Karate Chop – Dorthe Nors


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Karate Chop (Graywolf Press)Fifteen stories in eighty-eight pages and it’s called Karate Chop? Pictures spring to mind of sharp-edged minimalism, the jolt of the unexpected. I had high hopes for this collection, the first English publication of Danish author Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken for Graywolf Press). It garnered widespread critical acclaim and I, expecting something quite unique, was unprepared for what I got: all too often rote slice-of-life stories.

I’ve never cared for slice-of-life, mainly because it’s so hard to do well. Especially in shortened form, it makes too often for quotidian extracts from life packed together without breathing room. A writer has to be either an excellent stylist (Mavis Gallant, Edna O’Brien) or supremely perceptive (Anton Chekhov, god of the life unlived) for it to work. Nors has these qualities but not in a reliable amount. What she excels at is atmosphere and her stories only pop when she allows slice-of-life to have a freak accident. In that way, she reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates, only with greater discipline (well, it’s hard to have less) and an air of mystery. Nors doesn’t believe in spelling things out for the audience. It’s unfortunate then, that so much left unsaid feels so ordinary.

The best stories in Karate Chop have a menacing and autumnal air of decay. With the exceptions of ‘The Buddhist’ and the title story, very little tends to happen. Nors prefers to suggest and when she uses that technique and goes beyond slice-of-life into a different type of gloom, the result is delicately unnerving, as in the conclusion of ‘Mutual Destruction’:

A man and his dog in the twilight, but something more. He had to take it in. Take a good look, because that’s how it was: there was something inside Morten that shunned the light. Something Tina said was a kind of complex. He didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what to say about it, other than that it smelled like offal, and that the smell was spreading.

This ominous trait is so good that reviewers tend to emphasise it, but in truth fewer than half of the stories hit that mark. The rest, though moody, do not carve out a distinct identity for themselves. It doesn’t help that, without the atmospheric displays, Nors’ writing is thoroughly nondescript. I particularly remembered the front door when I turned to go back inside. The light from the lamp shining on the wall cladding and door handle. That sort of thing. Apart from the Danish setting and stylistic brevity, there is very little here to differentiate Karate Chop‘s divorces and family traumas from the rest of the pack.

Because of the brevity, Nors has been compared to Lydia Davis, but to qualify she’d have to break her stories down even further. ‘Nat Newsom’ fills four pages, but the wham moment, when Nat allows himself to be conned by an especially inexpert hustler, requires only one to set up and execute. Several of the less interesting stories could have hit a nerve with this treatment. ‘Hair Salon’ splits its attention between an old lady in a laundromat and the dog she dopes up so she can keep it in her apartment. The old woman pretends a solidarity with the narrator to salve her own isolation in the modern world but the detail about the dog is a far more powerful way of transmitting that.

The strongest stories in Karate Chop actually fulfill the promise of its title. The twisted premise of ‘The Buddhist’ is treated with a sense of humour that in no way impinges on its horrifying punchline. ‘The Heron’ is narrated by a morose and death-haunted man, musing on the sickly herons and occasional dismembered bodies you can find in the park (it was featured in the New Yorker and fully deserved it). ‘Female Killers’ also features a morbid man at its center, obsessed with women who kill and the survival of the fittest. ‘Karate Chop’ succeeds with a familiar tale, as an abused woman questions her relationship choices with an especially opaque and subtly chilling conclusion. These and ‘Mutual Destruction’ show what she’s capable of. Memorable and finely tuned sketches of life on the regular side of macabre. And all her talent is given full rein in the final and best story, ‘The Wadden Sea’.

It is hard to convey the enchanting quality of ‘The Wadden Sea’. The story is simple and told through the eyes of a child. A mother suffering “fear of life” moves to Sønderho, using the Wadden Sea mudflats for “healing power.” It is a fully formed piece of work, conveying a family’s tension, the struggles of a depressed mind, the layers of a local community and an impeccable sense of place, all in six pages. There were many artists and musicians living in that little community. There were rich people too, though I didn’t know any of them, and then there were the locals and the town alcoholics. Like rooks, they tended to attract each other so that certain parts of the town were clusters of people with indistinct pronunciations and chinking shopping bags. Her tone is perfect for conveying the overcast stillness of the mudflats and my only reaction on finishing it was “damn, that was good.”

If only she could sustain such a voice… In spite of the disappointing nature of this collection, Karate Chop has some truly excellent stories that are well worth a read. I can’t recommend it overall unless you really enjoy slice-of-life. But I’m nevertheless anticipating the translations of some of her novels (she’s written five). Is she average with flashes of brilliance or is she in the process of cultivating a unique voice for herself? It could go either way but I await the answer with interest.

Dorthe Nors on the road

Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews: Second Anniversary



Today I celebrate two years of my blog’s existence. Big changes have come to Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews since I began, most of them since the new year and the latest, tragically, just yesterday. In February I was hired to the website Media Snobs. burning paperThat line of work is no more. The site has been taken down by an outside force and everyone involved is now out of a job. The staff are showing great solidarity through this reviewer’s apocalypse and the possibility of a new site rising from the ashes is very real.

The five reviews I contributed are safe (I had backed them up on Wordpad previously) and last night I added their complete texts to Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews, since they now have no other place to reside on the web.

Victorian MourningI am now at loose ends, as before, only somewhat sadder. However, even though I was only able to work there for a few short months, the experience has changed me deeply. For a moment I was able to call myself a professional and my writing was vetted by a talented and helpful editor. The work I did there has fired up all of my hitherto dormant ambitions.

I was previously content as a hobbyist, drifting through life and maybe reviewing a book every few weeks. I paid no attention to the literary world and would stumble upon new books by accident – usually by reading the blog of someone more in-the-know, like John Self over on Asylum. Now everything has changed. I’ve shed my apathy and am keeping up on the new and forthcoming. The bi-weekly posting that was required of me has done a lot to help me learn the rhythm of reviewing, how to pick up the pace, strategize and organize.

