhaps magical. It also is one heavily influenced by mythology. The man arrives accompanied by a group of women who hold much of his attention, but then as he sees more of the mining operation, his focus turns to a ferryman there on the site. The story climaxes with a scheduled blasting at the mine that wrecks havoc and a howling (an element in common here with the final story in the collection). In the final pages the mountain itself becomes personified as a character. It’s a strange story, and I wish I got the mythological references more, but it also serves well for the themes of humanity trying to plunder the Earth and the effects.

“Lalana” by Michèle Rakotoson, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette — One of at least two stories in the collection particularly tied to location in a way that stresses how much a local landscape can change over time. Yet, some things never change. This story, set in the author’s native Madagascar, touches (among other things) on AIDS and its effects on society and individuals there. The native location (earth) and how it affects people touches the Elemental theme here, but in a way so to does HIV as a natural element of ecology.

“Jamshid Khan” by Bakhtiyar Ali, translated from the Kurdish by Basir Borhani and Shirzad Alipour — A second story with a prcharacter being swept away. In this case a man, a political prisoner and uncle of the story’s narrator, who escapes prison and subsequent troubles by simply catching his emaciated frame up in the wind like a kite to blow away. Similar to Aghaei’s prior story, it’s a story of politically symbolic magical realism.

“Place Memory” by Dorota Brauntsch, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye — Like “Lalana” this story also has a strong sense of place. Brauntsch touches more firmly and simply on the concept that humans can alter landscapes into things unrecognizable. It’s a melancholy story on things that can be lost, but also sweet in terms of memory that can still be held and ways that environment can still persist despite alteration. More of a mood piece than any other in the collection, but one of my favorite offerings.

“The Weather Woman” by Tamar Weiss-Gabbay, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen — A story that again touches on the theme of how the natural world resists human attempts at taming. In this case it revolves around the concept of a weather forecaster, how meteorologists can understandably get things wrong. But the general population refuses to accept the unpredictable nature of … well, nature … and demands our advanced civilization should bend things to 100% accurate foresight if not absolute control. A town facing flooding installs a pipeline to help prevent disasters, and the meteorologist becomes involved more in this when the engineering infrastructure ends up producing an annoying howling they want gone.

This is the first offering from the Calico Series put out by Two Lines Press and the NEA that I’ve read, but it is the third to be published in their roughly year-old, biannual series.

“While each Calico book will zoom in on specific styles, topics, and regions, the series will build into a composite portrait of today’s vast and rich literary landscape. What’s more, Calico books explore aspects of the present moment without the usual limitations of book publishing: genre, form, style, or a single author. We asked ourselves: What would we like to read that’s not being published? The result is Calico. We hope you enjoy it too.”

—Sarah Coolidge, Associate Editor

I’ll have to go back and read the first (Chinese speculative fiction), and though I’m uninterested in the second, poetry fans should appreciate its new Arabic poetry selections. The fourth volume, due out in September 2021 is Cuíer, a collection of Queer Brazil writing (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction alike). It can be preordered here, and I’ll look forward to checking the fiction and nonfiction in it out at least.


TRAM 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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Tram 83
By Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated by Roland Glasser
Deep Vellum Press – September 2015
ISBN 9781941920046 – 224 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


