My father didn’t want me to have her but in the end he gave in. My mother managed to persuade him he was overreacting. One evening, long after I was supposed to be in bed, I sat in the dark at the top of the stairs and listened to them arguing about her. ‘I won’t have it in the house,’ said my father. ‘You don’t want to encourage him, do you? That’s exactly how these things start.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ my mother countered. ‘He’s only seven. He’ll have forgotten all about it in a week.’

I understood that my father was angry, but I didn’t know why. I had never heard my mother call my father ridiculous before, and the idea that I was the source of conflict between my parents was unnerving but strangely thrilling. Not that I dwelled on the matter for long. What mattered to me was not the argument, but who would win it.

Her name was Marina Blue and I loved her on sight. In a world that was confusing and occasionally frightening, she gave my heart a focus. In a shop full of bisque-headed mannequins, it was she who brought the others to life.

In reality she was nothing special. Dolls like Marina Blue roll off the production lines in their thousands and are of little value to the collector. Yet there was something, even so, that set her apart from such generalities. She drew the eye, as all things born of sentient creativity are bound to draw the eye. She had presence. More than that, she had dignity. I knew from the moment I saw her that she would change my life.

The town I grew up in was small, not much more than a village. There were three pubs and a small hotel, one main shopping street and the old cinema, which had recently been converted into an indoor antiques market. There were two parks. One was at the top of the town close to the Rivermead housing estate and had infamously been the site of an abduction. The other, whose official, unsuitable title was the Heathfield Pleasure Gardens, was frequented by drug users and petty criminals through the hours of darkness and turned instantly to quagmire whenever it rained. I was not allowed to play in either of the parks. I was not allowed to go into town at all unless my mother was with me.

The school I attended was called Martens. I used to believe it had acquired its name from the dozens of house martins that nested beneath the eaves, though when I was older I discovered it was named after its founder, a Pieter Martens who came to Britain from Copenhagen to study at Oxford. At the time I was there, the school still had outside toilets and that species of enormous, green-painted radiator that dated from before the war. There were around fifty pupils. My ordeal did not properly begin until I graduated to St Merriat’s, the upper school, but there were intimations of trouble, even so. My classmates were growing quickly. In spite of their apple cheeks and choirboys’ voices, they had started to mutate into men. I was a moon-faced, pot-bellied, grub-shaped boy with wet-looking hair and glasses. Still less than four feet tall, I was too weak to kick a football, too small to scramble a fence. Boys who had happily included me in their games just the summer before began to take note of these differences, and draw away.

The school day ended at three. My mother collected me at the gate and afterwards we would go shopping. Not the serious, fortnightly shopping that required a car but small, pleasurable errands such as buying sewing thread or fruit cake or the Radio Times. My favourite shop was Prendergast’s, the stationer’s, where my mother bought her writing paper and envelopes, and which doubled as a toy shop. I was allowed to browse the shelves while she completed her purchases. I soon learned that if I mentioned any particular toy often enough, I would usually be given it eventually. On the day I first saw Marina Blue sitting in Prendergast’s window, there were still a full three months to go before my eighth birthday. I immediately became convinced that someone would buy the doll before then, that I would never see her again. It never entered my head that there was more than one Marina Blue, that in all probability there was an entire warehouse stacked with them. Her eyes were a deep sapphire, her glossy, waist-length hair the perfect shade of chestnut brown. Her head, hands and feet were made of unglazed bisque porcelain, her body of cotton twill stuffed with kapok. She wore baggy, bell-bottomed trousers and a red hooded top. Her square-heeled, lace-up ankle boots were sewn from real leather. I felt weak and slightly nauseous at the sight of her, as if I were about to faint.

‘Come along Andrew, don’t dawdle. We need to get to the bakery before it closes.’ My mother grabbed me by the hand and tried to pull me away from the window, but I resisted her. For perhaps the first time in my life I was torn between my usual habit of compliance and the dark and delicate thrust of my own desires.

‘I want to go inside,’ I wheedled. ‘I want to see the little girl in red.’ ‘That’s a doll,’ said my mother. She glanced quickly towards the window display and then away again. ‘Dolls are for girls.’

I felt close to tears. ‘It’s nearly my birthday,’ I said. ‘That’s what I want.’

‘You’ll change your mind long before that. You know what you’re like.’

In fact this was untrue and both of us knew it. I had always been a child who loved certainty. I gazed at my mother in despair, then allowed myself to be led away in the direction of the bakery. In the weeks that followed, I made sure to mention Marina Blue every day, speaking with the studied nonchalance I had previously employed in pursuit of other treasures I had coveted: the miniature kaleidoscope, the magnetic dragonflies, the pewter monkey. In its early stages, my gambit met with a seeming indifference that was easily the equal of my own. Then, with less than a fortnight to go before the day itself, I overheard my mother and father having their argument. This was the endgame and I knew it. When I finally sneaked off to bed that night it was in the expectation and fevered hope that the victory was mine.

She came in a cardboard box, nestled in yellow crêpe.

‘It could be valuable one day,’ my father said. ‘You know what they say about antiques of the future.’ He rubbed his hands together as if he were cold.

‘I hope this is still what you want,’ my mother added.

I felt as if something was expected of me – a particular turn of phrase in expression of gratitude – but I was too marvellously overwhelmed to say anything at all. I briefly fingered Marina Blue’s red jacket then put the lid back on her box. I took exaggerated pleasure in the other gifts I had been given: a mint-green anorak, a pack of playing cards on the theme of capital cities, a carton of sugar mice. I blew out the candles on my birthday cake and afterwards the three of us played charades. It wasn’t until later, alone in my bedroom, that I felt able to hold her. She felt heavy in my arms and wonderfully real. Her hair smelled of pinewood. When I laid her on her back, her eyes slid closed.

I placed her box gently on the chair beside my bed. Even with the lid on, I found I could remember her in every detail.

A great deal has been written on dolls. There are volumes on the history of dolls, the provenance of dolls, the value of dolls, heavy catalogues filled with lavish illustrations, images that quicken the blood and stimulate desire. I have read that the doll is a surrogate: for friendship or for family, for love. Most children grow out of dolls eventually, but not the collector. The true collector, like the poet or the idiot, remains prey to the intensified sensibilities of childhood until the day they die.

In the introduction to her memoir, A Brief History of Wonderland, Doris Schaefer, the renowned doll collector and curator of the Museum of Childhood in Bad Homburg describes the moment when she first saw an Ernst Siegler ‘Gabi’ doll at an auction in Frankfurt. Schaefer was thirty years old at the time, a partner at law with a flourishing practice, but her encounter with the doll was an epiphany. She gave up the law the following year and devoted her life to the creation of the museum.

I am four feet nine inches tall. Most of the puppy fat fell away in time, but because of my restricted height I still appeared round. In addition to that I wore heavy National Health spectacles, which seemed to accentuate both my shortness of stature and my pudgy physique. For my sixteenth birthday my parents gave me a pair of glasses with tinted rectangular lenses and narrow black frames. The new glasses streamlined my moon face, at least a little, but did not stop me resembling a diminutive schoolmaster, which is what everyone assumed I would become.
Most of my classmates called me the Dwarf, though there were other names, too. I knew from an early age there was no point in my even trying to belong, that aspiring to be like them would, in some mysterious way, increase their contempt. Rather I regarded my schoolfellows as members of another tribe, whose customs were mysterious and filled with savagery.

My intelligence I took for granted. I enjoyed all my school subjects, but my true interests already lay elsewhere. The school library had little to offer me, but the public library in Welton was surprisingly well-stocked. There was also Ponchinella, a monthly magazine filled with articles on all aspects of dolls and doll collecting. I saved my pocket money so I could buy it the day it came out. I read each new issue from cover to cover and then read it again.
Even my father came gradually to accept that my passion for dolls was not something I was about to grow out of. In the end he stopped worrying about me. I think he was able to come to terms with my obsession by convincing himself that my hobby would eventually pay off. A lifetime in business had taught him that anything can become valuable, given time and the right circumstances, be it piggy banks or Victorian underwear or used beer bottles. One memorable Christmas he presented me with Merrick’s Price Guide to World Dolls, an indispensable textbook that had thus far been well beyond my means.

