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Listen to
The Butcher’s Trail
author Julian Borger

 

on The Diane Rehm Show

 


 


on NPR’s The Brian Lehrer Show

 


 


on BBC Newshour

 


at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute 

 


 

Praise for

The Butcher’s Trail

“[A] vivid, page-turning account…A well-organized, deeply researched work that ably digests the Balkan war, the criminals, the criminal court, and its legacy.” —Kirkus Reviews STARRED REVIEW

“Well researched…timely.” The Wall Street Journal

Gripping.” The Independent

Vivid…well-researched.” Publishers Weekly

“Presented in captivating detail [and] often playing out like a true-life spy novel…fascinating.” Library Journal

The Butcher’s Trail create[s] what may ultimately become one of the defining accounts of this episode of Balkan history.” The National

“Borger’s compelling, readable prose with these stories of assault on impunity offer a rare opportunity to penetrate the ‘nationalist bromides’ and ‘sounds of slogans’ that continue to hold these countries back in ways that are tragic in all sorts of new, post-war ways…Fascinating.” —The Arts Fuse

“A simultaneously thrilling and horrifying read.” —Signature

The Butcher’s Trail reads like a cross between a John le Carre novel and the latest Bourne installment.  Except this fine book is true.  At a time when Europe’s ugly nationalisms are resurgent, Borger’s account of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and the pursuit of justice could not be more important.” —Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus accident, and the Illusion of Safety

“Julian Borger reveals in riveting new detail exactly how a daring team secretly tracked down some of the worst war criminals of our time, and in doing, he shows us what it takes for justice to win.  This book is brilliantly researched, beautifully written and important.” —Ann Curry, journalist and correspondent

“Julian Borger’s thrilling history of the hunt for the infamous Balkan war criminals and the torturous path to creating and empowering the International Criminal Tribunal is not just masterfully told, but devastating in its revelations of complacency in the face of ethnic cleansing.” —Hooman Majd, author of NY Times bestseller The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

“Julian Borger has written the definitive account of the hunt for the war criminals of the former Yugoslavia. The Butcher’s Trail is wonderfully well written and deeply reported and it raises important questions about how to bring to justice those that have committed wars against humanity.”  —Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad

“This book is a powerful page turner.” —David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues (1997-2001) and law professor at Northwestern University


 

 

Polish soldiers meet Slavko Dokmanović on June 27, 1997.
 

Ousted president Slobodan Milošević is read his rights by Kevin Curits, a British ex-policeman, on June 28, 2001.

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author of Guapa

Other Press: In Guapa Rasa asks “Is boredom reason enough to rebel?” Do you think boredom is a good enough reason to rebel? How far do you think boredom can take a revolution?

SH: I suspect Rasa misdiagnosed his emotions here. Perhaps what he was feeling was not boredom, but a sense of hopelessness. In Arabic, the word would be ihbat, which is a feeling of being deflated and depressed. These feelings are certainly reason enough to rebel and demand something better. As to how far these feelings can take a revolution—I’m less optimistic. They are just one ingredient needed, but there are others: organizational and constituency-building tactics, a clear vision of what a better future would look like, and a clear plan of how to get there.

OP: Guapa is your first novel. What inspired you to write a novel? Why did you want to tell this story? Was it difficult to wrangle so many topics—gender identity, gay life, the life of a family, Middle East politics and American imperialism, and a very moving romance story—into one story?

SH: There are very few positive or accurate representations of the complexities of queer life in the Arab world. We are painted either as helpless victims by Western media, or as sick deviants, agents of the West, or a symptom of a decaying civilization by Arabic media. So I wanted to write something that would speak to my own experiences and the experiences of other queer Arabs around the world. And to do so I felt it was necessary to show the complexity of our experience, and how closely our struggles are linked to broader struggles of family, gender, politics, and imperialism. It was a challenge to do this and also tell a moving love story, but I knew that I owed it to myself and other queer Arabs to write the story in all its complexity.

OP: In Guapa, not only do you avoid naming the Arab country where the story takes place, you never name the event that occurs while Rasa is studying overseas. Why is this? Is there a relationship in your novel between what is named and what is unnamed?

SH: I went back and forth about whether to choose to set the story in a specific country. In the end, I liked that the ambiguity of the country mirrors Rasa’s own difficulties with labeling himself and his refusal to fit into the categories society tries to place him in. There are practical reasons as well: for the most part, queer Arabs live safely in a lively but very private social network. Revealing a country and trying to be specific about queer life in that country would expose people in a way that I felt was not ethical. So I decided that the only way to shed light on this rich subculture, but also respect the subculture’s privacy, would be to keep the setting ambiguous, and draw from different elements, both positive and negative, of the region’s queer subcultures.

OP: There’s a struggle between Rasa and his grandmother, Teta, over the legacy of their family, over what they choose to remember and how they remember it. Do you think there’s a great difference in how memory works for an individual or within the story of a family, and how it works historically, how it works for a country? As a novelist, how do you approach writing about memory?

SH: I think there are a lot of similarities between the politics of memories, myths, and storytelling in families and at the level of a country. Nation-building is very much about creating myths—embellishing certain stories and brushing under the carpet darker histories. Families operate in much the same way. In Guapa, as Rasa begins to uncover the darker elements of his country and his society, he inevitably comes across his own family’s darker secrets that he had a hand in burying.

OP: What resources would you suggest for the reader who wants to know more about gay life in the Middle East? How can one learn more without simply being complicit in an outsider’s gaze?

SH: There’s a huge diversity of queer experiences in the region, and I think anyone wanting to learn more about gay life in the Middle East needs to recognize that there is not a single gay experience. It’s also important to recognize that queer Arabs often face a dual struggle: we are not just battling homophobia and patriarchy within our own societies, but also anti-Arab and anti-Islam narratives prevalent in the Western world, which sometimes wants to use our voices to further that agenda. Recognizing this dual struggle is important for outsiders who want to better understand gay life in the region.

Some great resources (links embedded):

Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs (This review by Brian Whitaker, which critiques Massad’s theory on the “Gay International,” is also worth reading.)

Meem, Bareed Mista3jal

What is Pinkwashing? (video) (For a more in-depth analysis of pinkwashing, visit the Pink Watching website, or read this.)

James Harkin, “We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive: A Gay Soldier in Assad’s Army”

A series of videos on queer politics in the Middle East from a 2015 conference at Brown University on “Sexualities and Queer Imaginaries in the Middle East/North Africa.”

Brian Whitaker, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East

Sarah Harvard, “Stuck in the Media Spotlight, LGBT Muslims Often Feel Exploited

 

OP: Many writers have routines and tricks to help them with their work. Do you have any writing quirks?

SH: I write in the early morning, when I’m only half-awake. That way I’m less conscious about what I put on the page. Forcing myself to write every morning, at the same time and place, makes it a ritual and a habit.

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Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, reviewed Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations for The Washington Post this past Sunday.

In her review Alexander asks the questions, “What can America learn from systems of incarceration around the world?” and “What is justice?” In Incarceration Nations Dreisinger, she explains, “takes us on a tour of prisons around the globe in search of clues that might answer the question of what justice is or, rather, what it ought to be.” Alexander details Dreisinger’s travels across the globe, from Norway, where she marvels at the short sentences for inmates and amenities available at the prisons, to Brazil, where she discusses literature with an inmate, and back to the United States, which has “mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, militarized police forces and a prison building boom unlike anything the world has ever seen.” She praises Dreisinger’s work thusly:

The great gift of Incarceration Nations is that, by introducing a wide range of approaches to crime, punishment and questions of justice in diverse countries — Rwanda, South Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, Uganda, Singapore, Australia and Norway — it forces us to face the reality that American-style punishment has been chosen. It is not normal, natural or inevitable.

In her review Alexander is most intrigued by Dreisinger’s visit to Rwanda, the nation most immediately known for the 1994 Civil War and genocide. There, she says, the country “aims to rebirth itself by facing its history honestly, unflinchingly, with open hearts and minds, yet we learn little about this reckoning and national awakening.”

You can read Michelle Alexander’s review on The Washington Post online.

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It’s Women’s History Month! Take a look at some our favorite authors to find the next woman you’ll be reading this month.

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Three irresistible, genre-bending novels from Other Press.

You won’t find any typical women’s fiction here. With Couple Mechanics, Willful Disregard, and The Other Woman what you’ll get is a truly inventive twist on the novel of the affair. Whether it be a marriage caught in crisis, a young intellectual woman unmoored by her romantic passion, or a an aspiring writer bound by her gender and her class, Other Press delivers challenging and surprising contemporary novels for today’s modern woman. Download a PDF of the poster by clicking on the image below.