“I trained as a historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory. Historical characters are my waymarks. But baby-chicks, diggers, famished students, tourists, and…”
“I’m familiar with that view of things. We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African Literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be more fucking in African literature too!”
– pp. 45-46.
Congolese, first-time novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila may well be brilliant; his Man Booker Prize-nominated Tram 83 certainly is brilliance, African literature of honest and refreshing exuberance. Published two years ago in French, Tram 83 has garnered worldwide attention, and was published this last year in translation by Roland Glasser through the nonprofit literary arts press Deep Vellum. I’ve previously reviewed a collection of Shishkin stories from these fantastic publishers of contemporary translations into English, and I have a trove of other releases to soon read and review. They are a press that I have quickly became excited about, and Tram 83 only solidifies my appreciation of the benefit they provide readers in the United States.
This novel takes its name from the fictional, infamous nightclub of an unnamed African city-state where underworld elements of squalor, corruption, and opportunity gather in a haze of drugs, sexuality, philosophy, and politics. Trapped in a sociopolitical culture of perpetual succession, residents of the city and visitors alike compete in wild schemes of profiteering from the exploitation of the land’s natural mineral resources by the de facto ‘dissident General’ who sits in power.
Growing up – and remaining – in the city, Requiem is a realist, seeing a world past redemption: “The roads that lead to truth and honesty are cut by flooding, filth, dog turds, lies, and black-outs…” A scam artist dreaming of attaining more power in the broken existence personified by the drunken dances and excess of Tram 83, Requiem’s outlook is challenged by the arrival of his childhood friend Lucien, an aspiring writer and intellectual, looking to change the world through a literature of honest Truth.
The plot to Tram 83 is loose, ill-defined and nearly lost in the jazz-like improvisational, poetic style to the text:
 In the distance: first light, music, fatwas, angelus bells, the laughter of the post-adolescent baby-chicks, the single-mamas with spoiled breasts, the Tram busgirls and waitresses, the strike and its students, the desperados and their dogs, the dissident rebels and their desire for rape, the local mayor bringing out his fifteen sacks of heterogenite, the publisher with a single-mama-post-baby-chick, the screeching of the rails, the tragic lamentations of the Railroad Diva, the haze, the melancholy of a life premeditated.
The majority of the text is beautiful dialogue, and like the text that I’ve opened this review with, character individualities become blurred in their similarities of speaking, despite very different social status, beliefs, or behaviors. What Mujila does here is show just how fully the ‘vibe’ of this city – of Tram 83 – takes over the characters regardless of their background. They become defined by the overriding nature of their environment. This highlights that while frenetic and colorful style/language are major components to Tram 83, these are stressed to fully realize the novel’s themes and symbolism.
Full of contradiction like African literature and many aspects of the continent and its very diverse cultures, Mujila’s novel is darkly comic, seemingly written to both ‘reestablish a truth’ that transcends African literature, while also playing with its tropes in a surreal mix of philosophy, friendship, and criminal exploitation. Battling contradictions become allegorized in the characters of Lucien & Requiem. For instance, the novel has an edge of masculine rawness: women are mostly prostitutes, another resource – in the form of baby-chicks or single-mamas – for profiteering and power. On the one hand this conveys a brutal reality of a cultural condition. At the same time this fails to suggest a way forward past a history of collective misogynistic memory. Echoing the resigned despair of Requiem in opposition to the optimistic ambitions of Lucien, this is just one example of Tram 83‘s complexity.
I would have really liked the opportunity to read this in French in addition to Glasser’s translation. The peculiar magic and rhythm of the original language is surely lost through the simple act of translation. Indeed to my ears the simple title Tram 83 sounds far more evocative in French. Though I can’t directly compare the texts, I can say that Glasser at least achieves a poetry and pace in the English that is sublime in its own right, one that meshes perfectly with the other feverishly chaotic elements to the novel.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel has garnered far more than my admiration and enjoyment. In the time between my reading it and this review there have been numerous reviews/interpretations published in both well-respected professional venues and from everyday readers alike. Lovers of literature, new to African lit or not, should check this out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0143126687
656 pages, paperback
Published 27th May 2014
Source: Goodreads