‘We ’ll have you working for Christie’s at this rate,’ he said. He smiled at me, and it was a good smile, open and friendly and relaxed. I don’t think I was ever the son he had imagined for himself, but we always found plenty to talk about and, in any case, I liked my father. I didn’t see any reason to trouble his mind by explaining that the goal of the true collector is not the accumulation of riches, but the consummation of passion.

I remember how my father adored his cars, both the steel-blue Volvo he drove for work and the vintage Jaguar that lived in the garage and was taken out only at weekends. The Jaguar was racing green with chrome trim and soft, chestnut leather upholstery. My father cleaned the Jaguar once a fortnight without fail. I was sometimes allowed to buff the upholstery, using a chamois leather moistened with a yellow polish called Heller’s Wax that came in a tin. I loved the smell of the Heller’s, resinous and woody as ambergris. I think my father hoped that by letting me help him with the Jaguar he might be able to spark my interest in cars in general, but although I listened carefully in an effort to please him, I invariably forgot most of what he told me more or less as soon as we went back inside.

I never learned to drive, and after my father died I stopped pretending I ever would. By the time of his death, both the Jaguar and the Volvo had been sold. He ran an Audi saloon instead, a car he always despised, though I never knew why.

I have always found it interesting, the way people and their vehicles can become inseparable in the mind. My dear friend Clarence drives a white Ford van with a cracked rear windscreen and a large dent in the passenger door. She flexes her muscles as she gets into the driver’s seat, like a soldier climbing into a tank. Often when I think of Clarence, I think of that action, the way the van has become identified for me with her strength, her chaotic yet indefatigable way of being.

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Malin Persson Giolito’s award-winning novel, QUICKSAND, named a best book of the year by NPR and soon to be a Netflix original series is out in paperback August 7th. Here’s a quick sneak peek!


Lying next to the left-hand row of desks is Dennis; as usual he’s wearing a graphic tee, jeans from a big-box store, and untied tennis shoes. Dennis is from Uganda. He says he’s seventeen, but he looks like a fat twenty-five year old. He’s a student in the trade school, and he lives in Sollentuna in a home for people like him. Samir has ended up next to him, on his side. Samir and I are in the same class because Samir managed to be accepted to our school’s special program in international economics and social sciences.

Up at the lectern is Christer, our homeroom teacher and self-described social reformer. His mug has overturned and coffee is dripping onto the leg of his pants. Amanda, no more than two meters away, is sitting propped against the radiator under the window. Just a few minutes ago, she was all cashmere, white gold, and sandals. The diamond earrings she received when we were confirmed are still sparkling in the early-summer sunshine. But now you might think she was covered in mud. I am sitting on the floor in the middle of the classroom. In my lap is Sebastian, the son of the richest man in Sweden, Claes Fagerman.

The people in this room do not go together. People like us don’t usually spend time together. Maybe on a metro platform during a taxi-driver strike, or in the dining car on a train, but not in a classroom.

It smells like rotten eggs. The air is hazy and gray with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got even as much as a bruise.

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Acclaimed novelist Therese Bohman, author of The Other Woman and Drowned, discusses her most recent book Eventide, an astute novel following the life of an art professor at Stockholm University as she navigates the academic world, with its undercurrents of sexuality, competition, deceit, and fear.

Eventide is your third novel. How has fiction writing changed for you since your debut?

I would say it has gotten easier and more difficult at the same time. In one way, I feel much freer than when I wrote my first novel. Then, my main focus was on the story; now I am more interested in the characters and their thoughts and feelings—sometimes I have to stop myself from telling everything that enters my mind about them. The story is still there, but there is more flesh to the bones now. On the other hand, it is difficult to write when people expect things from you—writing the debut novel is a bliss in that way; no one expects anything from you.

EventideYou are a columnist for Expressen, writing about literature, art, culture, and fashion. Did your work in art criticism help in writing Eventide?

Yes, in some ways. Karolina in Eventide also writes for a Swedish newspaper, so it helped me with writing about the very special world that the culture-media context is. My interest in art however is mainly a result of reading a lot on my own—I am very interested in the symbolist and decadent art from the fin de siècle-era, and I loved putting it into a novel.

Karolina has what can be considered politically incorrect opinions about feminism and its place in art criticism. What do you think about the state of feminism in academia and the state of feminism in Sweden? What about beyond Sweden?

In Sweden almost everyone in the public sphere calls themselves feminists, and there is a very positive attitude towards everything regarding feminism. In Eventide Karolina uses the system for her career, the same way her nemesis at the university does—I think that sometimes is the case in Sweden: it pays to be a feminist. I also think that Swedish feminism suffers from always regarding women as victims, and fails to see the progress that actually has been made.

In what ways is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

When I started writing Eventide, I wanted to write a pleasant, funny, feel-good novel. That’s the original reason for it to take place at a university: I love novels and films set in a university, and I thought I’d write like a mix of them (Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, John Williams’s Stoner, the movies Wonder Boys, Mona Lisa Smile, Dead Poets Society…). But then Eventide turned much darker than planned. Sometimes felt as if the book wrote itself and I was a passenger on the ride. I am very intuitive in my writing, and sometimes it feels like the text has a will of its own that takes the story in directions I wouldn’t have thought of.

Stockholm is almost a character in itself in the novel. What are your personal ties to the city, and do you think Karolina would be a different character if she lived somewhere else?

I have lived in Stockholm for almost ten years, and I like it here, though I had to struggle a bit with it: I tried moving here twice when I was younger and hated it both times. I just felt lonely and thought people were hard to get to know and that it was a cold and hard city. Karolina has the same experience as I, coming from a small town and working-class background. Everything in her existence depends on her moving from the place where she was born, going to university, and creating a whole new life for herself.

What would you like readers to take away from Eventide?

I am very fond of Karolina, and I think she is very human. Not always a nice person, not acting exemplary, but I hope that readers will take her to their hearts, even if a bit reluctantly.

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Inspired by true events, this best-selling Israeli novel traces a complex web of love triangles and family secrets across generations and borders, illuminating diverse facets of life in the Middle East.

Below Moshe discusses the genesis of The Diamond Setter.

A Note From the Author:

I began writing The Diamond Setter in 2008, shortly after starting work as an apprentice in my father’s jewelry shop, not far from Plonit Alley in Tel Aviv. For three years I sat every day at a small workbench and learned the art of jewelry making.

One day the shopkeepers of the old storefronts in the building learned that it was to be converted into a boutique hotel. My father refused to get worked up. He’d spent more than four decades in the shop that had been opened by his father, Moshe Sakal, who arrived in Tel Aviv from Damascus, and he firmly believed that no financial calculations or real estate deals could uproot his little business. But sometimes the winds of change are stronger than willpower. As fate would have it, on the day I wrote the very last line of the novel—in January of 2014—my father shuttered the family business and moved to its new, more spacious location in a nearby street.

During my days as a jeweler’s apprentice, I immersed myself in books about diamonds and precious stones. Their tales seemed like human adventures, and I followed my curiosity and amusement to track down the histories of these treasures, which had surfaced in India or South Africa and made their way through a succession of owners—both royalty and commoners—whose fates they either blessed or cursed.

I also began researching other topics central to the novel, including the intertwined histories of Tel Aviv and Jaffa throughout the twentieth century, and the stories of immigrants from Syria and Egypt, in which I often found a fascinating blend of East and West. In the summer of 2011, while I studied places that no longer exist, and contemplated people long gone, the social protest movement began simmering in Israel. Ironically, the movement was inspired by the popular uprisings in neighboring countries that Israelis had turned their backs on for generations.