3 women's books

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March is Women’s History Month, and here at Other Press we’d love to help you celebrate with a wide selection of brilliant and challenging women authors. This season we’ve published three psychologically intense novels about women and their relationships, written by women: Nelly Alard’s Couple Mechanics, Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard, and Therese Bohman’s The Other Woman.

Women books

All three eschew the standard stale romance with reassuring narratives of revelation and self actualization; they are sharp, incisive, and honest looks into what it means to open yourself up to the vulnerability of a relationship with another person. Couple Mechanics is Nelly Alard’s answer to Simone de Beauvoir’s classic, The Woman Destroyed. In it she details one urban career woman’s fight to hold on to her husband, despite his infidelity and modern-day feminism’s maxim that pride and dignity take precedence over desire. In Willful Disregard Lena Andersson crafts an arresting portrait of one woman’s psyche as she battles through an obsession with the subject of one of her articles. Ester is young, analytical, and highly educated—not the type of person you’d expect to lose herself in another person. What you’ll find in Andersson’s award-winning novel is the dark irony that can lie at the heart of a manic pixie dream. The Other Woman is Therese Bohman’s (Drowned) twist on the novel of a marital affair. Our unnamed narrator is the other woman of the title, and through Bohman’s characteristic limpid prose and unnerving insight into modern-day gender politics, we learn exactly what that means.

Other Press has a long and proud tradition of publishing amazing women authors. Start with Alard, Andersson, and Bohman. When you’re done you can move on to some of our other favorites, like Minae Mizumura (A True Novel), Kyung-sook Shin (I’ll Be Right There), Olga Grjasnowa (All Russians Love Birch Trees), Stephanie Vaughn (Sweet Talk), Randa Jarrar (A Map of Home), and Yvette Christiansë (Unconfessed). 

If what you’re looking for is nonfiction, then look no further than Sarah Bakewell. She wrote the National Book Critics Circle Award winner How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, and we’ve just published her At the Existentialist Café, already a New York Times bestseller. In it she uses her distinctive wit and ability to distill complex ideas into accessible prose to bridge biography and history: she details the lives of the philosophers who created the movement, including Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus, while explaining the origins of existentialism and its significance in today’s world. We’re also excited to have one of the most important books coming out this season, Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations. A complex  and necessary look into America’s exportation of its prison industrial complex, Dreisinger offers what no other book on this subject does: a path toward change. James McBride (author of The Color of  Water and The Good Lord Bird) praises her work, calling Incarceration Nations a “well-written work of redemption and identity.”

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author of Incarceration Nations

Incarceration Nations is the story of my journey to prisons around the world, beginning in Africa and ending in Europe. The idea for this global journey was born behind bars in America, where I launched the Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which offers college classes and reentry planning to incarcerated students in New York State. I had started the program hoping to make some small dent in the American mass incarceration crisis. The world’s largest jailer—with some 2.3 million people incarcerated—the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prison population. More African Americans are under criminal supervision today than were enslaved in 1850.

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But I was troubled by the fact that the public conversation rarely turned from America’s incarceration calamity to the global prison problem—a system the U.S built and then foisted on the world. Between 2008 and 2011, the prison population grew in 78 percent of all countries. Some 10.3 million people worldwide are behind bars, many convicted of nothing, waiting years to be tried and lacking access to adequate legal assistance.

I began to envision a global journey, one that would offer a chance to rethink one of America’s most devastating exports. On a basic level, I felt an urge to be a witness, to expose the hidden places and forgotten people that exist in every country. Such a journey seemed, for me and for my readers, a moral imperative. After all, justice should be loud and proud, a transparent system endorsed by all citizens. Yet prisons are invisible spaces, places most people never see, yet dimly accept as real and right. How can we endorse what cannot be seen?

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The final inspiration for my journey was a terrible realization: I was so routinely inside prisons, so often immersed in analyzing prison issues, that I was beginning to lose perspective. I needed a shock to the system, to ask myself anew what I used to get asked all the time: Why care so passionately about the so-called wrongdoers of the world? I would find fresh answers to this question, seeing prison anew by seeing it around the world. Nelson Mandela famously said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

In recent years, there have been plenty of calls for prison reform, many of them driven by arguments about economics and public safety. But what about fundamental moral arguments about prison, as an ethical concept? I decided that it was time to go back to the theoretical drawing board. I chose nine countries—Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and Norway—that would defamiliarize foundational concepts about justice and prison, concepts we too often take for granted. I would re-ask the big questions about punishment, redemption, forgiveness, second chances, racism, and capitalism that had made me a prison activist to begin with. And perhaps I might convince others—as voting, thinking citizens of a democracy—to become agents of change, too.

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Other Press: Lay Down Your Weary Tune is your debut novel. Could you tell us a bit about your journey in writing it? How did you discover Jack’s voice, and how did you know this was the story he would to tell? How did the novel take shape?

W.B. Belcher: “Journey” is the right word. I began sketching out this novel almost nine years ago. At the time, I was writing both plays and short stories, and I was exploring how various forms of storytelling overlap. Mask-making, reinvention, role-playing were common themes in my work, particularly in my playwriting. I began to explore these themes in the larger playground of a novel, but I discovered early on that the characters would drive the process. Eli Page, the mercurial folk music icon, sequestered in a foothills of the Adirondacks, came first. He was followed by Jack Wyeth, a wannabe music journalist and blogger in need of direction. The novel began to take shape once I realized that its root structure was a late coming-of-age/toppling of childhood idols story on one hand, and a novel about reinvention and the folk process on the other.

Jack’s a restless person, adrift, rudderless, except for his fascination with Eli Page, which seems to center him. Jack’s interests and personal history are tangled up in the myth of Eli Page. Folk music is Jack’s frame of reference—it’s how he sees and interprets the world, and since the novel is narrated from his first-person perspective, I knew that the language, the tropes, the archetypes, the imagery would all have to stem from folk songs and that folk Americana aesthetic. It was a long journey from point A to point B, but that decision to infuse Jack’s perspective with the music and symbols found throughout folk songs was the key to finding Jack’s voice.

OP: Were you nervous about alluding to such luminaries as Bob Dylan? How did you approach depicting the beloved and renowned Caffè Lena?

W. B. B.: When I first started, I didn’t know if the story had legs. It didn’t occur to me to be nervous about those references until I was well into the process. Many readers have asked if I was really writing about Dylan or Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie (a few have even mentioned Phil Ochs); I like to say that Eli Page is all of these musicians and he’s none of them. In the end, I hope I’ve created a convincing contemporary of Dylan, although Eli Page was not nearly as famous (or elusive).

Before I began writing Lay Down Your Weary Tune, I’d only been to Caffè Lena a few times, but those experiences were somehow memorable enough to inspire two scenes in the early drafts. And it was actually those draft scenes that prompted me to get more involved at the Caffè. To put it another way, writing the novel led me to Caffè Lena; not the other way around. In the context of the story, I was interested in folk music outside of the traditional hot spots (certainly outside Greenwich Village), and Caffè Lena was my real-life example. Jack believes that it’s one of the reasons Eli relocated so far upstate. As far as my approach—I wanted to make sure the listening room seemed authentic and the readers had a sense of the atmosphere. Despite the drama that happens during those scenes in the Caffè, I think I captured the Lena’s that we know and love.

OP: You take such care in illustrating Galesville, the town in your novel. It’s almost a character of its own. Was it important to you to create a concrete sense of place? Why?

W. B. B.: Galesville is an outsized character in the novel. Early on in the Intro, Jack uses “we” when he refers to his fellow Galesville residents—he includes himself as part of the town. Even though it’s rough going at times, he still considers himself part of the community. More important than concrete, I wanted to create a small town that was complex. Galesville’s not a funky little town that embraces everyone’s quirks, and it’s not a narrow-minded town that fears change—as with most towns, it’s both of those things and a thousand others. It’s a town in transition, caught between the old and the new, the past and present, the left and right, and it’s a town in the middle of reinventing itself from a farming community to an artisan community. I wanted it to feel familiar, but I had to remember that the descriptions of the town are subjective (filtered through Jack’s perspective), unreliable, tainted by Jack’s fear of being an outsider. Lastly, the details he chooses to show the reader—the river, the trestle, the hardware store, the depot, the graveyard, and so on—are bits and pieces that could’ve been lifted from the lyrics of a folk song. In many ways, he’s constructing his own myth as he writes, and Galesville is an actor in that myth.

OP: What do you think of the state of folk music today, both in terms of the music that’s made and how it’s received? Do you think it can ever occupy the same space in the American popular conscience that it once did?