I don’t feel in a celebratory mood, frankly, but I have to be. My blog is still here and my stuff still has a home on the web. Compared to others, I’ve lost very little and have much to be grateful for. However, this is also one hell of a spur to BACK UP ALL MY REVIEWS in about five separate locations.

Gibson Girl does some writing

So, what does this really entail for me? The wind is thoroughly out of my sails but I can’t allow that to last. I must rally and continue to forge ahead toward an ideal upgrade in my blog’s content. The casual approach is to take each month as it comes, reviewing whatever seems like a good idea at the time. The professional approach is to step away from the month and focus on the quarter (right now is the middle of the spring quarter), planning for an ideal spread of reviews to appear over the course of that time.

The subtitle of this blog has always said “Essays and Reviews.” I’m going to step up to the plate and actually deliver the former, as well as the latter. One essay per quarter will allow me to get through my Harvard Project at a slightly faster pace and spur me on to the launch of some shorter projects that have long been on my radar.

My main focus at this time will mostly be to plan ahead and build up a backlog of reviews. With such a store, I would be able to stop worrying about a dearth of content and occasionally read long books again (right now, Ada deserves my complete attention and how will I ever read Ulysses or Mason & Dixon if I’m always stressing over my next review?). I’m only one person, of course, but I will do the best I can.

Other things you can expect:

I am now on GoodReads, though mostly to use its to-be-read feature. You can socialize with me if you want. I doubt I’ll post my reviews there, unless specially requested. On that note, I recently got my first ever request for a review, by a self-published translator of Russian poets. I am now brushing up on my Anna Akhmatova in preparation.

The majority of reviews here will always be of fiction but I enjoy reading poetry and will aim to review at least one volume of it in each quarterly period. I’d like to do the same with literary criticism. These things add a little diversity to my obsession with literature.

Upcoming reviews:
Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, a story collection that only occasionally impressed me.
The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd, which turns out to be rather better than I expected.
Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd.
Journey to Karabakh by Aka Morchiladze. I hope to acquire and review the other three books in Dalkey Archive’s Georgian Literature Series as well, provided I can scrape the cash together.
The Lime Twig by John Hawkes. I read it just before starting this blog and remember being staggered. I would like to revisit it and put it on the site.
The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes. The most popular post on Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews? Aura. One of my least favorite reviews, incidentally. I think its popularity has something to do with flummoxed students and reading assignments…
Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins by Carlos Fuentes.
The Wanderer by Knut Hamsun. One of the perils of secondhand bookshopping is getting introduced to great writers by their minor works. I already read the incredibly slight and cheerful (???) Dreamers and this is the only other Hamsun I have at hand…

Things are up in the air at this dour point in time. What the future brings I do not know. I will forge ahead to the extent possible and see where things go. It’s most important not to lose momentum. Thank you to all my readers on this second anniversary.

Love Sonnets and Elegies – Louise Labé


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NYRB Poets - Louise Labe

(Posted here in its entirety from an innocent website, summarily executed by the proverbial Nazi Punks)

Genre: Classics
Author: Louise Labé
Publisher: NYRB Poets
Type: Poetry
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 5 / 5 – Incredible

“Kiss me again, rekiss me and kiss me.” Nick Cave fans should know that one. It’s a line from the song ‘Green Eyes’ on The Boatman’s Call, extracted from one of Louise Labé’s sonnets and, for many people, probably the only place they’ve even heard of Louise Labé. Praise the man for having taste.

Louise Labé (c. 1520-1566) is one of the premier poets of the French Renaissance and one of the very few notable women poets France has produced. She was rumoured as both “La Belle Cordiere,” an educated courtesan, daughter of a ropemaker, and as “Capitaine Loys,” a teenage jouster and war re-enactor skilled in horsemanship. It could be legend or hyperbole or a form of slander, but the image of a courtesan crossdresser poet certainly captures the imagination.

There is now plentiful debate as to whether Louise Labé actually wrote the poems attributed to her. According to French academic Mireille Huchon, while Labé was living, the works attributed to her were written by a committee of contemporary male poets under the leadership of Maurice Scève. Scève was a known literary hoaxer who, in 1533, had claimed to discover the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura in Avignon as a stunt for French nationalism. He was also friends with Jean de Tournes, who brought out the first edition of the Works of Louise Labé in 1555.

Being in close proximity to such a man is the biggest red flag in the Labé case. However, many people still vouch for her existence and her importance, and so New York Review Books have ushered in a new bilingual edition of her poems, translated by Richard Sieburth. It’s a splendid volume, replete with footnotes, chronology, preface, her own dedicatory epistle and a very informative afterword. Sieburth had already translated some of Scève’s work and it is his opinion that the sonnets are Labé’s own best defense. He argues that committee writing could never show the consistency and the singularity of vision on display here and “as for Scève, his poetry was always in a class by itself–dense, hermetic, and radically silent in the manner of Mallarmé: the voice of Nobody, the voice of Language. This is definitely not the tongue of Labé.”

French was considered a vulgar tongue in that era; highbrows preferred Italian and neo-Latin. King Henri II’s decree that legal documents be written in the common French tongue was less than 20 years old at the time of Labé’s publication and her comfort with the vernacular was beyond any of her old-school contemporaries. Her vitality stems in part from that refreshing lack of elitism. Her sonnets are neither weighed down with dense classical allusion nor mannered to an extreme of irrelevance. They are expertly balanced. On the one hand, their subject is the decorous heartbreak brought on by an absent or indifferent lover, (pining, the number one theme of courtly poems). And yet her manner is never limp-wristed but instead is playful, suggestive and sexy. “I can’t bear living on my best behavior,” she writes.

Her voice is at once learned and ironic, combining feminine poise and grace with an emotive honesty and independence of will. In one sonnet she turns the tables on the popular praises of the day: “What good is it now, that you so perfectly/Once praised the golden tresses of my hair,” listing all the sentimental blandishments poets offer their muse only to abandon formalities and use the sestet to her own advantage:

Or was it all a cruel ruse on your part
To pretend to serve me, enslaving my heart?
Forgive me, Love, if I speak so free,

For I’m beside myself with rage & grief:
But I’d like to think, wherever you might be,
You’re every bit as miserable as me.