While on hiatus from The Diamond Setter, I wrote another novel, Yolanda, which is largely based on the life of my grandmother, a native of Cairo. The book depicts a group of Egyptian-born Levantines who have lived in Israel for six decades or more, yet still, feel exiled there. They exist in a sort of double Diaspora, having lived as Francophones in Cairo, and then filled with nostalgia for Cairo once they came to Israel.

In The Diamond Setter, unlike in Yolanda, there is no ignoring the characters’ immediate geographic sphere. My Syrian grandparents’ family had always talked about the days of open borders, when the people who dwelled in this region—at least those who belonged to a certain class—could move freely from one country to another, traveling from Jaffa to Cairo, from Beirut to Haifa, from Hebron to Damascus. Anyone who lived in Palestine before 1948, when the State of Israel was established, had tales of brave relationships that survived even the bloodiest of times, love affairs and friendships between Jews and Arabs, and cooperation—economic and otherwise—even as the two nationalist movements hardened their stances and stepped up their acts of hostility.

When I was about ten, I once walked past a house on Sha’arei Nikanor Street, in Jaffa, with my father. I remember him pointing and saying, “This is where Grandfather’s best friend lived.” That memory, as well as the story of Hassan Hijazi, a young Syrian teacher who managed to get into Israel in 2011 and make his way to Jaffa, where he explored his family’s roots, contributed significantly to my writing. I was fascinated not only by Hijazi’s courage but by the symbolism of his act. He gave my story a dimension it had lacked and allowed me to complete the plot and integrate multiple facets of this country and its surroundings. Syria has changed course since then and is now mired in a bloody civil war whose end, as I write these words, is nowhere to be seen. I often think about Damascus, my grandfather’s beloved city, and about his dream of traveling there with me—a dream that will never come true.

While writing The Diamond Setter I also finally learned Arabic, from a Jaffoite named Ali al-Azhari. I was amazed by all the raised eyebrows when people heard how I was spending my summer (“Arabic? What for?”), even when I explained that it was my father’s native tongue, the language of our neighbors, a rich and beautiful language.

Another source of inspiration was Yehuda Burla’s book Chanteuse, about the young female singers and musicians who performed in Damascus during the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. These performers, whose stories Burla staunchly recounts without any reproof or moralizing, were Jewish-Arab geishas of a sort, conducting relationships with eminent Arab men. The Jewish community disparaged and condemned them, yet there was also a measure of esteem and gratitude since the young women were able to give their community significant help in times of economic hardship and political challenges.

A fellowship from the Fulbright Foundation’s United States-Israel Educational Foundation to support my participation in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa enabled me to conduct comprehensive research on Palestinian refugees throughout the Arab world from 1948 to the present.

My grandfather, Moshe Sakal, was born in Damascus near the end of the First World War, and as a young man he taught French at the Alliance Française and worked at the stock exchange. He also wrote fiction, in Arabic, some of which was published in the Syrian press. The term “coexistence” does not begin to express the way my family lived in Damascus. They were, quite simply, locals. When they came to Israel, they were fortunate enough not to be sent to one of the Ma’abarot (Israel’s notoriously harsh “transition camps” for new immigrants in the 1950s), as they had the means to purchase a small apartment in Tel Aviv. Were they subjected to socio-economic discrimination? No. Did my father, who grew up in the heart of urban Tel Aviv, suffer from racism? Not at all. And yet something was missing. And that thing, which I have only recently begun to acknowledge as having left a void in my family, was the bond with Arabic culture and language, the affinity between the old and new homes.

Some might view this sort of loss as the inevitable collateral damage of immigration. Be that as it may, my writing is informed by my awareness of the hollowed roots in my family, and by memories of my grandfather, who stopped writing on the day he came to Israel.

Ready to dive into The Diamond Setter? Click here to read an excerpt and order your copy today!

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Download additional classroom material for Hitler My Neighbor:

WATCH: Christiane Amanpour interviews Edgar Feuchtwanger


WATCH: Hitler My Neighbor Documentary

At the age of 87, Edgar shares his remarkable story for the first time in this fascinating documentary. Returning to Munich to retrace the childhood he left behind, Edgar chronicles his pre-war experience in the provincial town that housed one of the most merciless and cruel men in history.


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Thank you for stopping by the Other Press Booth at this year’s NCTE and picking up a copy of Edgar Feuchtwanger’s Hitler My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1939We would love to know what you think of the book and how you plan to use it with your students. Fill out the form below, and you’ll be entered to win a set of books for your classroom. And make sure to scroll down for videos and additional material you can share with your class!

Very best,

Mona & Christie

Download additional classroom material for Hitler My Neighbor:


WATCH: Christiane Amanpour interviews Edgar Feuchtwanger


WATCH: Hitler My Neighbor Documentary

At the age of 87, Edgar shares his remarkable story for the first time in this fascinating documentary. Returning to Munich to retrace the childhood he left behind, Edgar chronicles his pre-war experience in the provincial town that housed one of the most merciless and cruel men in history.


read full text

Book Group Members:

I would love to schedule time to chat with you and your book group about my novel, The Honeymoon. It tells the story of the late-life marriage of the nineteenth-century novelist George Eliot, or Marian Evans, her real name, to a handsome young man twenty years her junior—and its near-tragic consequences. I can speak with you about George Eliot—her life, her work (which includes Middlemarch and Silas Marner), her romantic affairs—and all the insights I gained during my journey writing about her.

If you are a part of a book club, or if you’d like to chat with me about The Honeymoon, please fill out the form below so we can get our chat scheduled. I will get back to you to confirm!

Interested in knowing more about The Honeymoon? Then scroll beyond the form.

All my best,
Dinitia Smith

More about The Honeymoon

Very little is known about this marriage because Eliot and her husband, John Cross, attempted to cover up the events that occurred on their honeymoon in Venice. As I tried to understand what had happened, I also grew interested in Eliot’s past and in her evolution as a woman. She was a very plain, uneducated country girl who taught herself literature, philosophy, and foreign languages—Latin, Greek, Italian, German, and Hebrew—eventually becoming the most famous writer in the land, and an extremely wealthy woman. Before she became a novelist, she was the brilliant editor of the Westminster Review, an important literary journal, but anonymously, because at that time a woman couldn’t be an editor of a magazine. The public and the investors wouldn’t stand for it.

Still, she longed to be a novelist. She was also a passionate and sexual person, and she fell in love with several men who spurned her, perhaps because she was homely. Then, one day, she met the journalist George Henry Lewes, and they fell in love. Lewes was already married and, because of a legal loophole, couldn’t get a divorce. But he adored Eliot and convinced her that she could write, and he sustained her devotedly for twenty-six years. When he died, Eliot thought her life was over, until handsome, young John Walter Cross persuaded her to marry him.

The Honeymoon is a novel about sex and aging, and about confronting the loss of one’s life partner. But it’s also a novel about the complex nature of redemption, and about the many different kinds of love that can exist within us all.

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The New York Times recommends six new paperbacks out this week for you to check out, including Sarah Bakewell’s bestselling At the Existentialist Café:

AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails,by Sarah Bakewell. (Other Press, $17.95.)Bakewell’s history, one of the Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2016, serves as a collective biography of a half-dozen preeminent existentialist philosophers, including Heidegger, Sartre and de Beauvoir. Her lucid account has a particular focus on the political and moral crises of the 1930s and ’40s that shaped her subjects’ work.

You can see the other books on the list here.

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Terrie Akers, Marketing Director

After two months of book conferences and indie bookstore visits, my summer reading pile is tall and teetering. My first visit to the new Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn led me to My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. Statovci immigrated with his family from Kosovo to Sweden when he was a child, and his novel is a surreal and heartbreaking depiction of the immigrant experience and the meaning of love and family. While in Chicago for the American Library Association annual meeting, I picked up a copy of the collected poetry of Kenneth Koch at 57th Street Books, a massive tome that I’ll been dipping in and out of all summer. At Seminary Co-op, store manager Kevin Elliott recommended The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill, which had already been sitting on my shelf for about six months, and I was finally inspired to crack it open; it’s as good (and weird) as Kevin promised.