W. B. B.: That’s a heavy question. Usually, I’d lean on some friends to help me answer with authority, but I think it’s fair to say that “folk” music (whether we’re referring to the traditional music or the American folk music revival) won’t ever occupy the same space that it did prior to 1970. That said, I think it’s doing just fine, and it has demonstrated an extraordinary staying power (and influence) over the years. It also dips in and out of popular culture, from Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013 to No Direction Home in 2005 and Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One in 2004. More recently, there’s been a resurgence of all things Americana. Venues like Caffè Lena, Club Passim, The Living Room, and many others have seen an uptick in interest and attendance; house concerts are alive and well; and the festival business is thriving. Folk music’s influence extends far beyond banjos and fiddles to much of the music that is popular today. That’s my take. I’ll leave the rest to folklorists and musicologists.

OP: Are there any musicians who have influenced your life as Eli influenced Jack’s life? What do you think of the relationship between fans and their idols, especially with how much closer fans seem to be able to get to their favorite artists today?

W. B. B.: I’ve been known to obsess about different bands and musicians (for short periods of time), but I can’t say that any one artist influenced my life the way that Eli Page influences Jack’s. I don’t tend to think of my favorite writers, musicians, or artists as idols, even if I love their work. I’m more of an admirer than an obsessive fan. That said, I think the relationship between fans and their idols is an interesting dynamic to observe. Beyond the marketing, promotion, branding aspect, I think there is something human in the fan/idol relationship. We’re all looking for a connection, right? We’re searching for people who “get” us, who understand us, who share our view of the world. But those idols can’t possibly live up to the fans’ expectations. It’s not just true of musicians, writers, artists, of course; it’s true of sports heroes and politicians and so on. They’re human, after all. As Jack notes in the book, they’re “flawed, hurting, grasping for answers” just like the rest of us.

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Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café is one of the most anticipated books of the year, and it has already garnered not one, not two, but four starred reviews!

 

“‘What is existentialism anyway?’ asks Bakewell in her tremendous new work, and you’re wrong if you find that question irrelevant to your life….
Highly recommended for anyone who thinks.
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal STARRED REVIEW

 

“A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.”
Kirkus Reviews STARRED REVIEW

 

“Bakewell brilliantly explains 20th-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to ‘the task of responsible alertness’ and ‘questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom.’”
Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW

 

“Bakewell focuses upon key individuals—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Martin Heidegger…With coverage of friendship, travel, argument, tragedy, drugs, Paris, and, of course, lots of sex, Bakewell’s biographical approach pays off….An engaging story about a group of passionate thinkers, and a reminder of their continued relevance.”
Booklist STARRED REVIEW

 

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author of Couple Mechanics

Other Press: Couple Mechanics is your second novel, and the first to be translated into English. Was there a difference in process or approach between writing the two books? How was the experience of having your work translated? Did you work closely with the translator to maintain certain aspects you set out to establish in the French?

Nelly Alard: My first novel, Le Crieur de nuit, is a family story that takes place in Brittany and was very much inspired by my own childhood. It’s a short, intimate story, written in the first person but to me it is a modern tale, inspired by the old Celtic myths. I don’t know why it hasn’t been translated into English. I think it would appeal to all people interested in Celtic culture—besides being the (unfortunately too common if not universal) story of an abusive father.

Couple Mechanics is a more traditional work of fiction, written in the third person, and its themes are (maybe more) evidently universal: love, marriage, betrayal. Its originality lies, I think, very much in style and treatment. Which makes it tricky to translate. It mixes very casual dialog with the flows of Juliette’s inner thoughts. In those, the music of the words, repetitions, punctuation (or absence of) were very important to me. Also her dark humor and irony, which is the hardest thing to get across. So yes, I worked closely with Adriana Hunter to get it right and as fluid as in French, and we often preferred to cut off expressions or metaphors that didn’t work in English instead of keeping something that would have felt awkward. Thankfully, Adriana is a great translator and she had immediately captured my “voice,” so it was mostly adjustments.

OP: You were awarded the Prix Interallié for Couple Mechanics, the first woman to win the award in more than twenty years. Do you think there’s any significance to your winning it, when the novel presses questions about the contemporary state of feminism?

NA: Not only was I awarded the Prix Interallié—whose jury is entirely male—for Couple Mechanics, but I also had been awarded the Prix Roger Nimier, whose jury is also entirely male, for Le Crieur de nuit. So I received the two most misogynist French awards!! (I’m kidding here. But it is true that those two prizes are the only two French awards to only have men in their jury…) So I guess my way of writing appeals to men…

More seriously, it is true that many men have identified strongly with the character of Olivier—even though they were the first ones to call him a coward and condemn his lies and his weakness. The book in France was, I think, equally well received by men and women, and that made me happy, since one of my goals was to demonstrate the many contradictions in women’s demands today and how difficult it was for the most feminist, well-meaning men to satisfy them. Olivier, for sure, makes mistakes and acts inconsequently. But he’s a nice guy. And then he finds himself trapped between these two strong women, and at the end he is the real victim.

OP: The story of the woman who discovers her husband is having an affair is such a classic. Why did you want to tell this story? What did you want to bring to the literature?

NA: In short, I wanted to rewrite The Woman Destroyed, by Simone de Beauvoir, some fifty years later, after feminism has drastically changed the relationships between men and women, and see how this story would unfold in a modern couple, with new forces in balance.

OP: Couple Mechanics is remarkably detailed in its depiction of Juliette’s psyche and the decisions she makes in the face of her husband’s affair. Do you think it will be difficult for your readers to inhabit that space in Juliette’s head? Do you have any favorite novels that asked you to immerse yourself in an uncomfortable experience?

NA: Well, I would say almost all novels make you inhabit a space inside the main character’s head—and that’s what we love about literature: being taken away from our own lives and experiencing others’—and at the same time recognizing familiar situations or questions or thoughts that make you think about your own experience. Sometimes you identify with the character, sometimes you’re irritated by him/her, it’s all part of the fun!! While writing Couple Mechanics, I was reading and rereading Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, and I immersed myself completely in Patty’s very uncomfortable experience…

OP: In the novel, Juliette believes that society has a “very clear idea of how a betrayed woman should behave,” a script, in essence, perhaps similar to the rape script. Do you think Juliette’s actions are feminist? Do you think a feminist act can be considered otherwise depending on the circumstance?

NA: I am not sure I understand the question. Juliette considers herself a feminist and she lives her whole daily life as a feminist. But does she react to her rape, to her husband’s betrayal, to Victoire’s harassment as a feminist? I don’t think so. She reacts out of her sense of survival. She tries to protect what’s most important to her: her life, her love, her kids—and she doesn’t care whether her actions are “feministically correct” (I know this word doesn’t exist, I’m inventing it!) or not. She resents people telling her what she should do or have done, but more than anything else, she resents women like Victoire who claim to be feminists and at the same time play on all the old stereotypes, pretending to be victims all the time. The bottom line being that the purpose of feminism, I think, is to give women the right and freedom to make their own choices, and not be judged for it.

OP: The intensity of Olivier’s relationship with V is surprising considering that at the beginning of the novel he’s been seeing V for a mere three weeks. Do you want your readers to see Couple Mechanics as a critique of marriage as an institution or as an exploration of passion?

Absolutely not. “The intensity of Olivier’s relationship with V” is entirely Victoire’s fabrication. Olivier started this relationship almost casually, and he is at first surprised, then flattered, then more and more terrified by Victoire’s manifestations of passion—in the form of hysteria. In the French version, three chapters were written from Olivier’s point of view, and maybe it made this clearer. If Olivier had had a sexual passion for Victoire, he couldn’t have ended it so quickly. Seducing Victoire was for him more of a reassurance, at a time when he started to feel very insecure in his marriage, and that Juliette was slowly drifting away from him. Of course he is attracted to V but more than anything else he likes the adoring way she looks at him, especially as Juliette seems always so dissatisfied with him. Also, men easily mistake hysteria for passion, and he likes the intensity of the drama, somehow…until he realizes, unfortunately very late (maybe too late?), that the one who really suffers most because of him is not V, despite all her fits and threats, but the one he really loves—and that’s Juliette, his wife.

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His memoir, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz is a finalist for the 2015 National Jewish Book Award in the category for Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir.

The National Jewish Book Awards is North America’s longest­ running awards program in the field of Jewish literature, and is now in its 65th year. We’re thrilled that this moving and prescient memoir is named alongside other such great titles.

You can view the winners and the rest of the finalists here.

 

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For he who refuses to read women writers
How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

He read Mrs. Dalloway once, maybe back in high school, but ever since he’s stuck to Cormac McCarthy and any book that has the word “road” in the title. He makes a face whenever he comes across the phrase “mid-century misogynist.” He’s not a misogynist, of course, but he knows what he likes and he’s sticking to it. For this reader in your life we suggest Sarah Bakewell’s modern classic How to Live, the National Book Critics Circle Award winning biography of Michel de Montaigne. Charming and serious, probing and brimming with Bakewell’s characteristic wit, this is the book he’ll keep right next to On the Road for No Men.

