Sunday, May 3, 2009

May flowers

After doing our best to keep the display tables well-stocked through an unnervingly sparse winter book season, May springs upon us (no pun intended?) with dozens of new releases. Here's a concise guide to some of my favorite novels and short story collections of the spring.

Guillermo Rosales' compulsively readable novella, Halfway House, is a not for the faint-of-heart. It tells the story of a (self-proclaimed) crazy Cuban emigre in Miami who is abandoned by his family to the sadistic and infernal powers of a government home for the insane and forgotten. Publisher's Weekly called it a "frightening, nihilistic cousin of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. For more on the book, including an excerpt, check the New Directions page here.

Charles Bukowski called Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, "The best novel of the last 2,000 years". Now, in a true literary event, comes the last of Celine's apocalyptic novels to be translated into English, Normance. The book relates the story of a mad, bleakly uproarious air attack on Paris during WW2, after which the polite veneer of civilization has been stripped away, leaving only chaos - hilarious chaos for those like prefer their humor black. A quotation from Life magazine will give you an idea of his style: "CĂ©line was the black humorist to his age three decades before the term was invented . . . Alongside this apocalyptically-minded Paris doctor our local batch of black comics are pretty gray cats."

Basic Books has released curious volume: on one side, That Mad Ache, a forgotten 1960s novel by Francoise Sagan (best known for her precocious Bonjour Tristesse); on the other, Translator, Trader, an assessment of the art of translation by Douglas Hofstadter. I'll admit I was more interested in Hofstadter's essay than the novel itself, so it was somewhat despite myself that I began the novel - and even more surprising when I found that I was affected by it. It's a very French take on love and may surprise you as well as it did me. And for those of you more stony-hearted than I am, the Hofstadter piece is worth the price of admission alone.

Finally, San Francisco resident Damion Searls is already widely-regarded as a translator (of Proust, Rilke, Rober Walser and others) and editor (of the forthcoming Journals of Henry Thoreau), and this, his debut story collection, is certain to garner acclaim as well. The stories comprising What We Were Doing & Where We Were Going are based on a conceit appropriate for a translator - a conceit I won't spoil here - but they don't rely on gimmickry to convey a sense of casual brilliance. Start with my sentimental favorite of the bunch, "A Guide to San Francisco," in which the narrator takes a stroll down Balboa St. to the beach and ends up at a familiar bar in the Mission.

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