I’m currently reading Rupert Thomson’s latest, Never Anyone But You, a novel based on the lives of two revolutionary female artists who challenged the conventions of art and gender in their 1940s-France milieu. It’ll be out from Other Press next May. And on deck to carry me through the rest of the season are several backlist books I’ve been meaning to read for ages: Pnin (which I picked up at Books on the Square in Providence), Wide Saragasso Sea (Molasses Books in Brooklyn), and The Story of a New Name (on loan from a friend).

Rachel Aspden, author of Generation Revolution

I’d always rather be by the water, summer or winter, and this summer, even when I’m reluctantly in the city, my reading is marine. Philip Hoare writes with sensitivity and depth about his own and others’ obsessions with the sea. His new book, Risingtidefallingstar, promises tales of “drowned poets, selkies and cetaceans and mythic birds,” and the connections between our 60% water bodies and our 70% water-covered planet. And a friend with the best taste has recommended Norman Lewis’s Voices of the Old Sea, a portrait of the “almost medieval” life of a small Spanish fishing village after the second world war and before the advent of mass tourism. It features a “ghastly bar” presided over by a mummified dugong—the perfect place to hear these strange stories from the ocean.

Mona Bismuth, Marketing Associate

Histoire Mondiale de la France by Patrick Boucheron generated quite a stir in France when it was published earlier this year, and I am very excited to be able to dive into this content-heavy book this summer. With an approach that’s completely different from the national narrative and from the most popular French history books—usually offering a very negative vision of a self-loathing France—this book quickly became a best seller, with more than 85,000 copies sold as of June. According to Boucheron, France would not be the France we know without its history of immigration, and French culture would not be the same without the mix of cultures started centuries ago. Spanning from 34,000 BC to IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s 2012 scandal, this read seems essential for readers interested in European history, globalization as a historical phenomenon, and the sociological and political impacts of national storytelling.

But enough with the past, and as this sounds like a “banquet book,” next on my TBR list for the summer are speculative fiction and near-future novels exploring gender issues. In the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Unit, books such as Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke look very compelling.

Malin Persson Giolito, author of Quicksand

Right now I am reading the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, the indescribable (and yes, funny!) masterpieces about heroin, death, and childhood rape. You have probably heard that they’re good. They’re better, much better.

Some of the reads I need to do in order to prepare for the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in August are Fever by Deon Meyer and Who Will Catch Us As We Fall by Iman Verjee—we are doing a panel together on young voices in literature and yes, you are right, to work as a writer is the best possible way of living. I am also planning on re-reading Elsa Morante’s History, one of my all-time bests; it was far too long ago that I read it last.

Esther Kim, Associate Publicist

I’m currently reading Eileen Chang’s brilliant collection of short stories Love In A Fallen City. Call it my post–Hong Kong holiday reminiscing! Chang’s writing is beautiful and witty. I’m obsessed with how colors appear in her stories.

There’s lots of exciting work coming from the world of translated Korean literature (English PEN just named East Asia & SE Asia as their focus for the coming year, and LTI Korea is playing the long game with their sights set on a Nobel Prize), so this summer I’m planning to dive into all of the translated Korean literature I can get my paws on. That’ll include Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows and Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale.

Mark Mazower, author of What You Did Not Tell

The book I can’t wait to read is Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets—a panoramic oral history of the final years of the USSR and the aftermath. I’m always curious about new vehicles for historical stories. Exploring my own family’s Russian connections brought me back to Tchaikovsky’s 4th, and thence to a very belated discovery of the great Yevgeny Mravinsky, for half a century the principal conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic. There is a great portrait of him in his 50s—austerely powerful intellectual. And you can see him, magisterial into his 80s, on YouTube. Having ploughed my way recently through biographies of Vaughan Williams and Elgar, I am in the mood to tackle Gregor Tassie’s 2005 study, Yevgeny Mravinsky: The Noble Conductor, to learn how he navigated the choppy waters of Stalinist politics. Meantime, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat beckons enticingly.

Christie Michel, Marketing Associate

This summer I’ll be reading the books I picked up at some local shops in Chicago during ALA Annual. They include Byung-chul Han’s The Agony of Eros (from Seminary Co-op), bell hooks’s All About Love: New Visions (from Women & Children First), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (from 57th Street Books). I’m also really looking forward to some ARCs I picked up, including Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (forthcoming from Akashic in October) and White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht. If I have time (I won’t) I’ll read China Mieville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution and Kono Taeko’s Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories.

George Prochnik, author of The Impossible Exile and Stranger in a Strange Land

In these insanely distracting, necessarily alarming days, I’m trying to read as many books as possible that are not newsworthy. Why is it then that so many of them have something to do with Russia? I hesitate to speculate in case my thoughts are being secretly recorded.

Somehow or other I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina again and have just finished the bloody, enormously vivid hunting scene in which Stepan Arkadyevich and Levin bag a number of innocent snipe near a little aspen copse. I prefer the passages capturing Anna’s mounting intoxication by illicit desire. I have also been re-reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground just because, well, as the narrator declares: it’s worthwhile to speculate on what takes place “with people who know how to take revenge and generally how to stand up for themselves. Once they are overcome, say, by vengeful feeling, then for the time there is simply nothing left in their whole being but this feeling.”

It’s easy enough to understand why I felt bound to pick up Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece of paranoia and moral confusion, with its combustion chamber of colluding Russian revolutionaries. But I’ve also been surprised and enchanted by newer meditations on the Russian character and/or soul: Emmanuel Carrère’s compelling, My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir, is loosely concerned with the writer’s struggle to understand the world and his own life-choices, which veer between the darkly obsessive and sensually freewheeling. Many of the ruminations, in fact, have nothing to do with Russia—which is part of the book’s idiosyncratic allure. I’ve also just begun Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark,which thus far suggests an intricate, exquisite labyrinth circling the vicissitudes and subversive possibilities of love. Finally, in case the mad present moment threatens to slip too far from view, I want to read everything the wonderfully incisive Masha Gessen has written. It’s hard to choose between her many significant books. But I think I’ll begin with The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

Lauren Shekari, Rights Director

I’m notoriously bad at picking lighthearted beach reading! So many good books, who has time for mindless fluff?!?! So in keeping with that theme, I plan to read Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. I have been on a bit of a Baldwin bender lately, and his perspective on race in America feels every bit as relevant and vital today as it did when he was writing. 

Dinitia Smith, author of The Honeymoon

My summer reading has been, as usual, rather varied.

I’ve been re-reading the poet Ted Hughes’s wonderful translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as a possible prelude to a new fiction project. There is nothing like these stories—so full of passion and tragedy and beauty, exquisitely rendered in Hughes’s modern language, but retaining their classical authenticity. Among them are the stories of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, with a love so passionate that it results in the fusion of their two beings; of the forbidden love of Pyramis and Thisbe, the basis, of course, of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; of Phaeton’s desperate longing to know his father, the sun; and of Myrrha, and her tragic and incestuous relationship with her father, King Cinyras.

Some of my summer reading has been less successful. I read George Saunders’s, Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel much beloved by many people I respect. Parts of the book, those dealing directly with Abraham Lincoln’s mourning for his little son, Will, are very moving. But I found the rest of it almost incoherent and very hard-going indeed.

Another novel has been Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which has also been popular with my writer-colleagues. It’s really a series of linked stories about a writer teaching at writers’ conference in Athens, and the people she encounters there. Cusk employs some of the narrative techniques of one of my favorite authors, W. G. Sebald, that is, a narration by a central character of another character’s narration, sort of a narration-within-a narration. But for me, Cusk lacks the brilliant technique and the deep moral concern of Sebald, and her characters seemed cold and distant.