For she who loves crime
The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri

This complex novel by Eduardo Sacheri, now a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, has as its backdrop the Dirty War of 1970s Argentina. It features all the hallmarks of great crime fiction–a mystery at its core, psychological insight into its characters, a thrilling plot full of twists and turns–and Sacheri’s deft prose.

For the one who’s had an unopened copy of À  la recherche du temps perdu on their bookshelf for 5 years
Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein

At 160 pages Monsieur Proust’s Library is a tiny book, but its rich with a history of literature and a love and fascination with the man whose name it bears. Anka Mulhstein doesn’t just give us a list of the books Proust read, but provides us with a sort of biography of the man through what he read–and how what he read shaped his thoughts and writing. Delightful in its insight, Monsier Proust’s Library is an excellent introduction to Proust and his oeuvre.

For she who loves the Brontës
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

Does she re-read Wuthering Heights each year? Has she watched all the adaptations, including the 2011 version directed by Andrea Arnold?  Does she own the Folio Society’s illustrated edition? Then next for her is Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, at once an homage to and a reworking of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, set in postwar Japan. Mizumura recalls Brontë’s frame narrative as well as the passionate love affair at the center of the novel, while detailing the effects of modernization on her native country.

For the hipster with the broken shoes who only reads foreign fiction

Memory Theater by Simon Critchley

He might have even had the author as a professor–Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and his interests range from Hegel and Heidegger to Terrence Malick and David Bowie. In Memory Theater, his debut novel, he tackles another one of his obsessions, memory and how we store it, and how it’s changing in the age of the internet.

For the movie lover
Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher

This debut novel about a ghostwriter who forges a relationship with a famed folk music recluse recalls everything from Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. and the Cohen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis  to Crazy Heart and Almost Famous. At the heart of Lay Down Your Weary Tune is a true love of music, but W.B. Belcher’s kaleidoscopic, fully fleshed characters and measured prose  probe the same themes of myth-making and identity that make movies about music so great.

 
For the newly (or not so newly) engaged 
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann

One of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014, The Cold Song may at first seem like a mystery about a young woman’s disappearance, but it’s really about the marriage between Siri Brodal, a chef and restaurant owner, and Jon Dreyer, a famous novelist plagued by writer’s block. Ullmann uses sympathy and sharp wit in equal measure to render the fine details of and intimate relationship grown strained.

For the history lover
The Butcher’s Trail

It’s been over two decades since the break up of the former Yugoslavia, and in this gripping account, Julian Borger, who covered the Bosnian War for the BBC and The Guardian, follows the manhunt for the perpetrators of the infamous crimes committed during the war. Borger recounts how Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić—both now on trial in The Hague—were finally tracked down, and describes the intrigue behind the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president who became the first head of state to stand before an international tribunal for crimes perpetrated in a time of war.

 
For the person who answers “Anything” when you ask them what they want
Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

This is the book everyone loves, including each person detailed above. Blood Brothers delves into the relationships forged between a group of paperless, itinerant young men during the brutal days of the Weimar republic, right before the rise of the Third Reich. It’s rich in period detail, with a publishing history that’s as fascinating as the narrative itself–it is the author’s only novel, and he was disappeared during World War II.

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The 20th century read Albert Camus’s The Stranger. The 21st century will read Albert Camus’s classic with Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. This book has the power to transform who we are and how we think. The New York Times Book Review called it “a letter of love, rebellion, and despair for Algeria” and the Guardian declared it was “an instant classic,” and TIME Magazine picked it as one of the ten best of the year.
Now Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times has selected it as one of her top books of 2015.
nyt

She hails it as “inventive [and] artful” and explains “It not only makes us reassess Camus’s novel, but also nudges us into a contemplation of Algeria’s history and current religious politics, colonialism and postcolonialism, and the ways language and perspective can radically alter a seemingly simple story and the social and philosophical shadows it casts.”

You can read the rest of her picks of the year here.

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author of Broken Sleep

Other Press: Your first novel, And the World Was, was published in 2006, and soon after you began working on Broken Sleep. Many writers take years to finish their second novel, like Akhil Sharma with Family Life. What was it like to write a book over so long a period of time? How did your writing process change throughout the years you were writing Broken Sleep?

Bruce Bauman: Both of my books took years and years to write. Both were “started” over twenty years ago. I understood early on that I was not a book-every-two-or-three-years kind of writer. I understood and accepted my limitations. I knew that if I wanted to write the books I envisioned, I had to get smarter and become a better writer. I’ve told my shrinks for years—two or maybe three novels I’m proud of and I’m declaring victory.

Both were rewritten many times in various forms. Once I got the basics down, Word took about six years and Broken Sleep around nine. Once it got going, BS was so much fun to write. Hard and frustrating some of the time, sure—but fun is the prevailing emotion. Even when it’s depressing.

I didn’t feel pressure to finish until the last year or so because my mom was dying and I had so wanted her to SEE its publication. I couldn’t do it and I will always regret that. But a book takes as long as it takes and I had to respect the book.

My work habits only changed once really—and that was when I actually became a writer and got serious instead of just calling myself a writer. I learned a lot about discipline and dedication from my wife, Suzan Woodruff, who has been an exhibiting artist since she was in her mid-twenties and is a brilliant painter. She has her own unique vision and follows it without giving a damn about what is trendy or hot in the art world. Once that change happened in me, I became very focused and disciplined.

OP: In Broken Sleep one of the characters, Moses, navigates what it means to be Jewish, to have that as a central part of his identity. Your first novel was also concerned with faith and the role it plays in our lives. What is it about that theme that drew you back to it?

BB: Faith, belief in God or lack of belief, and my own struggles have made that question central, and I assume it will always be central thematically, sometimes right up front as in Word, sometimes as part of many themes, as in BS. I have twenty-five diaries or notebooks, and the predominant themes are my dreams and interpreting them, my complaining about pretty much everything and trying to figure out how to give meaning to a life when you no longer have faith in God. What replaces it? Art? Sex? Politics? Fame? I don’t know the answer.

Identity is tricky and extremely complex but so often we as societies and individuals try to simplify and reduce personal identities to types, including national or religious identities. We—all of us—have individual and group identities. We often see ourselves in a way no one else does.

I’m going to stop here. The question of identity and what it represents in all meanings of that word is always central to my work, and my books speak for me on this subject.

OP: Early on in your novel a character states, “Irony without empathy is empty and juvenile.” Is this something you believe? Are there any works of art that in your opinion use irony with a true sense of empathy?

BB: There’s a song in the book “Papa’s Gun,” well yes, it’s about Hemingway’s suicide. But the lyric “irony and pity / oh so witty” is kind of a rip from The Sun Also Rises where the Bill character sings “Irony and Pity…” to Jake. That is one translation of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. All great tragedies, from the original Oedipus the King to Hamlet to The Great Gatsby have both. The last lines of The Sun Also Rises are a perfect example; a modern take on irony and pity. It’s essential to know that Lady Brett and Jake Barnes believe they are in love with each other, but because of his accident/impotence, they cannot really be together.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

OP: There are a multitude of voices in Broken Sleep, with several characters narrating their own chapters. How were you able to carve such distinct and brilliant voices for so many characters? Did the voices of the characters come before you found the form your novel would take, or after?

BB: The short answer is I have no fucking clue. Hell, a few years after Word was published, I tried to write a short piece using the voice of Levi Furstenblum. Couldn’t do it. He’s in BS briefly, but not his narrative speaking voice. Levi has, so to speak, left the building and he ain’t coming back.

Mindswallow’s voice I had very early on. Steve Erickson advised me to experiment with first and third person for Moses, which I did. And Moses said loud and clear “Third is me—I am an Old Testament voice.” Salome was the longest in coming—she always had to be in first person, and when she finally came to me she didn’t shut up.

Patience is the key. And getting good advice. After I’d written a few versions, first Allen Peacock, then Terrie Akers with an assist from Anjali Singh, really helped me get the order of the chapters right, and in so doing they let me know when a voice went off, and when I, Bruce, was intruding.

OP: In Broken Sleep the world is transfixed and transformed by Alchemy and his Insatiables. Salome’s work is equally captivating. Are there any musicians or artists who have brought that kind of significance in your own life?

BB: The Beatles and to a lesser degree Bob Dylan. It’s kind of cliché, but aside from their talent, which was enormous, they changed the cultural landscape of the world. In 1969, you could take any eighteen-year-old from the US, Brazil, East Germany, South Africa and put on Sgt. Pepper’s and suddenly they had something in common. It wasn’t just the music—that was the catalyst—it was an idea, a common language. I think that was really new. Maybe Chaplin and Garbo had that kind of recognition back in the 20s, but they belonged to everyone—grandkids, Mom and Pop and Grandpa and Grandma. Elvis had the youth thing, but he was empty inside. At that perfect moment in time The Beatles, who were a group—Dylan was always an oddball loner with friends—belonged to a generation. The youthful left-wing uprisings in France, the US, Mexico, China, Prague of ’68 dwarfed the European uprisings of 1848. I could make a case that without the new methods of communication open to almost everyone, and the Beatles were the lead messengers who instinctually grasped this new world, that the 60s as we know it could not have happened without them.