Sonnets are always split in half, an eight-line octave followed by a six-line sestet. Labé knew how to accentuate the difference and make the most of the constraint. Love Sonnets & Elegies is also a boon to anyone planning to learn French. And as old as the poems are, the language has actually shifted from under them. Nick Cave’s quoted line, in French, reads “Baise m’encor, rebaise moy & baise:” Over the centuries this word has transformed from the Latin basium (a kiss) into something much more explicit (exemplified by Virginie Despentes’ novel Baise-Moi, translated as Rape Me). The sonnet is charged with sexuality and passion; reading it, one wonders at the word’s evolution. In Sieburth’s translation:

Kiss me, rekiss me, & kiss me again:
Give me one of your most delicious kisses,
A kiss in excess of my fondest wishes:
I’ll repay you four, more scalding than you spend.

You complain? Well, let me ease your pain
By giving you ten more honeyed kisses.
And as kiss with kiss so happily mixes,
Let’s ease back into our shared joy again.

What’s interesting about Labé is how her suggestive tone manages to work within the romantic rather than the raunchy tradition, never playing it for low comedy or simple lust, (as was rather common). Yet her sonnets also hold an edge of cynicism which comes to fruition in her three elegies. Love is personified not as the expected Cupid or a capricious Venus but, as Sieburth says, as “a frightening god of war who defeats everybody on the field of battle…”

… I’ve subdued the gods
In Hell below, in the Seas & the Skies.
This is the same power I exercise
Over mortals. I force them to understand
There is nothing that can escape my hand.
The stronger they stand, the sooner I strike.

Thus does Love take his pleasure:
No two desires are of equal measure.
This man loves not, whom a Lady loves,
While that man loves, never to be loved:
Thus does Love extend his reign,
Holding out hopes he knows are vain.

As well as envisioning Love as a vengeful spirit, the elegies are perhaps all that gave rise to the alluring “Capitaine Loys” myth. “You should have seen me in the lists,/Jousting away, with my lance held high,/Dutifully unhorsing all who rode by,/Spurring on & wheeling my glorious steed.” Labé thus fits into a series of powerful, androgynous women from history and myth–from Sappho and Semiramis through Joan of Arc, even to Tilda Swinton’s Orlando.

It may never be confirmed whether Labé was the author of her works or not. If she was behind it, she was a genius. If her poems and image were the concoction of another, the same holds true. This is a classic case of Barthes’ death of the author. Who wrote it is less relevant than the clear craft and skill of the result. Your collection of French poetry is not complete without Love Sonnets & Elegies. Moreover she is wonderfully accessible and the non-scholar will find nothing intimidating here. This excellent edition is due out on April 8th.

Louise Labé

The Harvard Classics Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – Part 1, Apology, Crito & Phaedo


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The intimidation factor here is terrible. It is one thing to offer appreciation and critique of semi-forgotten Quakers. It is quite another to give opinion on Plato, founder of Western thought.

"Sod off."

“Sod off.”

Volume 2 of The Harvard Classics focuses on the Stoic school, which, put very simply, argued against emotion. It’s the classic “old man’s philosophy.” A survivor’s stratagem: you’re sick of paying for the world’s screw-ups with your own private distress, so you stop buying into it. Everyone then calls you heartless while they run around with their hair on fire, trying to tend every garden but their own. I have some sympathy for this mindset. Why get upset over what the rest of the world is doing? It’s how I’ve managed to keep politics out of this blog since its inception.

Socrates (469-399 BC) left nothing to posterity in writing, leaving us completely at the mercy of his more ambitious disciples, the most famous among them being Plato (roughly 428-348 BC). Plato liked to use his teacher’s voice in dialogue and it’s never clear how much of the theory Socrates talks of is his own, and how much Plato’s, especially in later works. The Apology is meant to memorialize the death of Socrates and is thus more likely to be faithful to the philosophy he espoused than any other writing. If he’s what you’re looking for, this is it. Luckily, the Apology happens to be a masterpiece, such that if you’ve never read any philosophy and are intimidated (I’ve been there), start here, with the movement’s founder. It’s less than thirty pages long and the Benjamin Jowett translation is both elegant in style and in the public domain.

Socrates laid the cornerstone of philosophical thought: I neither know nor think that I know. As a sweeping statement I prefer it to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” A person could spend all their life practicing this humble epiphany. Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?

As well as being an important document of intellectual honesty, the Apology is a fine work of dramatic narrative. After all, it deals with matters of life and death, fate and state, righteousness, cowardice and self-interest. Even if you’re not keen to debate ethics or ponder the pursuit of knowledge, it remains impactful as the story of a curmudgeon goading the judicial court to kill him. Put it all together and it makes a Classic of the first order. The Apology is short, dramatic and colourful and it contains Socrates’ most famous saying: The life which is unexamined is not worth living. However, if you want ethical food for thought, you’ll actually get more out of Crito.

Crito closes Socrates' eyes.

Crito closes Socrates’ eyes.

Crito is only a little over ten pages. Socrates’ long-time friend of that name stops by his jail cell and pleads with the old man to escape and flee Athens while there is time. Socrates harangues him on the reasons this would not be a good idea and Crito has no words to argue the point. This is psychologically perceptive – how many of us have been on the receiving end of an impassioned rant, helplessly silent, only finding words of refutation long after the moment is gone? Poor Crito…doomed to think back on that day imagining how it might have gone if he’d thought of another tactic…hence the practice of stoicism.

Socrates, having argued that we must do no wrong for wrong is evil and even doing wrong for wrong is evil, proceeds in a lecture on state obligations that is based on iffy principles. Here is the state speaking: …did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begot you … Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands? – you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies?

Culture clash is really hurting here. This is propaganda of the worst sort; “slave of the state” authoritarian bullshit that severely damages the Crito‘s intellectual merit. I don’t usually mind culture clash but philosophy is a very different medium to fiction. It tells people how to think, offering what each philosopher deems to be the truth. What an author of fiction believes is just another point of view, as valid as any other in the art of storytelling. Thinkers should be responsible; writers should just write well. This is why misogynistic statements from Rousseau and Nietzsche piss me off while equally misogynistic quotes from Miller and Bukowski don’t get more than a raised eyebrow.