I am now reading Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, about a Wasp family wedding, and will go from there to Philipp Meyer’s Texas epic, The Son, as I’d like to know more about the history of that state.

So, in all, it’s a very mixed list indeed!

Caroline Sydney, Editorial Assistant

For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to a long flight so that I can tear through the end of Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, a disturbing and addictive examination of the psychology of love and sickness. In anticipation of Lucy Ives’s debut novel, Impossible Views of the World, I’m going back to some of her poetry—Anamnesis and The Hermit. I’m also looking forward to lazy weekend afternoons with A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma. Between now and the April release of Therese Bohman’s Eventide, I’ll be preparing by reading The Other Woman and Drowned. And, at last in paperback, At the Existentialist Café makes a great travel companion.

Rupert Thomson, author of Katherine Carlyle and Never Anyone But You

As usual, some of my reading is linked to books I’m writing, or thinking about writing, and some is an attempt to fill gaps in my knowledge. In acquainting myself with a classic I have never read before— Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights—I’ll be neatly killing two birds with one stone. While on the classics, I was recently inspired by my friend Hisham Matar to return to the work of Joseph Conrad. I have just read Lord Jim for the second time, and found it so gripping that I’m aiming to follow it up with either The Secret Agent or Nostromo. Coming right back up to date, I’m curious to explore the work of two American writers, both of whom have cult reputations. I’ll be reading Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl. Zambreno’s novel follows a young American woman as she struggles to negotiate contemporary London, and has been criticized for creating a protagonist who is “unlikable,” a criticism that makes no sense to me whatsoever. I’ll also be reading The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson’s searing meditation on the murder of her aunt, and on the trial of the man responsible.

Later this summer, I’m traveling to Tolstoy’s house, Yasnaya Polyana, for a three-day seminar. I’ll be taking A Confession and Other Religious Writingsan autobiographical work in which the great man investigates his feelings of desolation and estrangement from the world, and embarks on a quest for spiritual fulfillment. I’ll also take Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, a fictional memoir of the Russian writer-turned-dissident-politician. Finally, Jesse Ball’s imagination has intrigued me ever since I read a short story of his in the Paris Review a few years back, and I’m looking forward to his latest, the supposedly macabre A Cure for Suicide.

Maria Whelan, Publicist

This summer I’m heading to Cape Cod to visit my family and I picked up a copy of Dennis Lehane’s new novel, Since We Fell, to get back to my Massachusetts roots. I also hope to read The Idiot by Elif Batuman, The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, and The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy. In order to catch up with the rest of the world, I bought a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood when I was in Paris this spring (at Shakespeare and Company!) and plan to read it before diving into the new Hulu show.

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Enter now for your chance to win a copy of Nini Holmqvist’s The Unit.

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The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit

by Ninni Holmqvist

Giveaway ends August 15, 2017.

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Minae Mizumura’s second novel to be translated in English, Inheritance from Mother, comes out May 2, and today we’re pleased to share the gorgeous cover with you. We spoke to Kathleen DiGrado, the talent behind the cover, who had this to say:

“The design process was intuitive for me, so it’s difficult to describe. I wanted to hint at the design for Minae Mizumura’s previous work, A True Novel, so I was delighted to once again use the traditional Japanese crest frames from a wonderful book I have. I wanted it to look elegant but somewhat somber. It’s quite easy for cherry blossoms to come off as a cliché, but they really are an important part of Japanese culture, and certainly for the older generation. I thought if we could somehow simulate the blossoms and frames as if they were printed on rice paper, in an imperfect way, this would convey the inner complexities faced by the dutiful Japanese daughter. The gold foil stamp adds another layer of the glimmer of hope fading. Love, beauty, contempt, and longing…I hope the cover conveys at least some of those themes.”

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Read an excerpt from George Prochnik’s Stranger in a Strange Land in the New Yorker

A Guide to Religious Anarchy: Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalah


When I was growing up, I saw my father letting the flame of his Jewish identity burn down as low as it could go without extinguishing altogether. He viewed all formal aspects of Judaism with bemused indifference, alternating with sarcastic hostility; practicing Jews, he said, were perfect examples of people who, however smart they might be, “don’t have enough sense to step inside when it’s raining.” But my own experience of the American suburbs, where our family ended up at a moment when the remaining tracts of nature in the area were being steadily bulldozed and converted into new highways, malls, and subdivisions, left me with a lingering sense of spiritual absence. Almost all the history of my father’s family had been lost in the upheaval of their flight from Europe: I could not countenance the idea that our family would just step forever outside the nimbus or noose of Jewish identity as casually as it might step out of the car in a supermarket parking lot. I owed a debt to the dead, and I meant to pay. There was something intoxicating in the notion that I, the son of a non-Jewish mother and a non-observant father, might choose to blow on the flame of our Judaism through the actions of my own life, and so magnify its blaze no end.

I had a sense that this should be accomplished through an identification greater than mere cultural reference points—bageloxy—could supply. This made my actual encounters with observance all the more dispiriting. I hated praying. Orthodox synagogues were endlessly problematic in their intolerances. Reform services were intolerably denuded of authenticity. Either way, the services bored me silly. When I set out to study the canonical texts of Jewish belief, I discovered potent flashes of ideas and imagery, but there seemed, at last, just too much dross to plow through before getting to the sparkly bits. The books of the Bible were one thing, at least minus Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers. But the ritualized law seemed for the most part an object lesson in how to nurture obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This is where the writing of Gershom Scholem came in. Scholem, the German-born radical-humanist thinker who moved to Palestine after the First World War as an idealistic, if idiosyncratic, Zionist, is best known as the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah—a category of Jewish thought, prayer, and ritual practice that pursues ultimate truths about God’s nature, good, evil, and humanity’s role in the cosmos. As Scholem himself pointed out in the opening of one of his books, the Hebrew word “kabbalah” literally means “tradition,” and, in the sense that it composed “the tradition of things divine,” Kabbalah fed people’s hunger for a new and deeper understanding of conventional religious forms. Certain Kabbalists indeed extended their speculations so far that they were accused of redefining Judaism’s purpose. With their work, Scholem wrote, “the Torah is transformed into a Corpus mysticum.” At times, he appears to suggest that the intense study of this covert history might function as its own form of worship. For a bookish soul who balks at prayer and loves philosophical-historical reflection, this prospect can be awfully seductive.

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Read an excerpt from Gideon Rachman’s Easternization in The New York Review of Books


The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House threatens a significant acceleration in the rivalry between the US and China. The deliberate but careful attempts of the Obama administration to push back against Chinese ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to be replaced by a new Trump approach that is much more openly confrontational, and more impulsive in style. Even before taking office, the new US president demonstrated his willingness to antagonize Beijing—by speaking directly to the president of Taiwan, something that all US presidents have refused to do since the normalization of relations between the United States and China in the 1970s.

If a direct military conflict between China and the United States does break out during the Trump years, the likeliest arena for a clash is the South China Sea. In his confirmation hearings before the US Senate, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s new secretary of state, signaled a significant hardening in the American attitude to the artificial islands that China has been building in the South China Sea. Tillerson likened the island building to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and said that the Trump administration intended to let Beijing know that “your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.”

Taken at face value, that sounded like a threat to blockade the islands, on which China has been constructing military installations. China would almost certainly attempt to break such a blockade by sea or air. The stage would be set for a modern version of the Cuba missile crisis. The Chinese government’s official reaction to the Tillerson statement was restrained. But China’s state-controlled media was ferocious. The Global Times, a nationalist paper, warned of the possibility of a “large-scale war” between the United States and China, while the China Daily spoke of a “devastating confrontation between China and the U.S.” Independent observers had come to similar conclusions. Speaking to me in Davos a couple of days after Tillerson’s statement, Vivian Balakrishnan, the foreign minister of Singapore, warned that any effort at a US blockade in the South China Sea would lead to a war between the United States and China. The Singaporeans, who maintain close ties to both Washington and Beijing and whose natural style is cautious and technocratic, are not given to hysteria.