The net is an enormous technological leap, but you gotta remember this: in 1967 The Beatles played “All You Need Is Love” on the first live satellite link to 400 million people. There were others on the broadcast, but the Beatles were the stars. The Beatles had 400 million linked friends about twenty years before Mark Zuckerberg was born. That is transformative power.

 

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Missed Kamel Daoud, Francine Prose, and Dinaw Mengestu at Albertine Books? No worries! You can watch the video below.

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I know, I know most of you wanna hear about Alchemy Savant. The facts of his scurvy-pervey sexcapades and what really happened that night he bought the big one. I’ll get to that, but I been prepping for some time and I got a story to spill that’s more than just Alchemy. I loved the bastid and I despised him. Like he said, we was honest brothers, and sometimes brothers fight. Yeah, he rescued me from a life of scrounging for dimes in the deep end of the shitpool. Did that for lots of us. That was him, then and always: a lifesaving con-trol freak. After becoming a rock ’n’ roll god, he wanted not to be prez but a left-wing king.

I also been advised by the people paying me to do this to start when we met in ’92, almost thirty years ago now. I ain’t writing a word, just dictating. Don’t worry, it’s all me. They can fix everyone’s grammar except mine. I gotta sound like I sound, not some airbrushed version of me. I ain’t gonna softsell nothing neither. Some shit will make me look like a crude, ignorant crudhead and a world-class a-hole, which I was way back then and maybe still am. Judge for yourself.

I was born Ricky McFinn. Twisted branch in a warped family tree. Part Italian, part Irish, and all lapsed Catholic.My journey to becoming Ambitious Mindswallow began late summer of ’92, I’d been doing zip for a few years since I got my butt tossed out of the highfalutin School of Performing Arts for acting like a plastic surgeon and “repairing” my piano teacher’s nose after he opined my mother should’ve aborted me. Since it was my third offense, I was fresh out of community service and no-jail-time cards, so I was awarded an allexpense- paid trip to Spofford, the juvee jail. Before I could even join a gang, this motherfucker, who had body tatts of his mama, the Mother Mary, and muscle heads, tried to stick his wang up my anal hole. I elbow him in the nuts and tell him to take his queerass Puerto Rican butt back to his cell and leave me the fuck alone. That night, in the showers, in front of his compadres he gets on me for being so skinny (I was about six feet two, 130 pounds back then). So I put this fucker down: “Yeah, so what? I’m carryin’ weight in the only place it counts.”

“What you mean? You got dope?”

“Wha-utt?” I says. “Cocksucker, you so fuckin’ stoopit.” I grab my nuts. “I seen four-year-olds carryin’ bigger logs.” I let that one sink into his big, bald skull. Then wham, I snap him, “Hell, I bet yo’ mama’s clit’s bigger than your muscle!” That did it. They gouged out my left eye, which got me out of Spofford fast and gave me my little good-luck charm. Still keep my eye in a glass marble around my neck. My family was s-o-o-o sympathetic. (My dad and some Jew shyster sued the city. They ended up getting something but I didn’t get squat.) So then I was living at home, speculating on what to do with my wonderful fucking life. One night I am sound asleep when I hear my sister Bonnie, who has the other half of the bedroom, moaning and popping chewing gum bubbles while balling some lucky future herpes dick she picked up at Paddy Quinn’s. I figure I’ll hide in the bathroom, only my older brother Lenny, who’d gotten out of the army and was a speed freak, was shivering and shaking right on the bathroom floor. He liked to use me as his punch dummy, so I take about two hundred bucks and some of his pills. He can’t do shit. I feel much better after that.

My mom was screwing her new Korean lovewad — the Asian invasion was getting heavy and Main Street looks like a mini-Peking. My dad hadn’t found some pathetic divorcée to put up with his act that night, and he’s passed out drunk on the pool table in his half of the living room, which is also the office of the two family businesses. The other half is filled with “secondhand” dresses that happened to be all new that my dad “buys” and my mom sells to the neighborhood wifies. I think, Shit, Spofford’d be better than trying to make a life with this family a ratbrains.

I toss a few things into my backpack. I open the kitchen window to the fire escape. We lived on the sixth floor. I take this chair, go out the front door, and lock it. Wedge the chair under the door handle so they can’t get out. I climb up to the roof, down the fire escape, and slip back in through the window. I dial 911. I turned on AC/DC so loud it could rattle the Chinese super’s place six floors below. They all jump up and start screaming. My mom is wailing, “Ricky, yeh bastid, I’m gonna kill ya, I swearh!”

I plead to the 911 lady, over all the cursing and commotion, to get someone over here ’cause they is dying. If only. I scoot out the window and down the fire escape with only my Strat and backpack, wearing my leather jacket, though it’s late- August shitbowl Flushin’ Bay hot. I hear the sirens as I head toward Main Street to catch the Seven, thinking, They can kiss my bony ass if they ever see it again.

I start hustling — not, as rumored, letting old queens suck me off, but I do rip off tourists and hang out on 2nd and B at the Gas Station club that is this burnt-out building with only half a roof. For free booze and crash rights, I clean up the broken bottles, crack vials, and vomit. Me being only eighteen was a misdemeanor next to the other shit going down.

One night about 3 A.M., from my seat inside I see this snazzy guy wearing a black sports coat, black porkpie hat, a purple T-shirt, and black stud earring, and puffing hard on an unfiltered smoke, high-step out of a limo. (This was a few years before that hood became a haven for the hundred-dollartorn- jean crowd.) Beside him is a six-foot blond strung-out model type with albino skin and straw-thin arms clomping onto him. He has the aura. Everyone just zooms their eyes on him as he swaggers in and downs like five beers in five minutes. I’m playing my Strat, I plug in whenever I got the urge. After he buys a packet of powder for his babe, who snorts up right there, they split. As he walks out, he says, “I like your playing.” I’m thinking, Fuck you, who cares what you think? The crazy thing is, already I do care.

To make some extra smash, I was buying junk and toot from this Super Fly knockoff who hung out on the southeast corner, we call him Duckman though he calls himself “Mr. Sam Spade,” wearing his big-brimmed hat and brown leather jacket and polished white shoes. He patrols around his corner like Chuck Berry doing the duckwalk and quacking “crack, crack.” I buy some stuff from Duckman and cut that shit down so detergent’d get you higher. I sold some shit to a coupla prepsters in the Gas Station, who is acting like they was dirty boulevard homeys. This one guy, showing off for his babe, tries to scam me by shorting me, giving me seventy bucks instead of a hundred. We engage in a minor conflagration. He tries to play tough. “Fuck you, man, that shit isn’t worth a hundred.”

“You right, it ain’t.” I says to his chick, “Why you sucking off this prick? You should try this white trash missile.” I stare real tight in his face: “G’head. Try something, yeh pisshead.” As I’m doing this, I spot the snazzy dude from the other night without his hat, sitting with my guitar on his lap. He’s sidewaysed himself into the corner and is lazy-eyeing us, and then, again, he smiles at me, while strumming the Velvets’ “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”

I say to the prepster, “You think I won’t mess your pretty face, you are way mis-tak-en.” With my left hand, I pull off my shades. “Look close at my left eye . . . Yeah, it’s glass. Gift from my cell mates. Now gimme me the dope and the cash. All of it.” I took it. “Now go!”

The guy keeps strumming. No one really listened to the music or poetryslammin’ there. The Nuyorican was down the block if you was into that mumbo-jumbo. I grab an acoustic guitar from behind the bar and hand it to him. I take mine back and we start jamming. He drops me a dime worth of lickass. “You handled that real sweet.” “Yum, just swallowed that pussy whole.” He nods and starts playing “Police and Thieves,” achingly slow and reggae cool. Not at all like the Clash. I says I never hear it like that, and he says, “I always preferred Junior Murvin’s original.” I say nuthin’. Don’t want to show my ignorance. Then he starts messing with more music I never heard. Turns out it’s his shit and he sings his lyrics:

I do it for the chicks and money
don’t care ’bout no salvations
or gold-plated salutations
all I want is chicks and money . . .

We’re jamming when Mr. Suburbia drives up with his boys in a Mercedes with CT plates. I stop playing and step outside. He and his three buddies come at me. I pull my metal before they get close, and I grab the main sucker. I go right at his ear. “Bitch, I tolt ya. I don’t care. I’ll cut you good and we’ll be one pretty pair a misfits.”

Mr. Suavola glides out to us like he’s Mahatma Luther Kingmaker. “Let’s maintain a level of intelligence and decorum . . .” He gently takes my arm and pulls the knife away from the guy’s ear. He calls out to the Duckman, who saunters over.