This in turn leads to another criticism – the Platonic dialogue was named after him but at this early point in his career, Plato wasn’t actually very good at it. The form is an Ciceroelegant one, allowing the author a chance to prove that A: he understands the opposition to his argument and B: that he can defend himself, employing a steady logic to refute the opposition and convince his readership that his conclusion is the correct one. For his dialogues on the death of Socrates, Plato does not do that.

The Apology is a brilliantly conceived and executed courtroom harangue. Crito and Phaedo are traditional dialogues and neither of them work because Socrates is preaching to the choir. His disciples apologise for their rare disagreements with him and so most of the “opposition” reads like this:

That is very true.
Very true.
Of course.
Very true.

That’s lifted straight from a random page of Phaedo. It’s not all that bad, but a lot of it is. I think it’s meant to show that Socrates’ logical method was so watertight it could brook no argument. So why make it a dialogue when only one half has anything to say? In Crito there is no opposition to Socrates’ claims, no counterattack to be successfully blocked and the reader is left unsatisfied. Possibly Plato was aware that he was making his master look like a tool, because he didn’t end it on that note but on a much more persuasive one regarding honour. Honour is each man’s inarguable choice, to which each must ascribe their own value. Socrates believed it would be dishonourable to cheat death in his old age, so remained in prison.

Phaedo is a later work, a surprisingly sophisticated argument for life after death that reminded me of Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and enlightenment. However, it is longer than the first two combined and too often dull. Plato loved the absolute and when he gets his cast started in on defining absolute equality (in pursuit of the idea that idealization must be recollection of a prior state), he makes his case in the most repetitive prose imaginable, methodical to an extreme of boredom. It also makes it really hard to pull quotes from, since Plato fancied the slow build argument. If I tried an extract, I’d be here all day with stuff like this: I mean to say that a harmony admits of degrees, and is more of a harmony, and more completely a harmony, when more completely harmonized, if that be possible; and less of a harmony, and less completely a harmony, when less harmonized.

One of Socrates’ more enjoyable traits was his whimsicality, which went hand in hand with his staunch belief in the gods and his peaceful, reasonable demeanour. When this side of him is on display, the writing shifts from sluggish advances in logic to the enlivened colour of folk tales and myths:

O Simmias, how strange that is; I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I am unable to persuade you, and you will keep fancying that I am at all more troubled now than at any other time. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are. But men, because they are themselves afraid of death, slanderously affirm of the swans that they sing a lament at the last, not considering that no bird sings when cold, or hungry, or in pain, not even the nightingale, nor the swallow, nor yet the hoopoe; which are said indeed to lay a tune of sorrow, although I do not believe this to be true of them any more than of the swans. But because they are sacred to Apollo and have the gift of prophecy and anticipate the good things of another world, therefore they sing and rejoice in that day more than they ever did before. And I, too, believing myself to be the consecrated servant of the same God, and the fellow servant of the swans, and thinking that I have received from my master gifts of prophecy which are not inferior to theirs, would not go out of life less merrily than the swans.

The hoopoe, a sacred bird of the ancient world.

The hoopoe, a sacred bird of the ancient world.

Other excellent moments crop up in parenthetical arguments, as when Socrates talks of misology, the misanthropy of ideas. And the text ends with a flourish straight out of C.S. Lewis (remember Professor Kirke’s “it’s all in Plato?”). Socrates’ description of heaven tallies with the Narnian one remarkably well and is a fun bonus if you grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia.

Socrates, according to his pupil, actually thought he knew quite a lot. Therefore, I would only recommend the Apology to the casual reader. It gives you the Socratic legend at its purest. But the nice thing about Plato is that it’s easy to forget the boring bits. He’s an oddly addictive philosopher. I’ll never regret reading him and have the Republic and the Symposium waiting in the wings.

Up next: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus.

Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra


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Ways of Going Home (paperback)

(Media Snobs is no more and my reviews will now be shown in their entirety here, as there is no longer another site to direct traffic to)

Genre: Drama
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Publisher: FSG
Type: Novel
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 4 / 5 – Exceptional

It may look like a beginner’s guide to Male and Female Brain Chemistry but in fact it is the latest novel from Chilean author Alejandro Zambra. At 139 pages, Ways of Going Home (2011; translated by Megan McDowell in 2013 and now out in paperback) is Zambra’s longest work. His previous novellas, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees, never even hit the hundred page mark. He’s mastered the art of brevity and paces his prose perfectly so that there is spaciousness to every scene and nothing feels rushed.

Most people who’ve read any Chilean literature will be familiar with either Isabel Allende or Roberto Bolaño. Zambra’s work takes the middle ground between Bolaño’s complexity and the straightforward narratives of Allende. He’s delicately somber, has a simple but lovely writing style and is a perfect go-to for those ready to explore further in Latin American fiction.

Ways of Going Home begins as the story of a child growing up in Pinochet’s Chile. His innocence protects him. To him, an earthquake is scary but it’s also an adventure and “as for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched…” His troubles are minor; he’s a regular kid with an ordinary life, even in the midst of dictatorship. Some of it is quite funny while also painting a microcosm of human weaknesses.

Suddenly, that heavy atmosphere prevailed in which the only possible topic of conversation is the lateness of the food. Our order took so long that finally Dad decided we would leave as soon as the food came. I protested, or I wanted to protest, or now I think I should have protested. “If we’re going to leave, let’s go now,” said Mom resignedly, but Dad explained that this way the restaurant owners would lose the food, that it was an act of justice, of revenge.

The first segment of the novel is tellingly called “Secondary Characters”. It refers to children, whose lives are always shaped in the shadows of their parents’ own lives; yet it also refers to those parents, the faceless bystanders of history.

In the most important part of the story, the boy meets an older girl called Claudia, who asks him to spy on her uncle for her. The boy doesn’t understand what’s going on, but his glimpses of Claudia and her strange family will haunt him for many years.