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author of Quicksand


Other Press: How did you come up with the idea for Quicksand, and for the character of Maja? Did you have any difficulty getting into her head or creating her voice?

Malin Persson Giolito: I have known for a long time, in that strange mysterious way writers “know” things, that I wanted to write about a school shooting. A tragedy, so tragic that it was like something out of the Old Testament, or one of those eight-hour Shakespeare plays that I liked to watch when I was a teenager. I wanted that. Pitch black. However, when I sat down to start writing, I realized that it was impossible. Who would want to read such a thing? Until Maja came. Cynical, funny, desperate, unhappy, lovely, obnoxious Maja… And how she came to me? I have no idea. But it is her story, so much hers, she is much more important to this story than any crime, and I realized along the way that it was her and her friends I wanted to write about.

I want to say that Maja was the easiest part, but it took a very long time to make her mine. I worked for four years with this novel and I really worked. “How many words do you actually need in your book, Mummy? More than a billion?” was one of many skeptical questions from my youngest. I approached Maja through her friends, her parents, her sister, and the tragedy of course. But when I started hearing her voice, I couldn’t turn it off. She accompanied me everywhere, and watched me and my life, my double standards, my friends… Maja’s voice worked in many ways as a comic relief for me as a writer, but it was also quite an annoying companion.

OP: You’ve said before that Quicksand is “Maja’s book.” Why did you choose to have her be the only narrator? Was there a point during your writing process when you had another or additional narrators?

MPG: It was a huge technical challenge for me as a writer. That motivated me and it frightened me, which triggered me even more. It is hard to write suspense without changing perspectives when pushing the story forward. I wanted to see if I was capable. But for a long time I had my doubts. So I wrote long sections, I think a couple of hundred pages from the lawyer’s perspective, and I also tried a few chapters with the other main characters, like Maja’s mom, and the other two lawyers. Once I had gotten that out of my system, I could go back to Maja. To keep it with Maja makes it so much more intense, to let her be the master of her story. Everything that interfered with that just made the story weaker. And not only from a literary perspective. She is a good narrator. Honest, unsure, unhappy and, yes, I keep repeating myself: funny.

OP: This past year Quicksand won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Award for Best Swedish Crime Novel, and it’s the first of your novels to be translated into English, as well as several other languages. How has Quicksand changed your life as a writer?

MPG: I think that the first thing everyone—not only my husband—thinks is that it has changed my life economically, and it has. I actually stopped working as a lawyer before the success—with some hesitation, because I like economic security, pension rights, and all that. Now I don’t have to worry for a few years. But to be honest, the big difference is something else. The massive support from my agent and my publisher, the critics’ praise, the prizes, and all that have given me a higher status as a writer. To be taken seriously is very nice. I hope, and I think, it will give me more courage as a writer. Everyone keeps asking if I will be blocked by the success and have a hard time writing the next. I think (and I really hope I am right) that I have been freed to do what I have always wanted to do: write my own stories the way I want to write them.

OP: How did being a lawyer help you write this novel?

MPG: Well, to be passionate about the court, about the process of law, that helps if you want to transmit the sense that it is not too boring to follow a court procedure from beginning to end. And it helps to dig where you stand… Is that a Swedish saying? If so, I am sure you have something similar. But it can also be a disadvantage if you write too close to home. I have a different view on the law than non-lawyers; it is like my religion, I don’t question my ten commandments. But Maja does. Maja has kept this from becoming a lawyer’s story and she has made it into something bigger.

OP: The story you craft in Quicksand profoundly resonates with contemporary American audiences. It explores subjects one normally doesn’t associate with Sweden, such as race, gender relations, and immigration. Were you aware of how universal Maja’s story would be when you were writing it? Do you think with your novel you’re bringing a fresh understanding of contemporary Sweden?

MPG: It is not a surprise to me that we—Americans and Europeans— share more problems than either one of us likes to admit, one of them being that we like to blame immigration for injustices that have other causes. But still, that so many people can relate to the story is one of the things that has surprised me the most. Maja lives in the rich suburb were I grew up, and I wanted to put that in a larger context in order to put light on injustices that have bothered me since I was a kid and that have become far worse in recent years. But it could have been seen as just a story about the young, rich, and fabulous. I am so happy that it isn’t. We need to talk about structural injustices. But do I want to bring a fresh understanding of contemporary Sweden? Quicksand is not a political book unless the readers make it political. And if the readers do, I hope it makes them look at themselves more than at Sweden.

OP: Is there anything you’d like your readers to take away from Quicksand?

MPG: That is such a difficult question. I could say that I want readers to think about equality, or what justice means in reality, but at the same time I don’t think that good books make you realize things that fit on a Hallmark card. Really good books can make you question yourself but without you being aware of it. I want my readers to think about my book after having finished it. They can think what they want, but if they think, that proves the story worked.

OP: Many authors have quirks to help them write. Do you have any? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

MPG: Lawyers often overcharge for advice that is absolutely useless. Are you really sure you want to ask me that?

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The New York Times Book Review raves that Rachel Aspden’s Generation Revolution is “an excellent social history of Egypt’s persistent pathologies, as well as a universal story about the difficulties of changing deeply ingrained societal attitudes.”

In his review Thanassis Cambanis considers the role youth plays in starting and sustaining a revolution:

In Aspden’s telling, the young, not yet ground into submission, have posed the greatest challenge to Egypt’s intolerable yet adaptive state. But the young can sustain resistance for only so long. The Tahrir Generation of 2011, she writes, may already be over the hill, though a new crop of restive Egyptians are reaching a boiling point, and they may not submit in the same way their grandparents did when the first military strongman took power in 1952. Nonetheless, Aspden notes, an empowered populace armed with education, modern communication tools and high expectations can repeatedly be dominated by an equally modern coercive state. Her conclusion is dispiriting, but she backs it with evidence. Youth alone, it seems, does not suffice to change tradition.

You can read the full review in the New York Times Book Review 

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Malin Persson Giolito, author of Quicksand, sat down with Shelf Awareness to speak about translation, creating the voice of a teenage girl, what drew her to write her novel, and more.

Shelf Awareness: Was it the crime that sparked this novel for you, or Maja herself, or something else?

Malin Persson Giolito: I couldn’t stop thinking about the crime. But it’s quite a difficult subject to write about, especially if you want to write a book people actually enjoy reading. I didn’t get anywhere until Maja came along. And I think the reason I wanted to write about a school shooting was not particularly the crime itself but the environment, that is, the school. It’s a very closed kind of environment. I think the book is about situations that you can’t control, and closed rooms. Maja was the key to the story. The first idea was the school shooting, but I didn’t know what to do with it until Maja came along.

It’s quite funny: as a writer, you’re probably the least capable of talking about your novel. You don’t really know what you’re doing. For the longest time you’re doing this puzzle upside down, so to speak, and then when the book is done hopefully you will see what the puzzle looks like, or perhaps one of the readers will tell you. There is something about this closed room that must have intrigued me, because we have not only the school but also the courtroom and the neighborhood where she grows up, which is an upper-class, very closed neighborhood–they’re very isolated from other parts of the Swedish society. Also, being a teenager is being isolated. You live in your own world of black and white, right and wrong, love and hate… teenagers are lovely. I have two. But they’re also quite isolated in their own minds, in their own day-to-day world.

SA: You write the voice of this teenager so convincingly.

MPG: I have a tendency to say this was the easy part, but that’s not really true. It took me a lot of time to get to her. But once I had her, that was the best part, just living inside her head, with her rage and her judgments. She’s an enraged teenager. She’s a very privileged teenager that has gone through this tragedy, and now she’s put in a place where she has absolutely no control over her situation anymore. And we learn that during the year that led up to these events, this tragedy, she also lost control of her life. So how does she react? Well, one of the reactions is this rage. She hates everyone. And funnily enough, that was when I liked her. I think there must be an enraged teenager within me.