“My man, Alchemy Savant, ain’t seen you since I hear your soulman’s heart and chocolate vodka voice charmin’ us at the Paradise,” Duckman declares, and quacks. “So what can I do you for?” These clowns are morgue-meat white. The neighborhood cops drive by and Duckman throws a big Howdy-deedamn- do kiss at ’em while Alchemy is explaining everything, only he adds this, “My friend and I, we need a car, and I think these gentlemen are going to lend us theirs as compensation for our troubles. What do you think?”

Duckman muses for a sec. “That be fair.”

Mr. CT starts howling, “No way. Wait. Please. No!”

Duckman says, like he’s sucking the last juice from his whore’s hot spot, “Boy,” and he’s lov-ing using that word, “boy, did you see that black-’n’-white that drive by? You don’ do what I suggest, you take your ride, and I call my associates and they stop you before you hit First Avenue. You know what the Tombs is, boy? The Tombs is the nastiest cell in America.” These tools are piss pants yellow now. “Shee-it, you’ll see it for yo’self.”

I’m just wishing, wishing this cat had been my lawyer in juvee court. “Okay, boys, past your bed-wettin’ time.” The CT guys start slinking away and Alchemy surprises me when he yells after them, “Give me your number.” They stop and do that, and the screw job, he thanks them.

I think it’s finally done ’til Duckman grabs my arm. “How much you get?”

“Hundred.”

“That and the shit be mine for services rendered.” No way I’m hosing Duckman. “And, one mo’ thing, as I am sure you remember, anything you sell to the white boys in here, I gets seventy-five percent. And them other three corners, I owns ’em.” He and Alchemy shake hands. I hand over the cash and the dope to the Duckman, and he quacks on back to his corner. Alchemy yells out to me, “You up for a ride?”

“Where to?”

“L.A. Going to start a band there.”

Never been to L.A. and I ain’t got sweet nuthin’ to lose and no future in New York. “Let’s jam.”

Alchemy drove like red lights, slow-moving cars, potholes is just hazards to be avoided. Or not. In minutes, we’re over the GW Bridge and jetting away from dumps like Bayonne, the “American Dream Developments,” and them putrid gas tanks of the “Garden State.” Yeah, a garden doused in weed kill. I’m thinking to myself, So Looong Flushin’, when he swivels his head so he’s looking backward and stares at the city, and I’m getting a tick nervous here about his driving skills, and he says, “Look at that skyline, and the acolyte cities, the lights, they’re like God’s dissonant drips merging across the sky on a Jackson Pollock canvas.” Uh, yeah, sure. I don’t know Jackson Pollock from Jack-in-the-fuckin’-Box, and if God created Hoboken in his image, then book me a ticket to Satanville.

A coupla minutes later he turns and asks, “So, besides taking advantage of foolish college kids, what do you want to do?”

“Pile up chicks and money,” I croon. We laugh and start riffing about L.A. and the music we want to play and all the movies we dig and all the shit we have in common. ’Cause I don’t know yet, but sense there’s plenty we don’t.

We drive for a coupla hours and it’s like 4 A.M. when he pulls off the 80. Even at that hour it’s not like any Jersey that I seen. No gas and garbage smells.

He announces, “I need to see my mom. There’s a motel where we can get some rest first.” In the room, in like one minute, the guy’s asleep. About two hours later, I hear him howling. I am freak-ing out, and I don’t freak easy, but I ain’t never heard such scarifying noises exiting out from no one except when Tommy Huston shot Davy Rathbone in the nuts. I’m thinking the guy is a psycho or he’s gonna die on me and that’s all the bullshit I need, stuck with a “borrowed” car and a dead body in Nofuckingwhere, New Jersey. I leap out of bed, turn on the lights, and shake his ass awake. He sits up, he’s all sweaty, and his eyes — whew! They are a kaleidoscope of light and dark browns with dots of tans and whites, gonzo wild and like he has just seen God and Satan — only his voice and body are totally cool.

“It’s part of my birthright,” he finally says. “You’ll see in the morning. Now go back to bed.”

I’m more than a bit jittery, so I put on the cable TV, watch some porn, and jack off in the shower while Alchemy is once again fast asleep.

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An excerpt from Rupert Thomson’s Katherine Carlyle

Another beautiful September. The sun richer, more tender, the color of old wedding rings. Rome filling up again, people back at work after the holidays. I ride through the city, over potholes and cobbles, the sky arranged in hard blue blocks above the rooftops. The swallows have returned as well, flashing between the buildings in straight lines as if fired from a gun. I park my Vespa outside the station and walk in through the entrance.

It was spring when I first started noticing the messages. Back then, they were cryptic, teasing. While crossing Piazza Farnese, I found a fifty-euro note that had been folded into a triangle. A few days later, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, I found a small gray plastic elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck. I found any number of coins, keys, and playing cards. None of these objects had anything specific to communicate. They were just testing my alertness. They were nudges. Pokes. Nonetheless, I felt a thrill each time, a rocket-fizzle through the darkness of my body, and I took photos of them all and stored them on my laptop, in a file marked INTELLIGENCE. The weeks passed, and the world began to address me with more precision. In May I stopped for a macchiato near the Pantheon. On my table was a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. I recognized the prefix — Bologna — and called the number. A woman answered, her voice hectic, a baby crying in the background. I hung up. The scrap of paper was a message, but not one I needed to pay attention to. In June I entered a changing cubicle in a shop on Via del Corso. Lying on the floor was a brochure for a French hotel. “Conveniently located for the A8,” the Hôtel Allure offered a “high standard of accommodation.” I borrowed my friend Daniela’s car on a Friday afternoon and drove for seven hours straight, past Florence and Genoa, and on around the coast to Nice. At midnight the hotel’s neon sign floated into view, the black air rich with jasmine and exhaust. I spent most of the next day by the pool. The hot white sky. The rush of traffic on La Provençale. In the early evening a man pulled into the car park in a silver BMW. He stood at the water’s edge, his shirtsleeves rolled back to the elbow. His name was Pascal, and he worked in telecommunications. When he asked me out to dinner — when he put that question — I somehow realized he wasn’t relevant. If the Hôtel Allure was a mistake, though, it was a useful one. I’ve been imagining a journey ever since.

The station concourse smells of ground coffee beans and scalded milk. I stare up at the Departures board. Firenze, Milano. Parigi. None of the names stand out, none of them speak to me. Voices swarm beneath the high sweep of the roof, footsteps echo on the polished marble, and then a feeling, sudden yet familiar — the feeling that I’m not there. It’s not that I’m dead. I’m simply gone. I never was. Panic opens inside me, slow and stealthy, like a flower that only blooms at night. The eight years are still with me, eight years in the dark, the cold. Waiting. Not knowing.

I deliberately collide with someone who happens to be passing. He’s in his early thirties. Black hair, brown leather jacket. He drops his bag. An apple rolls away across the floor.

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

“No, no,” he says. “My fault.”

The moment he looks at me, my existence comes flooding back. It’s as if I’m a pencil sketch, and he’s coloring me in. I go and fetch the apple. When I pick it up it fits my palm perfectly. The shape of it, the weight, makes everything that follows feel natural.

I hold it out to him. “I think it might be bruised.”

He looks at the apple, then smiles. “This is like a fairy tale.
Are you a witch?”

“I just didn’t see you,” I say. “I should be more careful.” I’m breathless with exhilaration. I’m alive.

“Are you waiting for someone? Or perhaps you’re going somewhere — ” He glances at the Departures board.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “Not yet.”

Something in him seems to align itself with what I’m feeling. We’re like two people running side by side and he has fallen into step with me. Nothing needs to be explained, or even said. It’s understood. His eyes are dark and calm.

“Come with me,” he says. “Do you have time?”

“Yes.”

His fingers curl round mine.

We walk to a small hotel on Via Palermo. They have a room on the second floor, at the front of the building. I hear the muted roar of a vacuum cleaner. There’s a coolness about the place, a feeling of suspension. A hush. It’s that hidden moment in the day, the gap between checking out and checking in.

On the stairs he’s behind me, watching me. My hips, my calves. The small of my back. I can feel my edges, the space I occupy. We reach the door. He steps past me with the key. He smells of wood and pepper. As soon as we’re inside he kisses me.

The room has a high ceiling and surprising lilac walls. From the window I can look down into the street. He pushes me back onto the bed. I tell him to wait. Lifting my hips, I pull the apple from my pocket. He smiles again.

We take each other’s clothes off carefully. We’re not in any hurry. One button, then another. A catch. A zip. The TV watches us from the top corner of the room. The curtains shift.

When he’s about to enter me I hand him a condom from my bag.

“You’ve done this before,” he says.

“No, never,” I say.

