Tag Archives: non-fiction

Bulgarian Literature Month: title pick and giveaways

As I have mentioned earlier, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative is organizing a Bulgarian Literature Month in June, and I will be the editor of this event.

In the meantime, I have already commissioned quite a number of reviews and will also post one or two things myself. However, there are still a number of books that could be included, provided I find a reviewer (preferably a book blogger or someone else who is doing bookish things).

Here is a short list of books which – if you belong to the category mentioned above – are open still for reviewing during Bulgarian Literature Month:

Classics:

Ivan Vazov: Under the Yoke – the first Bulgarian novel, and until today read in school
Aleko Konstantinov: Bay Ganyo – not all Bulgarian love this book, because it is satirically exposing certain elements of the Bulgarian national character (just like not all Czechs love Schwejk!)

A modern classic:

Ivailo Petrov: Wolf Hunt –  

Contemporary Bulgarian literature:

Virginia Zaharieva: 9 Rabbits
Albena Stambolova: Everything Happens As It Does
Angel Igov: A Short Tale of Shame
Zahary Karabashliev: 18% Gray
Hristo Karastoyanov: The Same Night Awaits Us All
Georgi Gospodinov: Natural Novel
Deyan Enev: Circus Bulgaria
Angel Wagenstein: Farewell, Shanghai

Bulgarian-born authors that write in another language:

Miroslav Penkov: East of the West
Miroslav Penkov: Stork Mountain
Kapka Kassabova: Street without a Name
Ilija Troyanow: Collector of the Worlds
Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free

Fiction by foreign authors but with a Bulgarian setting:

Will Buckingham: The Descent of the Lyre
Rana Dasgupta: Solo
Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You
Elizabeth Kostova: The Shadow Land
Julian Barnes: The Porcupine

Non-fiction:

Dimana Trankova / Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria
Dimana Trankova / Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Communist Bulgaria
Tzvetan Todorov: The Fragility of Goodness
Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke
Clive Leviev-Sawyer: Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century
 
The reviews need to be unpublished and preferably in English. Let me know if you are interested in reviewing a book on this list.

I have also a few giveaways. Those will be given preferably to those who commit themselves to write a review of the above mentioned titles. If you are interested in a giveaway (it should be reviewed too for Bulgarian Literature Month), please let me know until 29 April. If several people are interested in a giveaway, I will draw lots.

The giveaways:

Milen Ruskov: Thrown Into Nature – a novel by one of Bulgaria’s most acclaimed contemporary writers
 
Kerana Angelova: Elada Pinyo and Time – “The novel describes the myth of the person who travels through various wombs and embraces, undergoes multiple transformations due to the culture of times, yet never stops expressing the deep faith that above our earthly trials watches the law of love.”
 
Randall Baker: Bulgariana – diary of one of the founders of New Bulgarian University in Sofia; a fun read that gives a deep and sympathetic insight into the Bulgaria of the 21st Century
 
Nikolai Grozni: Claustrophobias – an autobiographical novel of an author that was a wunderkind pianist and a monk in an ashram in India, and a lot of other things
 
Ivailo Petrov: Before I was born – story collection of one of the most important post-WW II authors from Bulgaria (the book is antiquarian, but in very good condition)
 
Hristo Hristov: Kill the Wanderer – Hristov, an investigative journalist, describes the life and the assassination of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian author and journalist, in London. Considering the recent news about Julia Kristeva, who was exposed as a collaborator of the Bulgarian State Security, it is important to not forget what this institution did to enemies of the system.
 
And now, let me know which book you want to review, and in which giveaway you are interested. (The winners will be informed individually and by a post here on 30 April.) 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Playing the Moldovans at Tennis

Since I am right now living and working in the Republic of Moldova, it will come probably not as a surprise to you, dear readers, when I am trying to get my hands on any books written by Moldovan authors that are translated in a language that I am able to read. There are indeed a few quite interesting authors whose translated books I will feature here in the future. 

Today I am writing a few lines about a rather humorous book by the British comedian Tony Hawks: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. At the beginning is an eccentric wager: Tony is betting with a friend (after they watched the Moldovan football team in TV losing against England) that he can beat every member of the Moldovan National team in tennis. (It should be mentioned that a short time before his Moldovan adventure he won a bet that included his traveling around Ireland – with a fridge!)

“All I knew about Moldova was the names of eleven men printed on the inside back page of my newspaper. None of them sounded to me sounded like they were any good at tennis…” 

So, the bizarre quest is simply: tracking down the country’s football team, challenging them one by one to play tennis with him – and win! (Maybe I should mention that the loser of the bet is supposed to sing the Moldovan National anthem on a crowded street in London – with his pants down…) 

What follows is the hilarious report of Tony’s adventures mainly in Moldova, with a visit in Northern Ireland (where the football team has a match that would give Tony the opportunity to challenge some players he hadn’t met yet.) and an exciting trip to Nazareth where things seem to go wrong for Tony… 

The guiding principle of the book, the tracking down of eleven football players reminded me of course a bit of The Twelve Chairs. There is plenty of action, unexpected turns of fate, meetings with the Moldovan underworld, gypsies, and every day challenges such as power cuts, huge manholes in the almost unlit streets of the capital Chisinau, adventures in the public transport, but also encounters with plenty of helpful people, especially his guest family with which Tony created a bond of friendship for life. 