I think we all can relate to this loss of empowerment when we look at the world around us right now. One of the things I really liked was that I didn’t have to be this thoughtful adult who sees the good in people–I could just let go of everything and just be her. Which is not the same as saying that I agree with her. Her way of judging people around her is not something that I necessarily share. But it was still surprisingly easy, once I was there, to just do that. Once in a while you just want to let it go, to quote a famous Disney princess. I really liked that with Maja.

One of the tricks, when you write suspense novels, is to use the unreliable narrator. And when I started writing I knew from the beginning I didn’t want that. I didn’t want her to turn out to be someone else, didn’t want her to wake up after having had an alcohol-related dementia, or whatever. I wanted her to be reliable narrator, in the purest sense of the term. But I didn’t think of the fact that she’s a teenager, and if you look up “unreliable narrator,” I think you’ll see a picture of a teenager. But she’s just her, and that was very important. That’s what made me really love her. She just wants to get through this. She’s a survivor, in more ways than one.

You can read more from the interview in Shelf Awareness

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Inheritance from Mother author Minae Mizumura for the New York Times

When her novel, Inheritance from Mother, was first being serialized in Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Minae Mizumura was inundated with letters from readers who identified with the frustration and exasperation she described feeling in taking care of her aging, ill mother. Mizumura recounts the experience for the New York Times:

TOKYO — It was the mad, busy time just before New Year’s, the most auspicious holiday of the year, when the hospital called to tell me that my mother had just been brought in by ambulance. She had slipped on the sidewalk and broken her shoulder and hip.

“Not again!” was all I could think as I rushed to the emergency room. I did not at first realize that the call marked the beginning of the end of what little independence my mother had left.

Despite five hours of surgery and two months of rehabilitation, she became wheelchair-bound and had to enter a nursing home. There, she slid rapidly into dementia, and became more difficult and demanding even as she grew frailer.

A year and a half later, she was back in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia. Day after day, I sat by her bedside, exhausted, while I struggled to finish work on a book for which the deadline was long past.

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Stephen Snyder recently wrote about translation of contemporary Japanese literature for the New England Review. In his article he examines the careers of Haruki Murakami and Minae Mizumura (A True Novel, Inheritance from Mother). Of Mizumura he writes:

Each of her works, for different reasons, is, in effect, untranslatable on one or more levels—not overtly or explicitly but philosophically and contextually.

Which brings us to Mizumura’s acclaimed 2002 novel entitled Honkaku shōsetsu, which is a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, set in postwar Japan, but encased in a complex set of narrative frames, including an outermost one in which a writer named Minae, whose biography maps Mizumura’s own, introduces the reader to the main narrative. At first glance, this work, which is more plot-driven and compulsively readable than Mizumura’s earlier fiction, is also more readily translatable; and, in fact, as I’ve mentioned, in 2013 it did appear in English to considerable acclaim. Still, a closer look reveals a number of ways that the text presents challenges or puzzles to the translator and insists on its immersion in a Japanese cultural context that cannot be readily brought over into a target language or culture. The title, for example, was rendered as True Novel in the English translation, no doubt for the ambiguous and possibly oxymoronic contention that a fiction or novel could also be “true.” But honkaku has a wide range of meanings in Japanese, and the book could plausibly be called A Genuine Novel or An Orthodox Novel (as the phrase has generally been rendered, meaning, to Japanese readers and critics, a fully realized novel with an ambitious, complex plot). Other possible titles with different nuances would include A Real Novel, A Serious Novel, or even A Standard Novel or A Full-Fledged Novel. The original title itself, then, for a writer such as Mizumura, who is fully conscious of the differences between Japanese and English, is a kind of intentional difficulty for, or challenge to, the translator. (A fact that is especially interesting, perhaps, since Mizumura initially wanted to translate the novel herself.)

The text, too, repeats this challenge. On the level of plot, Mizumura provides a richly and finely wrought story—a genuine novel—that comes across successfully in English, but on the sentence level—particularly in the dialogue—the text is a study in nuances that remain largely lost in translation. The story, like Brontë’s, investigates class relations between a poor young man who falls in love with a wealthy girl and seeks to woo her after he has made his fortune. But the social milieu Mizumura creates—replete with a cast of peers and magnates, maids and parvenus worthy of Jane Austen—engenders a text proliferating with finely graded linguistic markers of privilege and subservience—in which Japanese as a language is particularly rich. And by necessity these nuances go largely untranslated or receive only vague approximations in English, a language much poorer in explicit markers of class.

On Mizumura’s website, she labels herself, tellingly I think, as “A Novelist Writing Modern Japanese Literature in the Japanese Language,” implying, no doubt, that other writers—and perhaps explicitly the most notable of all contemporary Japanese writers—are writing in something other than Japanese—at least not in the nuanced, literary Japanese in which Mizumura casts her own work.

You can read more at Literary Hub

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Joan Acocella of the New Yorker calls Gregor Hens’s Nicotine “an extraordinary act of literary finesse” and a “dark, lovely, funny book.” Enter below for your chance to win a copy!

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Nicotine by Gregor Hens


by Gregor Hens

Giveaway ends January 24, 2017.

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Click on the picture below to download a Peter Stamm poster!

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author of Among the Living

Other Press: Among the Living is absolutely fascinating. It has a specificity of time and place and perfectly captures the tensions between so many different communities—the Jewish and black communities in late 1940s Savannah, the Conservative and Reform Jewish communities, European Jews who have experienced the Holocaust and American Jews who have observed it from a distance. Why write this novel? How did you first come up with the idea for it? Was it difficult to render all the different moving parts into one cohesive narrative?

Jonathan Rabb: I’m not sure there’s ever a satisfying answer to “Why write this novel?” At a certain point it becomes: how can I not write it? You get so involved with the characters—you’re grappling with questions that have more to do with you as the writer than with them—and you have no choice but to dig yourself deeper into that hole. For this book, the first idea came when I was living in New York. I had a cousin who had survived a concentration camp when he was only nine years old, and I began to spend a bit of time with him. We’d meet for breakfast, where we’d invariably talk about the book he was writing (about the head of the Gestapo in Paris during the war). I never saw a page of it—I can’t even be sure that he was writing it —but I realized that he had never really moved beyond those moments in his life. How could he have? At the same time, he wasn’t lost or delusional. He was a fully functioning man, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. But a part of him was always back there. I suppose there was a part of me that wanted to find a way to free him of that. I couldn’t, of course, but maybe I could create a character who would be given that choice for himself.

And then my cousin died. To me—to my entire family—he had always been known as Edi (Ai-dee). At his memorial service, an American friend of his got up and said, “Let me tell you about my friend Ed Goldah.”


I’ll be honest, for a moment I had no idea who he was talking about. This was Edi’s memorial. But it suddenly dawned on me how crucial a name could be, especially in the Jewish experience, questions of identity and belonging and alienation. To his friends he was Ed. To me he would always be Edi. And I knew that I had found an inroad to the character I’d been imagining.

The trouble was, New York seemed too obvious a place to start his story. So I waited. When I moved to Savannah—and discovered a Jewish life I had never imagined—it suddenly dawned on me that here was the place I could bring my character. It was so foreign to me, even if the Jewish experience dated back to the founding of the colony. I suppose I thought that, as I discovered what it was to be a Jew in the South, so too would he. So I set him in 1947—why not make the choices even harder?—and called him Yitzhak Goldah, a gentle nod to my cousin. (I dedicate the book to him and his parents, also survivors.)

Setting the story during the height of the Jim Crow era made perfect sense to me. If this was all going to be about identity and alienation—all those different moving parts—then I needed Yitzhak to hear echoes of his own recent past in the way the black community was being treated. Of course, he couldn’t know what it was to be a black man living in the South, but he could feel a certain affinity. And he could ask the hard questions.

That many of those same questions remain with us today made it even more important to situate them at the center of the book.