He looks down at me. He thinks I’m lying but it doesn’t bother him.

“I carry them to stop it happening,” I say. “It’s the opposite of tempting fate.”

“You’re superstitious?”

I don’t answer.

The noise of the traffic shrinks until it’s no louder than the buzz of a fly trapped in a jar. There is only the rustle of the sheets and the sound of our breathing, his and mine, and I think of that place in Brazil where the rivers join, two different kinds of water meeting, two different colors. I think of white clouds colliding in a sky of blue.

I cry out when I come. He comes moments later, quietly. When I turn over, onto my side, he adjusts his body to mine. He lies behind me, fitting himself against me as closely as he can, like a shadow. I feel him soften and then slip out of me. This too is part of the coloring-in.

Afterwards, I follow him downstairs. Out on the street I’m worried he will tell me his name and ask if he can see me again but all he does is put one hand against my cheek and look at me.

“Mia piccola strega.” My little witch.

He kisses me and walks away.

Later, I think of the apple we left in the hotel room. Lying among the crumpled bedclothes, its red skin glowing.

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author of Katherine Carlyle

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Other Press: Katherine listens to and references a lot of music in this novel, including “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” What part does music play in your life and in your writing?

Rupert Thomson: I listen to a lot of music, but mostly on my phone, while traveling, or in the car. I never listen to music when I’m writing. Favorite artists include Howling Wolf, Cesaria Evora, Roxy Music, Nirvana, Diego Cigala, Van Morrison, Björk, The Fall, Diamanda Galas, and Nick Cave. It’s hard to keep up-to-date though. At the moment I’m listening to the soundtrack from the Iranian vampire movie The Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night. Since music is something that defines people, it sometimes helps me to create a character. In Katherine Carlyle, the fact that Massimo puts on Suicide and then Miles Davis late at night tells you something about who he is. So does the fact that Kit’s father sings Dinah Washington songs badly when he’s driving. When my memoir This Party’s Got to Stop came out, there was so much music in it that the UK publisher made a CD and sent it to booksellers. It was an eclectic mix, everything from Jacques Brel to Alien Sex Fiend.

OP: Throughout the novel Katherine returns again and again to one of her favorite films, Antonioni’s The Passenger. What do you think about how consciousness is inhabited in fiction as opposed to in film? Are there any films that have had as deep an impact on you as The Passenger has had on Katherine?

RT: In the first draft of Katherine Carlyle I referenced The Passenger instinctively, without realizing how fitting it would turn out to be. I simply thought it was a film that someone of David Carlyle’s generation—also my generation—would have seen and admired. Also, David Carlyle might be attracted by the fact that the film is about a foreign correspondent—i.e., someone in the same profession. Gradually, though, I realized that the movie’s protagonist echoed my protagonist: they were both self-destructive while appearing to be spontaneous and carefree. Perhaps Kit even subconsciously imitates the story arc of her father’s favorite film in the hope that it might help him to follow her and find her. In any case, I found all kinds of ways in which the two narratives could play off each other.

In films you’re looking at people from the outside. It’s about surfaces—what you can decipher from what you’re being shown. In fiction you’re more likely to be inside, looking out. The miracle of fiction is that it allows you to inhabit different thought patterns, different characters, different worlds. You get to spend time in other people’s heads. No other art form penetrates human consciousness in quite the same way.

So many films have had an impact on me. A short list of directors I keep returning to would include Wong Kar Wai, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fassbinder, Billy Wilder, Wim Wenders, Paul Thomas Anderson, Visconti, John Cassavetes, Claude Chabrol, and Harmony Korine. Most recently I’ve become obsessed with Bela Tarr’s film of Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango. Some individual scenes last almost half an hour. You stop expecting jump-cuts, or even editing. (In an interview Bela Tarr’s editor once said: “The important thing is to know where not to cut.”) Watching becomes a form of meditation. I’m always looking for films that challenge the medium, that attempt what Susan Sontag once called a “heroic violation of the norms.”

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OP: Katherine Carlyle is your tenth novel, and you’re well known for tackling widely varying subjects and genres in your writing. What is it that keeps you engaged with your work on a day-to-day basis?

RT: I have never felt that the word “genre” applies to my work. It’s just not relevant. The books are the books. They might have a thriller dynamic or horror elements, they might masquerade as historical novels, they might even appear speculative, as Margaret Atwood’s often do. In the end, though, they don’t fit any of the boxes. In the past critics have compared me to writers as different as Gabriel García Márquez and Elmore Leonard. I have also been compared to Dickens, Kafka, J. G. Ballard, Mervyn Peake, and David Lynch. I’ve even been compared to Grace Jones. Perhaps “genre-defying” is the best way of putting it. Critics also talk about my unpredictability. I actually think the books have more in common than they seem to think. The subjects and settings may vary, but the lack of similarity is superficial. Dig deeper, and you begin to see certain themes recurring. That said, I don’t feel I should be too aware of those themes. Self-consciousness is a form of constriction. All I’m interested in is what is coming next. The next challenge, the next journey into the unknown. The only interesting book is the one I haven’t written yet.

What keeps me engaged on a daily basis? Only last week my brother asked me if it was true that I worked seven hours a day, seven days a week. I told him it was. I couldn’t do that, he said. I couldn’t sit in a room all alone for seven hours a day. Then he said, I don’t know how you do that. I smiled. I can’t imagine living any other way, I said. I get to inhabit so many different worlds. I get to live all these different lives. Because—to paraphrase William Burroughs—if you don’t actually experience what you’re writing, if you don’t live it, it won’t feel authentic. Writing isn’t about any one particular book. It’s a life’s work. I think Günter Grass said that. The books are successive attempts to capture something, to get something right. But that “something” is always just out of reach. Perfection is necessarily elusive.

OP: You do a remarkable job of illustrating the world as Katherine moves through it, from Rome to Berlin to Arkhangel’sk. Did you travel or do any kind of research into these places?

RT: I wrote six or seven drafts of Katherine Carlyle without traveling anywhere at all. I knew Rome a little since I had lived there in the late 90s, and visited in the early 2000s. I’d lived in Berlin too, and spent a week in the city in 2007, researching locations. Russia and Svalbard were entirely unknown to me. For the first six or seven drafts I was content to imagine them, but I knew in the end that I would have to go, if only for a smell, a sound, a glimpse of something. I spent a week in Svalbard towards the end of September 2013, then traveled from Moscow to Arkhangel’sk with my brother some two months later. I had so many adventures! The reason why I insist that the writing comes first is because research of this kind—exotic, unpredictable—tends to provide too much material. The fiction is in danger of being swamped by real experience. If you aren’t careful, the novel morphs into a diary, or a travelogue. I like to distinguish between real facts and imagined facts. In a novel, the imagined facts must always take precedence. The best way to research is to do the imagining and then to set out on a quest for what has been imagined. Much of what I experienced and discovered in Russia and in the Arctic Circle was eventually discarded, including a whole chapter in the extraordinarily atmospheric steel town of Cherepovets, and yet a kind of flavor lingers—and I used certain locations and encounters, or versions of those locations and encounters, when they fitted into the book I had already written, or when they enriched or illuminated Katherine’s particular psychology. In the end, my two great hopes are that the novel feels perfectly authentic, and that the many hours of research don’t show.

 

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A view of Svalbard 

OP: What is it about IVF that made you want to use it as an avenue to explore identity and the dynamics of a family? Was it difficult to inhabit Katherine’s mind?

RT: In the early 2000s I read a newspaper article reporting the birth in Barcelona of a child who had been frozen as an embryo for the previous thirteen years. Thirteen years. I instantly saw those years as a period of waiting. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the child had a sibling who had been born nine months after the original fertilization. In other words, the child had a sister—or a brother—who had once been the same age but was now thirteen years older. The child who was born second had missed thirteen years of his/her sibling’s life. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but see IVF—and especially cryopreservation—as some kind of metaphor. At first I thought about the sense of slippage, the idea that somebody could be two ages at once (in the novel Katherine says she is 19, but also 27, since she was frozen for eight years). Later, I began to see those years in the freezer as a very modern form of abandonment. In the novel Katherine uses the unique circumstances of her conception as the trigger for a journey of transformation. In traveling north, towards the Arctic Circle, she is in some sense returning to the place where she began. Psychologists call it “repetition compulsion.” As a fiction writer, I saw all kinds of possibilities in the fact that a young woman’s pre-existence could haunt—and influence—her real existence.

By the time I read that article I had already entered the world of IVF myself. My daughter was an IVF baby. She was also frozen while still an embryo, though only for three months. I found the science miraculous but hard to believe in. The techniques were still so new that nobody could predict what the physical and psychological consequences might be. I felt I was going into the unknown. I felt awe, but also fear. (An early title for the book was Frankenstein’s Daughter.) All this uncertainty and conjecture led to what I hope is an unexpected and gripping first sentence: I was made in a small square dish.

