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Posts Tagged ‘Bellevue Literary Press’

Monastery is Eduardo Halfon‘s second novel (after The Polish Boxer, also from Bellevue Literary Press) about Eduardo Halfon. Yes, the author and his hero share a name. In interviews at the time The Polish Boxer came out, Halfon said “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”

My library hosted Thatcher Freund last night for a talk entitled, “Why Stories Matter.” He was addressing life stories, and he noted two things that resonated with me as I finished Monastery at lunch today. First, that memoirs are about the moments in our lives as we remember them. And second that the details of a story are what the person writing/telling it went through, but the truth of the story is what everyone went through. Halfon’s work is a tremendous example of that.

Halfon’s narrator grew up in a Jewish expat family of Polish and Lebanese origins in Guatemala and in Monastery he relates his travels. He visits his sister’s fiancee’s ultra Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, his grandfather’s boyhood neighborhood in Warsaw, the Dead Sea, a coffee cooperative in Guatemala and a border town near Belize, a jazz salon in the Paul Robeson Residence in New York, a former U-boat base on the French coast.

But whether we have experienced these things ourselves is irrelevant because the novel — which like The Polish Boxer reads like linked stories — is not really about the details, as interesting and enticing as those are. The novel is about family and love and confusion, about being together and alone, about identity and all that entails. It’s about having faith in who we are and in who we might be and even in who we (or others) might say we are. It’s about losing that faith or rediscovering it or worrying we’ll never have it. And all of us have experienced those things to some degree.

Halfon’s writing is rich. You may experience moments of dislocation or unease as you try to navigate the threads between chapters, which seem tenuous when you’re in the midst of them but grow stronger. But you’ll probably find yourself forgiving this because the book is beautiful and of course, True.

For example, the reader isn’t sure what’s going on when Eduardo hesitates outside the jazz salon, founded as an outlet for a grieving mother. He was looking for the place, so why doesn’t he just go in? He turns to the woman who helped him find his way, who is still in the elevator:

“The sound of the piano stopped, then silence, and gentle applause. She smiled at me with just her eyes. I held out my hand, a bit hurried and proud, perhaps wishing to defer the inevitable for a while longer. It took her a moment to understand, but then she also held out hers. And we stayed like that for a couple of seconds, maybe not even that, each of us on separate sides of the doors.”

Yes. Exactly. I’ve never been there in that moment but I’ve been there, in that moment.

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I’ve shared several Bellevue Literary Press books with bookconscious readers (many of which I’ve heard about because of the talented Molly Mikolowski, one of the best publicists in the industry) — TinkersThe SojournUnderstories, The Polish Boxer – and I’ve loved them all. BLP brings readers amazing books that defy easy categorization or mass marketing. If you want a good read, many publishers can offer that. If you want an amazing, transformative read that will settle down in your memory and open a dialogue with the best books you’ve read, a book that will challenge you to new levels of emotional and intellectual perception, a reading experience that might blow your heart open or change your worldview, go to the Bellevue Literary Press website and pick any book.

For example, Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes. This lovely book sounds slighter than it is: the story of Katherine, a mother in Belfast on the cusp of The Troubles in 1969, who has a frightening experience while swimming in the sea which triggers memories of the summer twenty years earlier when she got engaged and incidents which remain just below the surface of her marriage.

Straightforward in lesser hands, but Forbes’ prose is like a masterful painting you see at a museum: at first glance you may respond to the beauty, the color and texture, composition and themes. But the longer you look the more you realize the artwork is powerful, it’s both contained and expansive, incredible in and of itself, but also able to impact the way you feel, the way you view this work and everything else you see in the museum.

That’s what this novel, like other books I’ve read from BLP, does. Here’s a paragraph that shows what I mean:

“How heavily it rained. It was as though the weather could not stop itself. Rain fell from a liquid sky like pellets of broken silver, battering against the buildings and the pavements, falling so suddenly and heavily that the earth did not have time to drink it in. Water spilled off the streets and the gardens, running in long furious ropes into the rivers and the sea. As Katherine closed the door of the church hall behind her, the rain hammered on it as though it wanted to get it.”