The next segment switches gears and is told by the author of “Secondary Characters”. Zambra embroils his novel in three layers of metafiction. He’s based the author on himself and the author has based the boy on himself. Yes, it’s an old and tired postmodern ploy, and not one I find very interesting, but Zambra uses it to good effect. Scenes from one life cross over to the next, weaving together into a cohesive tale of memory and fantasy as the narratives switch back and forth.

Guilt is the paramount theme. In adulthood, it can no longer be avoided and the author looks back on his real boyhood feeling shame. The kid in “Secondary Characters” who believed, with calming certainty, that “my father isn’t anything” is rewritten as the author decides that “to be neither good nor bad … seemed to me, in the end, the same as being bad.” But not only is there the inherited guilt of non-partisan parents; there is also the guilt of a boy who never suffered during the regime, for whom no one disappeared and the dictatorship was only inconvenient.

The heart and soul of the novel thus becomes Claudia, the person missing from his life that the author feels compelled to invent – someone who did suffer and in doing so, affected him. Claudia as a child seems as innocent as the boy who aids her. Only in their adulthood is it revealed how serious her motives were. It is only as an adult that she can endure what happened. “Learning to tell her story as if it didn’t hurt”, trying to reclaim her past and yet leave the damage behind is what drives the second half of the book.

“My story isn’t terrible. That’s what Ximena doesn’t understand: our story isn’t terrible. There was pain, and we’ll never forget that pain, but we also can’t forget the pain of others. Because we were protected, in the end; because there were others who suffered more, who suffer more.”

If I have a complaint about this excellent novel, it is only that the metafictional plot is less interesting than the Claudia plot. Author inserts always seem to talk about the writing life in the most ponderous fashion imaginable. After a few Paul Austers it just gets really old and the pages devoted to the author’s trouble with his writing and his ex-wife struck me as distracting and unnecessary. On the other hand, in a book this size, at least it doesn’t last long.

Ways of Going Home is really the gentlest book imaginable and yet it brings to light the scars a regime like Pinochet’s can leave, even on the people who went under the radar. And Megan McDowell translates with a deft touch, ensuring that it’s a pleasure to read all the way through.


Alejandro Zambra

Happy as a Dog’s Tail – Anna Swir


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Happy as a Dog's TailAnna Swir (1909-1984) is a Polish poet sadly little known in America, despite the efforts of her great admirer and associate, the Nobel-winning Czeslaw Milosz, on her behalf. This out-of-print selection of her love poems was translated by Milosz with the help of Leonard Nathan and published the year after her death. They teamed up again for an expanded collection called Talking to My Body (1996). The latter is somewhat easier to find and contains much of the same material, so unless you find Happy as a Dog’s Tail in a used bookshop, like I did, you’d probably be better off choosing that one.

Happy as a Dog’s Tail is relentlessly monochromatic in selection. In the first half of her career, Swir did a series of war poems based on her experience in the Warsaw resistance and as a military nurse. Later in life she turned her attention solely to love poems – though they could more accurately be called hate poems – and those are what Milosz and Nathan chose for the exclusive subject of this collection. At first glance it looks like a mistake but rereading reveals a method to the myopia.

Swir in translation is forthright and easy to handle but hardly “confessional.” She is invested in a woman’s point of view but her voice is full of irony and detachment. Comparisons could be drawn between her work and Anne Sexton’s in Love Poems and Transformations - both women speak in a tone arch, energetic, mocking and cold. Unlike Sexton, Swir keeps this coldness pressed sharply close to the point at all times. And though their stylistic approaches are very different, there is also an unexpected similarity between Swir’s poetry and Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood.

Make no mistake: despite the title, Happy as a Dog’s Tail is a frightening and astonishing book. Swir’s vision is dark, frigid and ascetic. To flip through the pages of this slim volume is to grow apprehensive, recognising the nihilistic cliff her poems teeter upon. They’re the easiest things in the world to read, but much harder to absorb. One of the shortest of them all is “I Cannot.”

I envy you. Every moment
You can leave me.

I cannot
leave myself.

Her obsession is with alienation. Flesh and spirit are in an unrequested marriage, forcibly bound even as the body degrades (nowhere better summed up than in the poem “Large Intestine”). The struggle for spiritual supremacy is painted through the abandonment of lovers and the stern, bitter triumph of isolation. It is her especial focus in the middle portion of the book, taken up with the three “Love” cycles (Felicia’s, Antonia’s and Stephanie’s). These women depart relationships to achieve liberation and each cycle concludes with them living alone, their pain unshared; they choose to return to a virginal solitude that for all of its sorrow and loneliness is theirs alone. Longing/…/fashions the soul/as work/fashions the belly. God is not an image in Swir’s work, and yet her poems carry the weight of Monasticism, of isolating and offering oneself up to the scourge, to be cauterised and purified.

There is a sacrificial ecstasy manifesting itself in the lines of many poems: “I Starve My Belly for a Sublime Purpose,” “Fireproof Smile,” “Song of Plenitude,” “Intensity of Atmosphere,” too many to quote from. Happy as a Dog’s Tail takes a Medievalist quandary and writes it into the secular, sexually liberated landscape of the modern world. In “Iron Currycomb” she writes:

Oh, I toil hard,
with an iron currycomb
I scrub my body to the bone,
the bone to the marrow.
I want to be cleaner than the bone.
I want to be clean
as nothingness.

Physicality and eroticism are ever-present in this book. Swir does not shy from the topic but she often treats it as more trouble than it’s worth. Sexual acts are maligned, dark things; primal practicalities; sardonically accepted gifts; a beautiful song of the night/a song of combat. In older times, the goddess of fertility was often also the goddess of war and Swir unabashedly revels in these mythical traits of womanhood. She gives no sympathy to men, only a terse and mocking laughter. Stephanie claims I walk obediently/in the dog collar of your adoration only a few poems away from breaking things off with her lover. True tenderness is saved only for old women, as in the poems “The Same Inside” and “The Greatest Love.”