Inhabiting Katherine’s mind was something that came naturally to me. I didn’t have to work at it. I didn’t even have to invent her. She was just suddenly there, from one day to the next. It was as though she had always been there, waiting to be written about. And she came complete—with a physical presence, a voice, and an agenda. She came to me so naturally, in fact, that I became suspicious. I decided to try to distance myself from her by writing the third draft of the book in the third person. It was a disaster from page one, but I went through with it, all the way to the end. And it was good that I did. In the process, I learned why a first person narrative was so crucial for this particular book. Katherine Carlyle is an ecstatic novel. It’s narrated by a young woman in a state of wrongheaded exaltation. She is convinced that she has found the key to her existence, the right way to live, and as a result of this conviction she is highly persuasive. I felt that if I told the story from outside, readers would be less persuaded, less intrigued. Furthermore—and crucially—I could only shift seamlessly between Katherine’s account of her own life and her imaginary account of her father’s life if I wrote in the first person. If I used any other voice, the dreamlike quality would be lost, and the narrative would become awkward and unconvincing.

 

Rupert Thomson in Arkhangel’sk, in an abandoned clothes market at night.

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Overview

Book Summary

An old man sits in a bar in Oran and tells a stranger the story of his brother’s murder. He tells of the circumstances surrounding the murder, he tells of how his brother’s murder shaped his and his mother’s lives, and he tells of the supposed investigation that comes after the murder. But The Meursault Investigation is more than the story of a family and its tragedy—it is the story about the power of storytelling itself, about the power of language and the need to use it carefully, about the totalizing alienation felt when a story uses its power to obscure a truth, and the violence that’s inflicted when that obfuscation is taken as the only story to be told.

A response to The Stranger, The Meursault Investigation brings new and insightful perspective to Camus’s classic text, initiating a fresh and unique dialogue with Camus’s themes of alienation and absurdity, while situating them within the context of the urgent questions faced by both Algerian and American society today. In reading Kamel Daoud’s novel, students will be able to consider questions about personal and national identity, the power of literacy to affect change, and the ways in which one finds and constructs meaning.

Contains mature content. You may want to preview before reading aloud.

 

Teaching the Book

How do you confront stories that are told not by you, but about you? How does who tells a story shape what the story says and means? How can a person tell a story about himself that works against the his total absence in someone else’s story, without recreating the violence experienced from that absence? The Meursault Investigation stands on its own as a commentary on the social ills faced in modern societies, and offers students ways to examine those ills. It also allows students the opportunity to revisit Camus’s The Stranger with new questions and a new critical perspective. Why would someone want to write a response to The Stranger?

Theme Focus: The power of language

Comprehension Focus: Authorship

Language Focus: Alienation and disenfranchisement

Get Ready to Read

Pre-reading Activities

Preview and Predict: Discuss with students the title and cover of the book. Have them describe the cover and consider these questions:

  1. Where do you think the book is set? Why?
  2. What feelings does the cover evoke? What does the man on the cover of the book make you think of? Would you think differently if it were a lone woman?
  3. Whose footprints are on the cover of the book?
  4. Have the students take particular note of who the author of the book is.
  5. Does the man on the cover of the book remind you of Camus’s Meursault?

Brainstorming: Have the students read the book jacket description. Ask the students what they know about colonialism and “the Arab world.” After having read Camus’s The Stranger, did they have any questions about “the Arab,” or had they forgotten about him? After reading the description of The Meursault Investigation, what questions about “the Arab” come to mind, if any? Ask the students to think about other books they’ve read that were “responses” or continuations of classic texts, and why these books are written, decades after the original.

Vocabulary

Explain to the students that the author uses vocabulary to evoke a certain response from his readers. Some of these words have exact histories behind them and are used in academic and social justice contexts today. Others simply help to create the world Harun inhabits, and serve to capture the alienation and otherness he feels. The following list contains some of these words.

Ask students to write down what they think the following words mean as they come upon them. Afterwards, have them look up the words and write down their definitions. Have students compare their own definitions with the ones the dictionary provides and decide which one they think applies better and why.

  1. impunity (p.6)
  2. intangible (p. 6)
  3. settler (p. 11)
  4. decolonized (p. 31)
  5. indifferent (p. 39)
  6. diaphanous (p. 58)
  7. absurdly (p. 75)
  8. interminably (p. 103)
  9. dissonances (p. 119)
  10. despair (p. 133)

Using Vocabulary: Ask students to refer to the definitions they wrote for the above words to answer the following questions.

  1. When Harun says that Musa’s murder was “committed with absolute impunity,” is he referring to the trial Meursault faces in Camus’s The Stranger, or Camus’s book itself?
  2. What specific act is Harun describing when he says “Some of our people even decolonized the colonists’ cemeteries”? Is he using the word ironically?
  3. Why is Musa indifferent to the fact of his mother’s life? What else is he indifferent about? What is he not indifferent about?
  4. Who is Harun referring to when he uses the word settler? Is there another name he uses for them?
  5. What is the despair Harun refers to that he thinks Meriem runs away from?

As You Read

Reading the Book:

Modeled Reading: Read aloud from the first few pages of the book. Ask the students to describe the voice of the speaker and their reaction to his speaking directly to an unnamed listener. Ask them to consider the differences they notice between how The Meursault Investigation begins and how The Stranger begins. Why does Daoud make these changes? What are some similarities and differences they notice between Harun and Meursault?

Textual Analysis: Ask students to keep these questions in mind as they read the book, and to point to passages from the book to support their answers: Is what Harun faces at the hands of the djounoud comparable to what Musa faced at the hands of Meursault? What causes Harun’s alienation? Is the hold Maman has over Harun similar to other exercises of power in the book?What do you make of the fact that both Harun and Meursault are fatherless?

Reading Comprehension

Authorship: How many investigations are there in the book, and who leads them? What is the difference Harun experiences between hearing the story of Harun’s murder from his mother, reading it in the newspaper, and reading it in “Meaursault’s book”? Is it comparable to the difference you experience when reading The Stranger and reading The Meursault Investigation?

After You Read

Questions

Comprehension Focus

On Authorship: Musa’s murder is one story told by several voices. Who are the people who tell this story? In each version of the story, what is the focus? What is included and omitted and why? What is the difference between how each of the voices tell the story, and what is the objection Harun has to how others tell the story?

Theme Focus

Why is language important?: Why does Musa learn French? What does he appreciate about French and the way Camus/Meursault uses it that he does not find in how his mother uses language? In the book Musa’s mother holds an enormous amount of power over him. When he learns how to read and write in French, does he start having any power over her?

Compare and contrast these two passages:

“Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in. In her language, she spoke like a prophetess, recruited extemporaneous mourners, and cried out against the double outrage that consumed her life: a husband swallowed up by air, a son by water.” (p. 37)

“The reason why your hero tells the story of my brother’s murder so well is tha he’d reached a new territory, a language that was unknown and grew more powerful in his embrace, the words like pitilessly carved stones, a language as naked as Euclidian geometry. I think that’s the grand style, when all is said and done: to speak with the austere precision the last moments of your life impose on you.” (p. 100)

Language Focus

Have the students choose one of the words describing alienation and disenfranchisement from the above list and use it tin a one-paragraph review of the book. In another paragraph, have the students use other words from the list for who they imagine could be Harun’s counterpart in the United States.

Do Camus and Daoud use the same words to describe alienation? Have students find the similar words and write the sentences they appear in next to one another.

Have the students use the vocabulary words to relate the anonymity the Arab in The Stranger and Harun in The Meursault Investigation grapple with what some people may be experiencing in the United States.

 

Content Area Connections

History: Have students research the history of the Algerian War of Independence and compare it to contemporary efforts for liberation, such as the Arab Spring or the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Language Arts: Have students write a 500 word response to Daoud, imitating his voice and style.

Arts: Have students create a new cover for the book.

Extension Activities

—Compare and Contrast: The novel is in many ways a response to Camus’s The Stranger, even as it uses the form of Camus’s later novel, The Fall. Ask students to read The Stranger and The Fall, and to then consider what commentaries The Meursault Investigation makes on Camus’s books.

—Are there any sentences or scenes from The Stranger that are directly quoted or lifted in The Meursault Investigation? When they first read The Meursault Investigation, did theses sentences or quotes seem as though they came from another voice?

—Are there any themes are revealed in The Meursault Investigation after reading Camus’s books that remained hidden before?

—Can they identify why Kamel Daoud chose to use the form of The Fall for a book that is a direct answer to The Stranger?

—Do The Stranger and The Fall resonate with them in the same way The Meursault Investigation does? What effect does the 70 year difference between the publication of The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation have on how they approach each work?

 

For Further Reading

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

 

 

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