A good part of the humour of the book is based on the clash of culture between an over-optimistic Englishman and a local population who seem to be a bit reserved and not particularly surprised about Tony’s plan. In a country where almost everyone is focused on surviving the next day, that is probably not surprising. (The book was published in 2000, but things have not changed a lot and Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe.) 

Usually, I am a bit reserved regarding the genre “Humorous Travel Books”. Too frequently, the humour in the book is of a condescending and disrespectful nature; the content of this kind of books can be described as “Foreigner from a wealthy Western country travels to a poor country about which he doesn’t know anything and doesn’t want to learn anything, with the sole purpose to poke fun at the hapless and primitive natives, in order to entertain other prejudiced and obnoxious foreigners from wealthy Western countries.” The travel prose of AA Gill and some other hacks belongs to that category. I don’t like that at all.

Fortunately, Tony Hawks is a different kind of person. His humour is self-depreciating, and he is genuinely interested in getting to know and understand the Moldovans. He is even questioning if he is doing the right thing with his bizarre adventure, which seems to him rather frivolous as time is passing, considering the living conditions of everyone around him. 

Of course I am not telling you here if Tony was successful and was really able to beat all players. You have to read it by yourself, and I can assure you, it is a very entertaining book. And since there not many books about Moldova, it is still a must-read for anyone who travels there. 

50% of the royalties of this book go into a fund that supports a local children’s health centre in Chisinau, the Tony Hawks Centre. Tony is still traveling regularly to Moldova and is doing additional fundraising for the good cause. If you want to learn more about the Tony Hawks Centre, or about Voinicel, another NGO in Chisinau that supports children with special needs and their parents, visit their respective websites. And maybe you consider also if you can make a donation – it is for a good cause! 

Tony Hawks: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Ebury Press 2007 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Again Women in Translation Month

Incredible how fast one year has passed – another Women in Translation Month!

My modest contribution to Women in Translation Month is an overview regarding the books by female authors (or co-authors) I have reviewed, mentioned or from which I have translated texts (poetry) that I have published on this blog since last years’ Women in Translation Month:

Bozhana Apostolowa: Kreuzung ohne Wege
Boika Asiowa: Die unfruchtbare Witwe
Martina Baleva / Ulf Brunnbauer (Hg.): Batak kato mjasto na pametta / Batak als bulgarischer Erinnerungsort
Veza Canetti / Elias Canetti / Georges Canetti: “Dearest Georg!”
Veza Canetti: The Tortoises
Lea Cohen: Das Calderon-Imperium
Blaga Dimitrova: Forbidden Sea – Zabraneno more
Blaga Dimitrova: Scars
Kristin Dimitrova: A Visit to the Clockmaker
Kristin Dimitrova: Sabazios
Iglika Dionisieva: Déjà vu Hug
Tzvetanka Elenkova (ed.): At the End of the World
Tzvetanka Elenkova: The Seventh Gesture
Ludmila Filipova: The Parchment Maze
Sabine Fischer / Michael Davidis: Aus dem Hausrat eines Hofrats
Heike Gfereis: Autopsie Schiller
Mirela Ivanova: Versöhnung mit der Kälte
Ekaterina Josifova: Ratse
Kapka Kassabova: Street Without a Name
Gertrud Kolmar: A Jewish Mother from Berlin – Susanna
Gertrud Kolmar: Dark Soliloquy
Gertrud Kolmar: Das lyrische Werk
Gertrud Kolmar: My Gaze Is Turned Inward: Letters 1938-1943
Gertrud Kolmar: Worlds – Welten
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff
Nada Mirkov-Bogdanovic / Milena Dordijevic: Serbian Literature in the First World War
Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke
Milena G. Nikolova: Kotkata na Schroedinger
Nicki Pawlow: Der bulgarische Arzt
Sabine Rewald: Balthus: Cats and Girls
Angelika Schrobsdorff: Die Reise nach Sofia
Angelika Schrobsdorff: Grandhotel Bulgaria
Tzveta Sofronieva: Gefangen im Licht
Albena Stambolova: Everything Happens as it Does
Maria Stankowa: Langeweile
Danila Stoianova: Memory of a Dream
Katerina Stoykova-Klemer (ed.): The Season of Delicate Hunger
Kathrine Kressmann Taylor: Address Unknown
Dimana Trankova / Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria
Marguerite Youcenar: Coup de Grâce
Edda Ziegler / Michael Davidis: “Theuerste Schwester“. Christophine Reinwald, geb. Schiller
Rumjana Zacharieva: Transitvisum fürs Leben
Virginia Zaharieva: Nine Rabbits
Anna Zlatkova: fremde geografien
The Memoirs of Glückel from Hameln

What remarkable translated books by women have you read recently or are you reading right now?

 © Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Bulgarian Literature Month 2016 – a few suggestions (2)

In my latest blog post, I gave an overview regarding some of the translated Bulgarian authors and their works. If you want to have a bit more background information about contemporary authors from Bulgaria, I would recommend you to have a look at the website Contemporary Bulgarian Writers.

The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation is since years successfully supporting particularly the translation and publication of books by contemporary Bulgarian authors, and the website is also a result of their work. Apart from short authors’ bios, there are plenty of translation samples that will for sure be a useful starting point not only for publishers, but also for readers. The English-language Bulgarian journal Vagabond (a well-written and edited periodical for anyone with an interest in Bulgaria) publishes in every new edition a story or a chapter of a novel by a contemporary Bulgarian author. So there are now quite a lot of accessible media that can tease the curiosity of readers for Bulgarian literature.

Although the main focus of this first Bulgarian Literature Month 2016 is on the works of contemporary Bulgarian language authors, I want to be not too strict. Also non-fiction works by Bulgarian authors can be included. The same goes for works by Bulgarian-born authors that write in another language than Bulgarian. I am even open for reviews of books (fiction or non-fiction) by foreign language authors that are related to Bulgaria.

Here are a few recommendations for all above mentioned categories:

Bulgarian-born authors that write in other languages:

The only Bulgarian-born author that was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was Elias Canetti. Canetti’s only link with Bulgaria is his birth in Ruse and the first years of his early childhood he spent there, and which had nevertheless a strong lifelong impact on him. More on his childhood in the first volume of his brilliant autobiography:

The Tongue Set Free (Granta Books 2011)

Some time ago, I reviewed the debut of Miroslav Penkov, his story collection East of the West, enthusiastically. The English-language author Penkov has now published his first novel, again focused on Bulgaria and similarly enticing:

Stork Mountain (Farrar, Straus , and Giroux 2016)

Kapka Kassabova, another English-language author with Bulgarian roots, left the country of her birth in 1991. Many years later, she came back for a longer visit and her impressions there brought back a lot of mostly not very pleasant memories. A somewhat controversial book, not liked by everyone in Bulgaria, but definitely an interesting read about the difficult process of transition which is still going on 25 years after the fall of communism:

Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (Skyhorse Publishing 2009)

One of the most prolific contemporary German-language authors is Ilija Trojanow (sometimes transcribed as Iliya Troyanov in English). Of his so far translated works I recommend particularly the following books:

Along the Ganges (Haus Publishing 2005)
Mumbai to Mecca (Haus Publishing 2007)
The Collector of Worlds (Haus Publishing 2008)
The Lamentations of Zeno (Verso 2016)

Together with the photographer Christian Muhrbeck, Trojanow published an impressive book with photos from Bulgaria:

Wo Orpheus begraben liegt (Carl Hanser 2013) – this book, as all other works of Trojanow related to Bulgaria, are still not translated in English

Unfortunately Dimitre Dinev’s books, written in German, are so far also not translated in English. His touching and brilliantly written novel about two families is one of my favourite books:

Engelszungen (“Angel’s Tongues”) (Deuticke 2003)

Several other Bulgarian-born authors write also in German. I can recommend (this so far untranslated book) particularly:

Rumjana Zacharieva: Transitvisum fürs Leben (Horlemann 2012)

Bulgaria is also a topic in the work of a few fictional works by authors that have no connection by birth with this country:

Many of Eric Ambler’s books have a story that is located in some frequently not precisely named Balkan country. The following two books of this fantastic author have a Bulgarian setting (the first one partly, the second one is clearly based on the show trial in Bulgaria in the aftermath of the Communist takeover):

The Mask of Dimitrios (in the United States published as A Coffin for Dimitrios) (various editions)
Judgment on Deltchev (Vintage 2002)

Another author who is using the twilight of the Balkans as a setting for his spy novels is Alan Furst. Bulgaria features for example in the following book:

Night Soldiers (Random House 2002)

Two remarkable novels by younger international authors who spent a longer time in Bulgaria and who received excellent reviews (especially the second one, which was published recently has caused really raving write-ups in all major literary journals and even the mainstream media):

Rana Dasgupta: Solo (Marriner Books 2012)
Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2016)

Julian Barnes visited Bulgaria after the transition and witnessed the trial of Todor Zhivkov. His novel based on this experience is worth reading:

The Porcupine (Vintage 2009)

Two historical novels by men who lived or live in Bulgaria. I haven’t read them yet, but the synopsis sounds interesting in both cases:

Christopher Buxton: Far from the Danube (Kronos 2006)
Ellis Shuman: Valley of the Thracians (Create Space 2013)

A few more books by German authors that have a Bulgarian setting and that I enjoyed (with the exception of Apostoloff, but maybe you think otherwise). Only the book by Lewitscharoff is translated so far.