By itself, evocative, even muscular prose, this paragraph opens a chapter in which emotional tension thickens and bursts. The rainstorm sets the scene and also the psychological tone, as Katherine feels worse and worse about an untenable situation she has found herself in and finally, makes a rash, impactful decision.

I could quote many other passages. The sections which portray long marriage are profound and lovely and make a hero of solid, dependable George and his kind of quiet love. Ditto the chapters about motherhood. There are taut, indelible scenes — children provoking each other with dares, the firebombing of a Catholic shop, and a school swim class, to name a few — which read as if burned into memory.

Even towards the end, when readers may feel as if the story’s progress is chugging down a familiar track to a destination that’s vaguely recognizable, Forbes’ exquisite writing keeps Ghost Moth fresh and moving. This is a terrific novel, and like everything I’ve read from Bellevue Literary Press, it’s one that will stay with me.

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I picked up The Polish Boxer expecting excellent literary fiction — it’s published by Bellevue Literary Press. What I got was that and much more; a semi-autobiographical tale of a Guatemalan Jew, a trip around the world, insight into Balkan cultural fragmentation, jazz and the nature of improvisation, Gypsy music and culture particularly in Belgrade, the meaning of fiction and its place in reality, the preservation of Holocaust stories,the human psyche’s adaptation of beliefs and mythology/storytelling as a way to reconcile daily life with universal truths . . . . I could go on, but it would be better if you would just read this genre-bending novel for yourself.

In publicity materials and interviews, Eduardo Halfon has described the book as semi-autobiographical, and he’s said, “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”  The book felt to me like a novel-in-stories, especially in the early chapters, which follow the main character (also called Eduardo) from his literature classes at a Guatelmalan university to literary conferences in North Carolina and Portugal to the streets of Belgrade, where he is looking for a half-Serbian, half-Roma pianist he met at an arts festival in Guatemala.

We meet his lover, Lia, his musician friend Milan, and an eminent Twain scholar who recognizes Eduardo’s b.s. at a conference and chooses to tell jokes when it is his turn to speak. We also meet Eduardo’s grandfather, Leon. Leon is an Auschwitz survivor whose story of a fellow Pole, a boxer, coaching him to survive his trial becomes truth to Eduardo, until he reads another version of the story in a newspaper interview Leon gives shortly before his death. In the new version, there is no Polish boxer; Leon survives by other means.

This revelation causes Eduardo to say, in his speech at a conference in Portugal on how “Literature Tears Through Reality,” “Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.” He recounts the ending of an Ingmar Bergman film, Shame, and explains, “That is exactly what literature is like. As we write we know there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.”

I’ve only just finished The Polish Boxer so I’m not sure I’ve fully processed what it’s said to me about reality. But it’s a book full of sex, smoking and drinking, language, music, friendship, culture and identity. It’s about loss — the kind you feel without really understanding what it is that’s missing, only knowing it’s not there.

It’s about whether or not a Gypsy pirouetting means anything, and what it means, and what meaning means. It’s about the ways people in a Belgrade slum and a Guatemalan village and a Polish neighborhood and Brooklyn and a million other places live and love and get by the same as you and I. It’s about love, not just between lovers, but love of family and love of place, love of tribe (by birth or by art), love of humanity and the way love is the humanity between us, even at times when hate is the currency of power.

It’s about the need to write, to tell what urgently needs to be told, or to sing it or play it. It’s about poetry, which in the Mayan language Cakchikel  is “a braid of words . . . an embroidered blouse of words.”  That’s it too: The Polish Boxer is an embroidered blouse of words. And a tattoo on on old man’s arm,of his number at Auschwitz, the one he told his grand-kids was a phone number. And it’s the patterns we fall into, in loving and judging each other. In defining the world around us. In making reality and writing it into our consciousness.