Swir’s poems are ferocious and uncompromising; her vision potently, almost murderously, feminine. She more than repays a weekend spent pouring over her writings. But her obscurity right now is terrible, so American feminism didn’t do her much good. Rather, lovers of poetry both male and female should seek her out as too unique to be missed. See if you can find this or Talking to My Body and help propel Anna Swir to the resuscitation she deserves.

Anna Swir

Before I Burn – Gaute Heivoll


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Before I Burn (Graywolf Press)

(Enjoy one of the five reviews I originally wrote for Media Snobs)

Genre: Crime
Author: Gaute Heivoll
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Type: Novel
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 3.5 / 5 – Good

Wave after wave of Scandinavian crime fiction has descended upon America and it still shows no sign of stopping. It’s an impressively lucrative business for a cultural landscape known to shy away from works in translation. As of 2012, The Economist noted that “only 3% of the books published annually in America and Britain are translated from another language; fiction’s slice is less than 1%”. What The Economist didn’t say is that considering the sheer size of the American publishing industry, that is still a heck of a lot of material. There’s obviously plenty of room for improvement but at least those crime writers can’t complain…

Gaute Heivoll’s Before I Burn is one of the most recent works in the field, a standalone novel based on Norway’s most dramatic arsonry case and centered around a man named Gaute Heivoll who, an infant at the time, narrates the story in the present day. So it reads like true crime but is in fact a novel; it looks like metafictional trickery but is in fact solidly down-to-earth. Gaute pieces together what happened, making liberal use of his empathetic imagination to enter the minds of the victims as, one by one, buildings are set ablaze.

Before I Burn hit the scene in 2010 and has been making the rounds at a fast pace. As a bestseller, it’s been published in twenty countries. Don Bartlett did the English translation in 2013 and now it’s made it to the American market through independent publisher Graywolf Press. Bartlett is a prolific freelance translator of Norwegian novels, and though he doesn’t make you forget that you’re reading a translation, his work is thoroughly professional and he captures the required tone with ease.

For the reader to most enjoy Before I Burn, it is important to understand what it’s not. It is not a thriller or a whodunnit. The identity of the pyromaniac is given almost right away. It’s not even a whydunnit. It is a character study of a small stoic town in the 70s, where everyone knows everyone else. Heivoll gives the crime novel back to the victims, putting the focus not on the criminal or the investigators but on the ordinary and the faceless: the well-trained cantor who finds himself guarding his home with a rifle; the old couple who lose everything up to their dentures in the fire; the neighbours who carry the burden of disbelief and dread as the number of conflagrations increase. It is as anti-Hollywood as it gets.

One of the novel’s primary attractions is its crossover appeal from crime fiction to literature. It shares the clipped precision and unabated gloom of Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, (which I admit is the only other book of this type I’ve read), yet sports a more elegant writing style, with less obvious exposition. Perhaps it tries a little too hard to elevate itself to a more “serious” level, featuring some tired examples of portentous phrasing and an incident with an ash-collecting mental patient that is too thematically pat to excuse. That said, Heivoll’s tone is hushed and respectful, forming a perfect complement to both sides of the narrative and bringing out the most hair-raising details of the arson case.

 It was then that the fire engine returned. … Out jumped a young man, though more a boy. They recognised him at once: it was the son of the fire chief, Ingemann at Skinnsnes. Inside the cabin he had a carrier bag full of food. …
 ‘Who wants a hot dog?!’ the boy yelled.
 He had to step into the trees to find a suitable stick. Then he poked it through a sausage from the bag and lurched into the ruins, more or less where the living room had been. In his white shirt he wasn’t warmly dressed, and he held out his arms as if he were walking on glass. He walked along the foundation wall for some of the way, but then turned and came back. There were no flames left, just ash and the thin, grey smoke. He cursed aloud. He had driven all the way to Kaddeberg’s to buy sausages and now there weren’t any flames or embers to cook them over! What the hell was going on? No one spoke. He started laughing. The firemen watched him, turned away and pretended there was work to be done. Helga wrapped her jacket tighter around her.
 ‘Then we’ll have to eat them cold,’ the boy continued, clearly miffed. ‘What do you say? Cold sausages!’ He jumped down from the wall, went from one fireman to the next offering cold, slippery sausages straight from the packet.

Unquestionably, the novel is at its best in dealing with Dag, the troubled kid who turns into a pyromaniac. It doesn’t try to get into his head, defining him through the tension he creates in his parents Ingemann and Alma—their desperate concern, fear and heartbreak. His interactions with Ingemann and Alma are at the core of the novel, a motif of parental loss that plays out in other generations, in other ways.

Before I Burn juggles one very tense storyline with another less impactful one—the coming-of-age of Gaute—and this is where the novel falters. It shares almost equal time with the conflagrations and it feels like the Gaute-becomes-a-writer plot took up so many pages because it was important to Heivoll, not because it always added to the underlying story. I expected the strands to weave together by the end and transform each other’s meaning but it never really happened.

What did result was an excellent sketch of the community and its reactions, both short and long-term, to the fires of 1978. Little effort is made to distinguish the multitude of people in the small town, emphasising their bond rather than sowing confusion for the reader. Gaute’s research into the past becomes an investigation into the private life and small moments which define a person. “We chatted for ages. Not only about the fires; other stories also came up, interwoven into previous ones, and in this way the conversation extended into a picture that grew bigger and bigger, and in the end it was unstoppable”.

Before I Burn is not the sort of book you should take on vacation. It is grim and will have you calling your house at all hours to check it’s still there. Yet it’s also graceful and strangely captivating, hypnotic in its attention to detail and in its evocations of life’s great pains and small joys. That’s a tough sell for some, but if you like Nordic noir it’ll be right up your street.