Michael Buselmeier: Hundezeiten (Wunderhorn 1999)
Nicki Pawlow: Der bulgarische Arzt (Langen-Müller 2014)
Roumen M. Evert: Die Immigrantin (Dittrich 2009)
Uwe Kolbe: Thrakische Spiele (Nymphenburger 2005)
Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff (Suhrkamp 2010)

Angelika Schrobsdorff (also known as an actress and wife of Claude Lanzmann) came 1938 to Bulgaria as a Jewish child from Germany and stayed there until 1947. Several of her works are based on her experience in Bulgaria or on her attempts to re-connect with friends and relatives at a later stage:

Die Reise nach Sofia (dtv 1983, introduction by Simone de Beauvoir)
Grandhotel Bulgaria (dtv 1997)

And finally some non-fiction recommendations:

The Bulgarian journalist and author Georgi Markov was one of the most prominent dissidents and victim of a so-called “umbrella murder”. The following book is the result of years of investigation and gives an extremely interesting insight into the real power central of communist Bulgaria, the State Security:

Hristo Hristov: Kill the Wanderer (Gutenberg 2013)

Works of Georgi Markov is available in a three-volume edition in German:

Das Portrait meines Doppelgängers (Wieser 2010)
Die Frauen von Warschau (Wieser 2010)
Reportagen aus der Ferne (Wieser 2014)

In the context of the attempts of certain right-wing circles in Bulgaria to whitewash the fascist regime of Boris III from its share of responsibility in the holocaust, it is particularly useful to read the following book by Tzvetan Todorov, who is together with Julia Kristeva one of the most prominent French intellectuals of Bulgarian origin:

The Fragility of Goodness (Princeton University Press 2003)

Another very heated discussion about a particular period of Bulgarian history  was the so-called Batak controversy a few years ago. Whereas in most other countries a conference about certain aspects of 19th century history would go unnoticed outside a small circle, it resulted in this case in big and very unpleasant smear campaign with involvement of Bulgarian politicians and almost all major media in the country who, either without knowing the publication or in full disregard of the content, organized a real witch hunt against a few scholars that had in the end to cancel the conference because they had to fear for their lives. The re-evaluation of certain historical myths that were in the past used to incite ethnic or religious hatred targeted at certain groups of Bulgarian citizens is still a difficult issue. A book that is documenting the Batak controversy and the historical facts behind it is available in a Bulgarian/German edition:

Martina Baleva, Ulf Brunnbauer (Hgg.): Batak kato mjasto na pametta / Batak als bulgarischer Erinnerungsort (Iztok-Zapad 2007)

A book on the history of Bulgaria may be useful for all those who dive into Bulgarian literature. Bulgarians love their history and love to discuss it with foreigners; or more precisely: the version of history they were taught in school…

R.J. Crampton: A Concise History of Bulgaria (Cambridge University Press 2006)

A fascinating book on how tobacco, its cultivation and production, shaped Bulgaria – until today, when there is still a political party that at least on the the surface mainly represents the interest of the – predominantly ethnic Turkish – tobacco farmers:

Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke (Cornell University Press 2012)

A German in Bulgaria is the subtitle of the following book, and of course I read the very interesting, insightful and sometimes funny work by Thomas Frahm (not translated in English, but at least in Bulgarian) with great interest and pleasure. Frahm is also one of the few excellent translators of Bulgarian literature (Lea Cohen, Vladimir Zarev):

Die beiden Hälften der Walnuss (Chira 2015)

And if you are planning a walk through the Balkans or a boat trip on the Danube, the following classical works should not be missing in your luggage:

Claudio Magris: Danube (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2008)

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts/Between the Woods and the Water/The Broken Road (NYRB)

In my next blog post I will give more information on how to participate in Bulgarian Literature Month 2016. And yes, there will be also a few giveaways! 

PS: The information in the two blog posts is of course not complete, and can never be. Still, I think I should include the following as well (which I have simply forgotten):

John Updike: The Bulgarian Poetess – one of Updike’s best stories, available in several of his short story collections, for example in The Early Stories, 1953-1975 (Random House 2004)

Will Buckingham: The Descent of the Lyre (Roman Books 2013) – a beautiful novel that catches the magical atmosphere of the Rhodopi mountains, the region of Orpheus, written by an author who knows Bulgaria, its history and culture very well.

Dumitru Tsepeneag: The Bulgarian Truck – a brilliant postmodernist novel by an author from neighbouring Romania (Dalkey Archive Press 2016)

The online journal Drunken Boat recently published an issue devoted to Bulgarian literature and art. A good selection and the perfect starting point for the Bulgarian Literature Month.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 


100 Grams of Vodka

100 Gramm Wodka: a book about a three-month trip through Russia and Kazakhstan, written by Fredy Gareis, a German journalist who was born in Almaty (then Alma-Ata) but who emigrated with his family to Germany, the home country of his ancestors when he was still a toddler.