Confused? Don’t be. I can’t do this book justice. Get yourself to your local bookstore or your library and ask for Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer. Get comfortable — the most frustrating thing about reading this book was that I didn’t have a good long stretch to read it in one sitting. Pour yourself a drink. Put on some music — jazz, gypsy, or whatever inspires your heart to longing. And enjoy this magical, unreal trip through reality.

 

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This week I read Tim Horvath‘s first book, Understories, and it made me realize there are some excellent writers you’ve never heard of (nor have I). If it wasn’t for the fact that Horvath knows Rebecca Makkai, who I met last summer, I might not have heard him read from “Circulation” when they visited Gibson’s Bookstore in July (Rebecca was promoting the paperback of The Borrower). It’s entirely possible that what with books for my column, books I hear about at work, and books already around my house waiting for me to read (not to mention heavy media coverage of only a few “it” titles a month, but that’s another rant), I might have missed Understories.Which is maddening, because this is not a book I would want to miss.

Understories is a very satisfying short fiction collection because the stories not only share an aesthetic — writing that is philosophical, sometimes whimsical, darkly funny, thought provoking, intense, evocative — but seem to come from a world that is similar to ours but riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these stories left me feeling slightly off kilter.

Examples: the eight “Urban Planning” stories are each set in a strange city, such as one inhabited by the dead (new residents don’t always realize it at first). Another city has films constantly projected on its walls, and the main characters in that story are a projectioneer and his childhood friend who is in an anticinematic movement.

Some of the other stories that aren’t part of the “Urban Planning” series also dip into fantasy, like “The  Conversations,” which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse. Conversations (capital C) explode like terror attacks, leaving a strange mint scent in their wake. A philosopher determines that the opposite of Conversation is kismet, “meaning moments when people found common ground in an almost transcendent way.” He’s delusional and has spent a lot of time on his research: “the idea was to ingest as many and as various substances as he could track down, legal and illegal alike, and describe them.” He crashes a scientific summit convened to solve the problem of Conversations.

Even the stories set firmly in what we recognize as reality have a philosophical bent; Hovarth doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds, and souls of his characters. I was drawn to many of them — the main characters in “Runaroundandscreamalot” and “Circulation” are people living with a great deal of empathy, even as they struggle, respectively, with divorce and joblessness and a dying parent. They each have a fairly quirky relative – an inventor brother in one case, and the dying father in the other, a man whose life work (never finished) was a book called the Atlas of the Voyages of Things.  Both men are so kind to these misfit souls whose quests have impacted their families’ lives.

I also loved “The Understory” — what a beautiful story. Schoner, a botany professor at University of Freiburg where Heidegger is also teaching, gets to know the philosopher before fleeing Germany ahead of the war. In America he can’t teach because his English isn’t good enough, so he landscapes, and eventually buys a home with a small patch of forest in New Hampshire. The hurricane of 1938, closely followed by the hurricane of Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, topples the trees Schoner loves, even as the war topples everything he’s known in Germany. His children want him to “clean up” the plot, cut paths through it, but he refuses because in it he sees all the people who he lost: “this plot preserves them.”

“The Discipline of Shadows,” about an “umbrologist” is both a playful jab at academic politics and a funny and strange story about a professor of shadows. In “Planetarium,” a man vacationing with his family in Glacier National Park runs into an old high school classmate and revisits the memory of a girl he knew, his giddy admiration of her, and her rejection of him. I’m summarizing poorly, but Hovarth captures that bittersweet sense of both the pleasure and pain of adolescence that can be easily triggered by a memory conjured after long dormancy.

This is not a quick read; it’s a book to read slowly and carefully, and to ponder between stories. But you’ll be glad you spent time in Tim Horvath’s rich, thoughtful, witty fiction. I was not surprised that Bellevue Literary Press published Understories. They bring readers this kind of thought provoking, beautiful book (like Tinkers and The Sojourn)Check out their titles, and maybe you will discover a book you might have missed.

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