Gaute Heivoll

Piano Stories – Felisberto Hernandez


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Piano Stories (New Directions)

(Written for Media Snobs before it was taken down)

Genre: Magical Realism
Author: Felisberto Hernández
Publisher: New Directions
Type: Stories
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 3.5 / 5 – Good

The life of the writer’s writer is not generally to be envied. Talented, original, admired by their more successful brethren and ignored by the public, they toil in obscurity, die unnoticed and, if they’re lucky, get revived and stay in print. Herman Melville is perhaps the most famous beneficiary of this treatment, which has also aided writers such as Nathanael West and Henry Green. Felisberto Hernández (1902-1964) hasn’t been so lucky. He had a huge influence on Gabriel García Márquez and was admired by Julio Cortázar and Italo Calvino—but it didn’t do him much good.

Hernández was born in Uruguay and made his living at the piano, playing a variety of movie theaters and concert halls. He married four times; perhaps his wives became tired of having to support him. The same lucklessness hounded his literary career. In 1947, he scored his sole commercial publication: No One Had Lit a Lamp. It didn’t sell. It wasn’t until 1983 that a three-volume collected works appeared in Mexico, and it was 1993 before he made it to English translation, courtesy of author Luis Harss. The public still wasn’t interested and Piano Stories drifted out of print. However, New Directions has been doing its bit to bring Hernández back, first with Lands of Memory in 2008, and now with a reissue of Piano Stories. The poor man is finally gaining ground!

His life story, being so sad, does threaten the critic’s role in this review. After all, who wants to rain on a man’s posthumous parade? Not me, though my reaction to these fantastical tales has been decidedly ambivalent.

The stories tend to be the first-person narratives of nameless, interchangeable men (often piano players), generally obsessed both with the tactile nature of objects and the houses of strangers (preferably rich ones). They feel like personal aspects of Felisberto Hernández, writing purely for his own pleasure. In the short essay “How Not to Explain My Stories”, he stated “My stories have no logical structures. Even the consciousness undeviatingly watching over them is unknown to me.” His tableau is in some ways Gothic, with mysterious women, decaying houses, and isolated, ritualized atmospheres, but the stories have none of the heavy-handed emotions of the Gothic, being closer in tone to the Decadent movement.

Objects in Piano Stories are often alive, imbued with blood and desire. It is in his treatment of objects that Hernández is most unique. A balcony suicides over its human lover; a boy feels complicity between himself and the feminine furniture whose bodies he explores; perhaps most bizarrely, there’s a man whose fondest companion is his own disease:

 “I love my … illness more than life. If I ever thought I might get well it would kill me.”
 “But … what is it?”
 “Maybe some day I’ll tell you. If you turned out to be one of those persons who can aggravate my … illness, I’d give you that chair with mother-of-pearl inlays that your daughter liked so much.”
 I looked at the chair – and for some reason I thought my friend’s illness was seated on it.

The new introduction is by Francine Prose, who writes that reading Hernández is “less like hearing about a dream than like actually having one.” That’s not how Piano Stories struck me. Carlos Fuentes, in his horror stories such as Aura and “The Doll Queen” perfectly captured the irrational, yet watertight logic of a dream. The atmosphere of Piano Stories is one of the sickbed’s languor. The human characters behave as invalids, adrift in the sea of their overwrought sensations, creating memorable situations for themselves out of nothing. More importantly, the sensual overthinking that the author engages in is rarely tedious. Only “The Stray Horse” overstays its welcome. The first half recollects a boy’s early piano lessons; the second half recollects his recollections in a borderline-unreadable circular narrative that is the definition of eye-glazing.

The other long story in the collection, “The Daisy Dolls”, is the bar-none masterpiece of the set and the biggest reason Felisberto Hernández should be in your Latin American literary collection (if you have one). Wholly Gothic and perverse, it centers on a married couple and the husband’s collection of life-size dolls, one of whom was made to look just like his wife … The tension ramps up with jealousy, morbidity, practical jokes and unhealthy excitements. Great squirm-inducing stuff that really got to me.

Relatively few of the other stories have emotional impact. Most of the mysterious scenarios held my interest, but few gained a stronger reaction. It doesn’t surprise me that Márquez—whom I’ve never found emotionally involving—took inspiration from them. They often depend on their concepts for memorability—for example, an usher who can see in the dark and a widow who boats around her flooded house. Other than “The Daisy Dolls”, the standouts are “The Woman Who Looked Like Me”, a vengeful, hallucinogenic riff on Black Beauty; the advertising satire “Lovebird Furniture”; and “No One Had Lit a Lamp”, wherein a young man reads to a parlour assembly and mingles with the guests in a manner that somehow manages to fascinate despite absolutely nothing happening.

Piano Stories rarely spoke to me in a meaningful way, but it was a fascinating, imaginative work, and I won’t soon forget it. I give it a high recommendation to fans of magical realism, especially those interested in the genre’s forerunners. If you’re a collector of the offbeat, Hernández will satisfy. In the internet age, the forgotten writers have their best chance of making a return, and he deserves the notice.

Felisberto Hernandez at the piano


The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide


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The Guest Cat (New Directions)

(This was my first post for Media Snobs, and it is now included in its entirety on my blog for preservation)

Genre: Drama
Author: Takashi Hiraide
Publisher: New Directions
Type: Novel
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 4 / 5 – Exceptional

A modest novel suffused with melancholy, Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (2001; ably translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland for 2014), requires a boatload of introspection to be properly enjoyed. Those expecting a plot should abandon the idea. Takashi Hiraide is normally a poet and this is so far his sole work of prose fiction. Its preoccupations are with daily perceptions, the fleeting nature of meaningful events and the visits and absence of a cat.

A young couple have retreated to an obscure and verdant alley in Tokyo. They work from home as copyeditors, even though there’s less money in it. They have no pets or children and know none of their alley neighbours…but they do get to know a neighbour’s cat and, over the course of time, become extremely fond of her:

 Eating and sleeping as much as she liked, circulating freely between locales, it seemed as if the boundary between the two households had itself come into question. Even the words we used to talk about Chibi had become a mass of confusion: was her coming to our house a return – a homecoming – or was it the other way around? Was home really over there? The whole situation seemed to be in flux. Once, when we had been out for the day, we returned to find Chibi there in the dim light of the entrance to welcome us, seated properly, feet together on the raised wooden floor as if she were a young girl who had been left to care for the house while we were away.
 “See, I told you. She’s our girl.”
 …or so my wife said, though she knew she wasn’t really ours. Which is why it seemed all the more as if she were a gift from afar – an honored guest bestowing her presence upon us.