As a child, Fredy Gareis was not particularly interested in the stories and discussions about the past of the family in the Soviet Union. That his mother obviously wanted to completely wipe out any memories of her past didn’t help little Fredy to understand where he really came from and what was the story behind those long kitchen meetings with relatives that were a part of his childhood in Germany. But while growing older and becoming a journalist, the wish to get to know more about the country in which he was born (now divided into several independent states, then the Soviet Union) and to reconnect himself with his and his family’s past became stronger.

The passing on of several older relatives within a short period, and the feeling to have missed a chance to learn more from them finally triggered an urgent wish to visit Russia and Kazakhstan, partly to see how life is now in this vast region, but mainly driven by the wish to see the places in Kazakhstan and Siberia where his family came from and suffered in the Stalin era and thereafter as descendants of those Germans who came to Russia and the Ukraine after Catherine the Great had invited her fellow countrymen to settle there. Once held in great esteem for their industriousness, with their own Autonomous Soviet Republic at the Volga, WWII was the big catastrophe for this community that catapulted those who survived it to Siberia or the Central Asian Republics, frequently as slave labourers in the GULag.

100 Gramm Wodka is an interesting book which contains insightful travel notes and also reports about many meetings with different people from a big variety of geographic and social origins, and therefore a kind of mosaic of this part of the world. A deep dive into the history of the Russian Germans who were considered as Germans in Russia, and who are now – after the biggest part of them has re-emigrated to the homeland of their ancestors – considered to be Russians by their fellow countrymen in Germany; it seems to be their fate to never really belong to the community within which they live and to be always considered as outsiders. A road and railroad trip past thousands of kilometers of steppe, heading to Magadan and Vladivostok at the Pacific – and a love declaration to the incredible people that live in this region. But how on earth could the author possibly survive all this Vodka that the hospitable local people offered him together with huge amounts of food on all kind of occasions?

A translation of this excellent piece of travel journalism is recommended. After reading it, the probability is very high that you will plan to go on a visit there. And if you are more of an armchair traveller, you will still enjoy this trip from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, Lake Baikal, Kazakhstan, the Raspberry Lake, and the wide expanse of Siberia, a terra incognita even for most Russians.

Fredy Gareis: 100 Gramm Wodka, Malik 2015

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mortality

About 40% of the people that live in the United States – the situation in other industrialized countries is not very different – develop at least once in their lives cancer and although the 5-year survival rate has drastically increased for various types of cancer in the last years as a result of new cures and more efficient treatment, it is still the single most important lethal disease beside heart and coronary-related diseases. Almost anyone of us, even when we are lucky and never get ill from cancer ourselves, have a close person that is or will be ill with this life-threatening disease. Apart from the medical aspects, the main question in this context is: how are we dealing with such a diagnosis? And on a more philosophical level: how are we coming to terms with our own mortality in the face of cancer?

Christopher Hitchens was a kind of rock star among the journalists in the Anglo-Saxon world. He was an extremely prolific author on various topics, editor and contributor to the most important and intellectually most stimulating periodicals, author of about 25 books. His most popular works are probably his autobiography Hitch-22, his critical essay about Mother Teresa The Missionary Position, his attack on Henry Kissinger whom he considered a war criminal in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and his book against religions God is Not Great. There was hardly any public debate which didn’t see Hitchens involved, his outspokenness, his quick-wittedness, his intelligence and charisma, and his ability to write a light-hearted yet passionate prose that gave every reader the feeling that Hitchens was speaking to him personally made him a unique figure with many devoted readers, but also with many opponents or even enemies.

On June 8, 2010, while on a book promotion tour for his book Hitch-22, Hitchens felt suddenly an excruciating pain in his chest and thorax. A medical emergency team arrived at Hitchens’ hotel room and brought him to the hospital.

“I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”

From now on, Hitchens was an inhabitant of what he calls “Tumortown”. With his usual professionalism he decided to write about his experience and the book Mortality we have in our hands as readers is the result of this professional approach. The book is a slightly edited version of a series of articles that appeared during Hitchens’ illness in Vanity Fair, a last chapter written by him consists of aphoristic jottings that are related to the text of these articles but which the author could not edit – Hitchens died on December 15, 2011 from esophageal cancer.

Although the book doesn’t hide the authors’ sufferings, his hopes for a successful treatment, his ordeal of going through a long series of chemotherapies, it is also the story of a man who doesn’t cower in the face of his fate, a man who tries to keep his dignity until the very end.

The most interesting parts of the book were for me those pages in which the author describes how the cancer affected his relation to the people around him, particularly to his family and close friends. Another strong part of the book is the description of the stages through which probably each mortally ill person has to go. And it is probably very good when one can – like Hitchens – answer the question “Why me?” very quickly with a “Why not?”, and focus on more important questions and problems. Cancer is for sure not a punishment for allegedly committed sins, even when some disgusting fundamentalist pseudo-“Christian” activists were cheering loudly when the cancer diagnosis of Hitchens became public.