The truth about The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is that its hype remains inexplicable to me. This is novel that has gotten a lot of press and fanfare, with huge sales throughout Europe. However, any potential readers out there that are looking into it, I think it’s important for you to consider what the novel really is compared to what the hype and awards may imply. Dicker’s debut novel is an entertaining, easy read. It is a clever mystery, and genre fans could easily enjoy it as I largely did. I’m not convinced it is anything more though.
Marcus Goldman, a successful, young, first-time novelist turns to his friend and former mentor Harry Quebert when Marcus finds himself trapped in the midst of sophomore writer’s block, an impatient publisher, and a public that is starting to forget his celebrity.
Quebert, who went through similar difficulties continuing to write following the literary accolades of his debut novel, reassures Goldman with advice and vague recollections of Quebert’s inspiration to write. Goldman discovers this past inspiration involves a love affair his mentor had with a young girl decades ago, a girl who mysteriously went missing.
Trying to turn his own life around, Goldman is forced instead to question his entire relationship with Quebert when the body of the young girl, Nola, is found buried beside Quebert’s house with a draft copy of Quebert’s famous novel and Quebert is subsequently arrested for murder.
Goldman leaves New York to return to the town of his old college where Quebert teaches, abandoning his responsibilities and again fleeing his writer’s block out of loyalty to his friend. Goldman’s investigations into Nola’s disappearance and Quebert’s secret relationship with the girl opens a web of small town intrigue and secrets and give Goldman’s publisher’s a desperate idea of what his next book can be: a report on his investigation into the truth of the Harry Quebert affair and Nola’s death.
As a mystery novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is strong and entertaining. If a bit long, the read is at least straight-forward, engaging, and rapid. The story is kept complex and unpredictable through the inclusion of a small-town’s-worth of characters, all of whom it turns out are keeping some kind of secrets pertinent to the mystery and are keeping important details from Goldman during his investigations.
Dicker nicely makes his protagonist Goldman a brutally honest narrator, whose point of view is conveyed with a fair amount of self-depreciation. The directness of Goldman contrasts nicely with the ambiguous information parceled out by Quebert and the unreliability of all others Goldman interacts with. The murdered Nola is also a deeply compelling character, and despite the danger and taboo of their relationship, both Quebert and Nola are sympathetic and relatable.
Despite these excellent attributes, Dicker’s novel also comes across as disappointing. It’s feel can be best described as slick and hip, written by a young author who the reader can easily (though not necessarily accurately) associate with the novel’s POV protagonist, Goldman. The success of the novel throughout Europe and the awards it has attracted offer parallels to where Goldman sits at the novel’s start, and the reader can’t help but compare Quebert’s advice to Goldman regarding writing and grabbing ahold of readers to the methods employed by Dicker here. Clearly the parallel is something that Dicker intends.
The great mystery that remains for me – and seemingly others – is just WHY this novel has attracted such rave accolades other than it is was a hip item of the moment in Europe. It’s a decent mystery novel with a good voice. Is it particularly ‘literary’ or merit the ‘literary’ awards it has gotten? I often question whether any work was really the ‘best’ choice for awards, but with this the question rears particularly strong.
I make it a point to never read English translations of French books, being perfectly capable of reading them in French. Somehow I either missed that this was a translation when requesting, or made a rare exception because the synopsis sounded so intriguing. (And it is often more difficult, certainly more expensive, to find copies of anything in the original French here in the US).
After starting this I decided to get the original version, because I thought the language was far too simple, direct, and ‘non-literary’ based on how the book was being marketed for this to be a decent translation. Upon finishing it, composing my thoughts, and seeing other reactions, I see that this isn’t a fault of translation, it is how the language in French is as well.
Again, this would be fine if this were sold as a better-than-average mystery alone. But as anything more, I unfortunately just don’t see it. Ultimately the parallels between Quebert’s advice to Goldman that extend through this long novel finish with the point that books should close while leaving the reader wish the story would not end yet. Honestly, after reading the final chapters of the book as all the many secrets held by all the characters were revealed (indeed it seems like every person in town had some hand direct or indirect in Nola’s condition, murder, or its coverup), I was just wanting it to wrap up and end already.
Depending on your expectations when entering this novel,  you could easily either love it or be really disappointed. Regardless, the hype over this is frankly the real mystery of the Harry Quebert affair. However, the one and two-star pans of the novel don’t really do it justice either. If you just like a good entertaining mystery, this is worth a read, and I really do recommend it.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Penguin Books through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization, by Jacques Ellul

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization,
by Jaques Ellul
Translated by Willem H. Vanderburg
Publisher: U. of Toronto Press
ISBN: 1442626267
273 pages, paperback
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

This fascinating volume was not what I initially expected based on the provided summary and the title. It is not a well-developed treatise on the theme of Christianity in an age of economic globalization. At all. Rather than a cohesive whole, it is rather a transcription of separate studies on the books of Amos and James, commentaries with follow-up remarks to questions from Ellul’s audience. Though the theme of rich/poor comes up as one aspect in each study, that particular issue is not necessarily predominant. Additionally, in those sections that do address this theme, Ellul repeatedly points out that richness/poorness should not be understood merely in economic terms. Hence my disappointment with this volume solely consists of how it is being sold. If you are looking for a structured and complete exploration on the subtitle topic, I wouldn’t recommend this.

However, ignoring this subtitle and the emphasis of the blurb, this book is well worth reading, for Ellul’s writing is clear and well-reasoned, and his insights into both Amos and James are substantial, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Rather than an overall focus on economic disparities, what rather unites these texts more strongly and thoroughly is the simple message that God loves, and then consideration of what follows from this in God’s means of connecting with humanity and the rest of Creation.

In this way I found “On Being Rich and Poor” to be in some fashion an Apologetic, something that like Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” sets out to answer some of the common critiques of Christianity by defining what exactly the faith is. Here, Ellul delves into the texts of Amos and of James to clarify his interpretation of the texts and the unity of their messages across the span of the Old to New Testaments and its relation to both Christians and Jews. In contrast to defining Christianity, Ellul instead spends a lot of the text detailing what he thinks these books tell us about what/who God is, and how this is sometimes quite different from popular understandings. In another sense these two commentaries strive to point out the various ways Scripture has been abused through literal readings and ignorance of both historical context and nuances of the original languages.

Although not as ‘sold’, this is a tremendously good and approachable read, and would be ideal as the basis for group or individual Bible studies on Amos and/or on James. In addition, anyone with an interest in theology and interpretations of the Bible could gain valuable insight from Ellul’s thoughts, and it serves as a potentially useful tool for clarifying common misperceptions on the nature and ‘personality’ of God as portrayed by the Biblical authors.

Four Stars out of Five