Hiraide gracefully captures the aloof warmth of a cat’s presence. Personal note: I’ve got six cats and in the course of reading and note-taking for this review I managed to interact with almost all of them. Hiraide understands the mystery of the cat, particularly the one you don’t know too well. And the nameless couple at the heart of this story have never known any cats well.

They come to their leafy residence in the mid-80s estranged from the outside world and “completely exhausted”. Relatively little info is given on the pair and yet it is impossible not to feel sympathy toward them. Hiraide’s emotional dissection of the things which cause woe and the things which soothe it is incredibly precise and affecting. The nature of the malaise they suffer from at the start is also never explained, an intriguing solution to the possible banality of the premise.

Among the blurbs for The Guest Cat is one by Nobel-winner Kenzaburo Oe and his praise should serve as fair warning that this small book is a bit of a downer (enough so that I had to put it down briefly). Much Japanese literature of the 20th Century looks into the human void and reports back terror – Oe, Mishima, Tanizaki, Dazai, et cetera, with more recent writers like Ryu Murakami and Natsuo Kirino seeming to carry on the tradition. In a way, Hiraide is also looking into the void but there are no psychos, no sex or self-destruction used to illustrate the emptiness. The Guest Cat is a gentle and somber work where tragedy comes with the absence of beautiful and cherished things, embodied in something as simple as an old house waiting for demolition.

To the non-architectural, detailed descriptions of buildings tend to bog down the narrative. The first few chapters are rather hard going for a reader trying to latch on to the couple and Chibi the cat. Don’t worry though; the book is only 140 pages and it’s the rare chapter that takes more than 5. Eric Selland’s inclusion of Translator’s Notes also offers some assistance with the culture shock aspect (explaining about tatami mats and sundry). Hiraide’s writing is quite lovely and once he’s moved beyond the blueprint of the house nothing else is a problem. His precision becomes rewarding. For instance, having described every window in their home, the narrator goes on to depict what happens when he throws them all open and the wind pours in “like an avalanche of snow”:

The house quickly became a hollow cavity for the wind to race through. I stared in blank amazement at the courtyard for drying clothes where the clouds in the sky ran quickly past. Two slender branches of mistletoe, which had been entwined there, snapped in the wind and fell. I looked up to see the neighbor’s great zelkova tree, gradually encroaching on our side of the fence, blasted by the wind, causing both branches and trunk to sway violently. Through the slanted skylight, a few rays of sun would pierce for just a moment and then vanish, only to return, combined with buds blown in from the plum tree – everything timed to the rhythm of illumination and concealment.

In becoming attached to Chibi, the narrator begins to spend more of his time outdoors watching her. He takes up gardening work for his ailing landlady, befriending a dragonfly with the help of a garden hose and seems to open up to life a little more; all the while knowing this idyllic sanctuary is on its last legs. “I continued to work in the garden for relaxation during writing breaks, cleaning reeds out of the pond, removing cobwebs from between rocks and trees, and pulling weeds, until the vast space with its folds and depth was transformed….I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that within a year the house and its garden would most likely be put up for sale. And yet despite that knowledge, I had begun acting as if I was a live-in groundskeeper, setting up house in a corner of the premises, large enough to be a public park.”

The normal thing to do would be to play this for a domino effect, where the couple’s love for the cat expands to a whole circle of human acquaintances. The Guest Cat thoroughly questions such a result without succumbing to pessimism. It’s not bitter and it’s not at all challenging to read, combining a graceful purpose with a stylistically pleasing brevity. It won Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award and, interestingly, became a bestseller in France. Thoughtful cat lovers should enjoy it, as would anyone interested in Japanese literature.


Takashi Hiraide

Incidentally, stray cats feature heavily in the work and you can see pictures of Japan’s feline population here.


Bits and pieces of the ironical (but thoroughly upbeat!) music I would want on the stereo at an actual party.

Here were videos of songs by Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. Since the “MS Originals” posts are now a memorial, this is no longer appropriate and I remove them. My surrounding comments are left intact.

Bought some ice cream and a bar of chocolate in town. I made it past the editors! I got published! I didn’t get fired! It’s my 50th blog post!! Hell yeah, I’m celebrating now!

I’ve Been Hired


Lubna by José Luis MuñozBig news on the blogging front. I have been hired to write reviews for the multimedia website Media Snobs. The requirement for my work is that I write on books that are newly published or forthcoming and since there is a plethora of new and forthcoming literature in the world (all of which is too expensive to justify buying when you don’t have a job) I have accepted the offer. The people there will aid me in getting the books I need, which is a pretty nice benefit by itself. I won’t be paid, but I will get the opportunity to have my reviews published on a site with way more traffic than mine. This is a huge upturn in my fortunes. It calls for exclamation marks and pictures of cake and balloons but that will have to wait until my first review is up and I lose the white knuckles.

This will naturally herald some changes to Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews. I certainly have no intention of neglecting the place.

I will be posting a new book review every two weeks for Media Snobs. I will repost them here in an abbreviated form of my accustomed style, providing a snapshot description, a link to the full review and the usual book cover/author pic duo. These will be located under the “MS originals” tag as well as my usual means.

The first review will surely be murder but I hope to learn the rhythm rather quickly. After all, I have made it my habit to post every single month for Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews so being forced to post two reviews a month will not be a big change to my ordinary productivity. Continuing to produce original material for this blog while working for a professional website is in some ways my greater worry.

Even so, I have faith in my ability to swing this. I’m working on my next Harvard Classics essay (which will probably appear in the first half of this month, give or take the tedium of Phaedo) while waiting for the post office to deliver the book I intend as my first Media Snobs review. Hopefully that will arrive tomorrow. I’ll be burning the midnight oil (and possibly the five-in-the-morning oil) until Wednesday. Wish me luck.


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