One of the really fascinating parts of the book deals with what the author calls “cancer etiquette”. How should we talk to a cancer patient? What kind of remarks are appropriate, what kind are not? Too much interest in the details of the disease and the state of affairs of the patient can be really painful for the ill person – but too little interest as well. How to keep the right balance? Also the question if we should pray for a sick person and let him/her know it is rather tricky – in particular when the patient is like Hitchens an atheist.

The chapter that deals with Hitchens’ atheism was for me the least interesting. Also in his other books where he was attacking religions or religious leaders, it was never clear to me why he took anecdotal evidence of misbehaviour of clerics, or any religiously motivated violence as a proof for the non-existence of God. Not that I cannot understand someone who is an atheist, but Hitchens’ line of argumentation seemed to me always rather shallow, and his description of the famous bet by Blaise Pascal is completely misrepresenting the brilliant French mathematician and believer. (I admit that I disagree with quite a lot of Hitchens’ standpoints, and found his unconditional support of the Iraq war as shameful as some of his radically anti-Zionist statements that crossed in my opinion the line to anti-Semitism.) I cannot blame Hitchens for not reflecting the fact that he – in possession of health insurance, and as a personal friend of leading scientists – was in an extremely privileged position; millions and millions of Americans would not have the slightest chance to get even basic tests performed on them in absence of health insurance; also his rather undifferentiated condemnation of people who oppose the “use” of human embryos for the purpose of medical research was understandable for me – but the ethical dilemma in that field was something Hitchens obviously could not see. But who am I to blame a person who is desperate to prolonging his life for such a point of view!

Who wants to understand how the world looks like for an intelligent person after the diagnosis “cancer” should read Mortality. It is – despite the above mentioned reservations – an honest, thought-provoking book. The same cannot be said for all books written from first-hand experience; Hitchens mentions Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture as a bad, “sugary” example:

“Pausch used to work for Disney and it shows.”

Mortality may not be an uplifting read; but a necessary one. 

Front Cover

Christopher Hitchens: Mortality, Twelve, New York 2012

 

Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture, Hachette 2014

see also:

Oliver Sacks: My Own Life, The New York Times, Feb.

Fritz Zorn: Mars, Kindler, München 1977 (in German)

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Arbeit und Struktur, blog 2010-2013 (in German)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

“We can always call them Bulgarians”

Since this blog is dedicated mainly to books, and since I have – as all regular readers know by now – a special relationship with Bulgaria, it is probably not surprising that I combine my love for books and my love for my adopted home country by collecting everything printed related to Bulgaria on which I can lay my hands on. That includes even books that would in another context not be of particular interest to me; the fun part of it is that I have now dissertations on the caries treatment in Varna region, a handbook about horse breeding, a history of the tobacco industry of the country, or the standard work on the identification of a specific family of bugs in the Strandzha mountains in my private library.
 
A recent acquisition of mine is a book “We can always call them Bulgarians“, by Kaier Curtin. I found a cheap copy in an antiquarian bookstore, bought it without really checking on the content in detail, and found myself rather surprised when I opened the book at home for a more thorough inspection of the content.
 
It seems that the English word “bugger” is etymologically derived from the word “Bulgar/ian” – and “Bulgarian” is a synonym for “queer” in a particular context, especially on the theatre stage, as I have learned from this book. As wrote
 
“…columnist Wilella Waldorf in the New York Post, September 17, 1937 about the play Wise Tomorrow:
 
It has been whispered the theme has a touch of Lesbianism about it, which sounds a little odd when you consider that the Warners, presumably, have in mind a picture version eventually. However, as Samuel Goldwyn or somebody once said, “We can always call them Bulgarians.””
“Bulgarian” as a synonym for gay/lesbian – that was new to me; but then, I am after all not very familiar with that part of the spectrum.
 
I wonder what my Bulgarian friends have to say about the revelation that “Bulgarian” means also “queer” – can they confirm this theory, or rather not?!
 
Looking forward to your comments 😉
Kaier Curtin: “We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians”, Alyson Books 1987
An interesting short online article on the same topic can be found here.
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 

Winter is Coming

After I have finished reading Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming, a remarkably uninformed, goofy and therefore dangerous book that exhibits its author’s utter ignorance of political theory and practice and in which geopolitics is dealt with at the simplicity level of a Hollywood C-movie (or a comic strip) in which Putin as the sole villain is wearing a black hat and the upright cold (and not-so-cold) warriors who listen to Mr. K. have to show him where the hammer is hanging, if necessary with brute force – after this annoying book, I quite enjoyed his old writing about a topic which he really understands. A little bit less unbearable and much better informed:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/02/11/the-chess-master-and-the-computer/

Garry Kasparov: Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, Public Affairs 2015

A review that highlights the shortcomings of the book in detail can be found here.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Shady Side

Norman Tweed Whitaker, the “hero” of this biography is a Dickensian figure: he was both, full of genius and a devil at the same time. Coming from an educated upper middle class family – his father was a high school principle in Philadelphia – Whitaker (1890-1975) became a patent attorney that held also a degree in German literature; his great talent as a chess player made him a dangerous opponent for any player and earned him the US Master title and in 1965 the title of an International Master (that was before the “title inflation” when this title meant still a lot).