As to the other moving parts, those are what define the rich complexity of Savannah itself. It’s the key to the story. Where else were all those tensions bubbling just beneath the surface? And how else could Yitzhak find his way back into the world of the living without having to confront them?

OP: Did you do a lot of research before or while you were writing the novel? Can you share a particular piece of history or anecdote you found to be interesting?

I always take about six months to research a book and, with this one—for the first time—I was able to interview people who had lived during the period. (My most recent books took place in 1919, 1927 and 1936, which made that virtually impossible). That said, I waited until I had worked my way through a lot of the archival material (the Savannah Jewish Archive and the Georgia Historical Society have put out some really wonderful books and oral histories). I also spent a lot of time reading Primo Levi, to my mind the clearest and most shattering voice to come out of the Holocaust. That he’s able to describe what he lived through without a hint of judgment or vengeance or self-pity is truly remarkable, and I tried to give that sensibility to my Yitzhak.

When it comes to the Savannah Jewish community, there are too many anecdotes that come to mind—some of which I happily sprinkled into the narrative—but my favorites all arrived on a single afternoon, when a friend of mine in town, the late Larry Wagger, invited me to a lunch with a few people he thought might be of help in my research. There were five of them, including Larry (the only male), and when I stepped into the dining room, I think I took the average age down to about eighty-nine. I had brought along a legal pad, filled with questions. I asked the first and then didn’t speak for the next three hours. I heard about the train out to Tybee and the late-night dancing at the Sapphire Room and the basketball games at the JEA—but the one tidbit that struck me most was the name of the housekeeper that one of the women had grown up with. Her name had been Mary Royal. That the black community, in no small measure, was going to serve as the moral compass in the novel made the name “Royal” so perfect. So I took it and made it my own.

OP: Savannah is almost a character in itself in Among the Living. What are your personal ties to the city?

We moved to Savannah in 2008, thinking we’d stay for a year, and we never left. One of the reasons is that everyone has always been so inviting. Truly inviting. If you’ve ever lived in New York City for a long period of time, you begin to feel that life doesn’t exist beyond the Hudson. But it does. It might be a little slower here but it’s also a little more gracious, and a wonderful place to raise kids. Not that I won’t always think of myself as a displaced New Yorker (my unwavering dedication to the Knicks is only one symptom), but there is something completely other when it comes to Savannah—something I thought I could find only in European settings—and yet here it is. That the city could inspire me to write about its past speaks to my connection. Add to that the fact that Savannah is home to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), where both my wife and I teach, and you have this wonderful artistic community situated in a city steeped in history. What could be better?

OP: Goldah is such a great character to place in the center of this story. He’s an outsider, which allows him to see things in Savannah in a way that characters like Jesler and Pearl and even Eva cannot. Do you think you could have told the same story if it were someone else at the center, for example Malke?

It was absolutely crucial that I bring an outsider. As I said above, I needed to learn about the city and its past as I wrote about it: how better to do that than to have a character who’s also trying to figure things out? And I steal from my own distant past: Moravian, Czech Jews, whose lives were uprooted by the Second World War. Yitzhak was the perfect choice. Could I have managed to tell the same story through Malke’s eyes? I don’t think so. And it’s not just that her experience in the camps is so different from Yitzhak’s. She was a very different kind of person before the war—harder yet fragile, in a way that would have made her entry into the American south far more difficult, given the issues I wanted to play with. I needed to have someone who could see that there was a choice to step beyond the experience of the camps—never completely, of course—and to find the relative youth of American life somehow invigorating. In the very first pages, Yitzhak is able to see how, in America, “the past here was young and untried, and how the world made sense only in the grasp of such promise and abundance.” That’s not something Malke would ever have understood.

OP: Among the Living is your sixth novel. How did you begin writing? When do you write? Do you have any special conditions or rituals you abide by? And finally, why do you write?

I began writing fiction as an escape from my academic work (in a previous life, I was a political theorist at Columbia). I bought a laptop and stole moments away on it to play with fiction, while my desktop remained solely for “more serious” work. Sooner than I care to admit, I was spending all my time on the laptop (to this day, I can’t write on a desktop). Before my wife and children came along (and the Internet and e-mail), I would write from about 10 PM to 3 AM, and sleep until noon. It was quiet, no one called, and the city was as uninteresting as it was ever going to get (at least for me). But then I decided I wanted to spend time with the people in my life, so I trained myself to write from about 8:30 in the morning until 1 (my wife always calls to remind me to eat), and then until about 3, when I pick up the kids from school (except for the two days a week when I teach). I imagine I have some rituals but I don’t think I’m conscious of them. All I know is that I have to be at my desk and ready to go. I usually read the last few paragraphs that I wrote the day before—although on the best days, that’s unnecessary—and I dive in.

I’m not a big outline follower. I have these astounding flashes when I get an idea for a book. For about a nanosecond, every moment in the book—every line of dialogue, every instant of tension, every description of place—comes to me, then disappears, leaving little pockets of information that form a nice arc. And then, for the next few years, I try to remember everything from that nanosecond. I’m a big believer in the subconscious mind. I think everything is there, and it’s just a matter of getting lost in the book so that I feel comfortable enough to tap into what’s waiting in mine. You’ve no doubt heard writers talk about those moments when characters do something we’re not expecting (or don’t want them to do). For me, that’s simply my subconscious saying, “Okay, I gave you enough time to figure this out, but since you’re being a complete idiot, this is what the character needs to do.” And I have to have enough faith in myself simply to let go and follow.

But that doesn’t mean I write purely by inspiration. There’s a wonderful old story about a French novelist who was asked by a journalist, “Do you write by inspiration or do you just slog your way through it?” The writer thought for a moment and said, “Purely by inspiration.” The journalist jotted something down and said, “Really? Then why is it that, every day, you go out to that little shack behind your house and sit at your desk from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon?” Again, the novelist thought for a moment, and said, “I write purely by inspiration. I’m just not willing to wait for it.”

I suppose that’s my ritual, too.

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author of The Second Winter



OP: Most novels set during the Second World War tend to focus on Germany, England, and the United States. What made you want to write about a family in Denmark in the early 1940s?

Fredrik is based very loosely on my father’s uncle, who was a member of the Danish resistance during World War II. When I was five years old, I came across a photograph of “Fredrik” when we were visiting Denmark, and I vividly remember the impression it made upon me. This man was a literal giant. He could have wrapped a hand around my body. I asked my dad who he was, and my dad told me the story of his uncle, lifting him onto his motorcycle at the end of the war and driving him through the streets of Copenhagen, showered in confetti, for the victory motorcade. As a young kid, I couldn’t quite comprehend what it meant that Fredrik had resisted the occupation—I just had a vague sense that he carried a pistol, snuck through the dark, and, as my dad told me, spent his nights with his eyes wide open, too scared to sleep. The more I learned, the more complex Fredrik’s story became. He took amphetamines to keep himself awake. He died just after the war from leukemia, contracted no doubt because of the stresses he was under. He was everything a hero should be. But he had also been sent away by his parents when he was twelve or thirteen to live on a farm, because he apparently had some sadistic tendencies and had killed family pets. And, most confusingly, he was married and had two children. It was in the contradictions of this heroic savage as father that the idea of the story was born.

When I set out to write The Second Winter, I wasn’t attempting to write about the war or even about Fredrik. Fredrik’s story gave me the language to create a metaphor. For me, the power of the novel lies in its deeper meaning: In the eyes of a child, fathers do inexplicable things—they steal, they kill, they rape. To some extent, this innocent confusion is not lost, at least not entirely, even as we grow older and place in context the things we do as adults. For me, this was the pleasure and challenge in writing the novel, to convey this beast as a man whom we not only relate to but in some measure love.

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This fall Among the Living author Jonathan Rabb will be travelling the South, visiting indie bookstores and booksellers and signing copies of his novel. Follow him at @jrrabb and see his progress with the map below.

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