Among the masters he defeated in serious games were the legendary players Frank Marshall, David Janowski and Samuel Reshevsky, for decades America’s strongest player (all of them were contenders for the World Championship title); in simuls he even won against Emanuel Lasker and the young Capablanca. The book contains more than 500 games played by Whitaker, some of them annotated. Whitaker was a dangerous tactician with a good endgame knowledge, but the patience for positional play was something he obviously lacked – a mirror of his personality maybe.

Also as a chess promoter Whitaker did more than probably anybody else in the United States for decades to make the game popular: he gave countless exhibition and simultaneous games, organized tournaments, raised funds, worked as a trainer and founded chess clubs, traveled a big deal in the U.S. and abroad to promote the game, co-authored a chess endgame book  – and quarreled a lot with the U.S. Chess Association and people who prevented him to earn the recognition he thought he deserved. He saw himself frequently as a victim of some conspiracy of vicious people that used the threat to expose very personal information about him in order to discredit him and to sidestep him whenever it was possible for them.

This all may be not particularly interesting outside the very specialized circle of chess players or those interested in chess history. But there is an element in this biography that makes it interesting for a wider audience. Whitaker, the cultivated, well-educated patent attorney from a good family and with the chess interest and talent was also a ruthless con man with a long criminal record.

Whitaker was convicted for crimes such as interstate car theft, insurance fraud, extortion and blackmailing (he claimed to know the whereabouts of the kidnapped and murdered Lindbergh baby and was arrested when he tried to extort money for allegedly returning the baby), selling morphine and other drugs via mail, and finally also child molesting. (This list is not complete.)

Grandmaster Arnold Denker who knew him well said about Whitaker:

“His advanced education, high intelligence, command of foreign languages, expensive wardrobe, plentiful ready cash, skill at chess, and confident personal manner all aided in fooling many unsuspecting victims.”

A criminal “career” that spanned over several decades and that earned him various convictions and many years in the jails of Leavenworth and Alcatraz. Therefore it is not surprising that in this well researched and written biography by chess historian John S. Hilbert not only chess masters, but also the Lindbergh family, J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone (with whom he made friends while serving time in Alcatraz) play a certain role.

What turns a talented, intelligent and rather successful man with a good profession into a criminal? And how did this part of his personality coexist with that of a serious, energetic chess promoter with good contacts in many places? The rather unsettling and surprising answer is: we don’t know. There is no warning sign, no early childhood trauma, no history of being depraved of love and affection by his family that turned Norman T. Whitaker into the ruthless criminal he was. It seems that after the first arrest in 1921 and the following conviction – which was so shocking to his father that he died of a heart attack when he learned about the car theft – Whitaker’s life was like on an inclined plane from which there was no turning back.

An interesting book not only for chess players – thanks to the author’s clever choice of documents and his ability to present us his subject as a person with such contradictory characteristics that they hardly seem to fit into one human being, we get to know a fascinating, weird personality.

„What is it in us that lies, whores, steals, and murders?” (Georg Büchner: Danton’s Death) – that enigma remains still unresolved.

John S. Hilbert: Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chess Master, Caissa Editions, Yorklyn 2000 (ed. Dale Brandreth)

Arnold Denker: Stormin’ Norman, in: ibid, The Bobby Fischer I Knew And Other Stories, p. 262-274, Hypermodern Press 1995

Norman T. Whitaker / Glenn E. Hartleb: 365 Ausgewählte Endspiele: Eines Für Jeden Tag Im Jahr, Selbstverlag, Heidelberg 1960

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reading/Reviewing Plans

The end of the year is approaching with fast steps. This year I haven’t been so active as a blogger as last year until recently – German Lit Month brought me back to the usual pace – and I have done more blog posts on poetry and translations than the year before; also I did more posts in German and one in Bulgarian too. Book blogging is a dynamic process and the focus of such places will always be subject to small unplanned changes, but I will keep also in the next year my habit to publish reviews of books that were interesting to me.

As you already know when you follow this blog on a regular basis, my taste in books is rather eclectic. I am definitely not a person who is permanently scanning bestseller lists or is jumping in on discussions about books that were – usually for marketing reasons – the “talk of the town”. Therefore I avoided so far reviewing books by Houellebecq or Knausgård; it is difficult to not be influenced by the public discussion that focuses frequently on aspects that have very little to do with the literary quality of the books by such authors but a lot with their public persona and their sometimes very controversial opinions about certain topics. Not that the books by these authors are necessarily bad, but I prefer to read without too much background noise. So I will come also to these authors, but most probably not in the near future.

My blog tries to be diverse, but without quota. But of course my choice is subjective and I am aware of the fact that probably most readers will find many authors/books on this list that are completely unknown to them. If you look for just another blog that is reviewing again and again the same exclusively Anglo-saxon authors, then this might not be the best place for you. If you are eager to discover something new, then you are most welcome. 

There are no ads on this blog and this will also not change in the future. There is zero financial interest from my side to keep this blog alive, I do it just for fun. Please don’t send unsolicitated review copies if you are an author or a publisher. In rare cases I might accept a review copy when contacted first but only when I have already an interest in the book. All blog posts contain of course my own – sometimes idiosyncratic – opinion for what it is worth. In general I tend to write reviews on the positive side. When a book disappoints me, I tend to not write a review unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise.

These are the books presently on my “To-be-read” pile; which means they are the one’s that i will most probably read and review within the coming months. But as always with such lists, they are permanently subject to changes, additions, removals. Therefore I (and also the readers of this blog) will take this list as an orientation and not as a strict task on which I have to work one by one. 

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Jim al-Khalili: The House of Wisdom

Ryunosunke Akutagawa: Kappa

Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

Sinan Antoon: The Corpse Washer

Toufic Youssef Aouad: Le Pain

Abhijit Banerjee / Esther Duflo: Poor Economics

Hoda Barakat: Le Royaume de cette terre

Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Nicolas Born: The Deception

Thomas Brasch: Vor den Vätern sterben die Söhne

Joseph Brodsky: On Grief and Reason

Alina Bronsky: Just Call Me Superhero

Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

Leila S. Chudori: Pulang

Beqe Cufaj: projekt@party 

Mahmoud Darwish: Memory of Forgetfulness

Oei Hong Djien: Art & Collecting Art

Dimitre Dinev: Engelszungen (Angel’s Tongues)

Anton Donchev: Time of Parting

Jabbour Douaihy: June Rain

Michael R. Dove: The Banana Tree at the Gate

Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes

Isabelle Eberhardt: Works

Tristan Egolf: Lord of the Barnyard

Deyan Enev: Circus Bulgaria

Jenny Erpenbeck: The End of Days

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Mani

Milena Michiko Flašar: I called him Necktie

David Fromkin: A Peace to End All Peace

Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra

Amitav Ghosh: In an Antique Land

Georg K. Glaser: Geheimnis und Gewalt (Secret and Violence)

Georgi Gospodinov: Natural Novel

Georgi Gospodinov: The Physics of Sorrow

Elizabeth Gowing: Edith and I

David Graeber: The Utopia of Rules

Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You

Knut Hamsun: Hunger

Ludwig Harig: Die Hortensien der Frau von Roselius

Johann Peter Hebel: Calendar Stories

Christoph Hein: Settlement

Wolfgang Hilbig: The Sleep of the Righteous

Albert Hofmann / Ernst Jünger: LSD

Hans Henny Jahnn: Fluss ohne Ufer (River without Banks) (Part II)

Franz Jung: Der Weg nach unten

Ismail Kadare: Broken April

Ismail Kadare: The Palace of Dreams

Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor (Editors): The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia: 1965-1968

Rosen Karamfilov: Kolene (Knees)

Orhan Kemal: The Prisoners

Irmgard Keun: Nach Mitternacht

Georg Klein: Libidissi

Friedrich August Klingemann: Bonaventura’s Nightwatches

Fatos Kongoli: The Loser

Theodor Kramer: Poems

Friedo Lampe: Septembergewitter (Thunderstorm in September)

Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star

Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy

Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt

Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers

Sandor Marai: Embers

Sean McMeekin: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

Multatuli: Max Havelaar

Alice Munro: Open Secrets

Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women

Irene Nemirovsky: Suite française 

Ben Okri: The Famished Road

Laksmi Pamuntjak: The Question of Red

Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra

Georges Perec: Life. A User’s Manual

Leo Perutz: By Night Under the Stone Bridge

Boris Pilnyak: Mahogany

Alek Popov: Black Box

Milen Ruskov: Thrown Into Nature

Boris Savinkov: Memoirs of a Terrorist

Eric Schneider: Zurück nach Java

Daniel Paul Schreber: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

Carl Seelig: Wandering with Robert Walser

Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Anthony Shadid: House of Stones

Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales

Raja Shehadeh: A Rift in Time

Alexander Shpatov: #LiveFromSofia

Werner Sonne: Staatsräson?

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Way to Babadag

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: A Mute’s Soliloquy

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The Buru Quartet (4 vol.)

Lionel Trilling: The Middle of the Journey

Iliya Trojanov: The Collector of Worlds

Bernward Vesper: Die Reise (The Journey)

Robert Walser: Jakob von Gunten

Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

Marguerite Yourcenar: Coup de Grace

Galina Zlatareva: The Medallion

Arnold Zweig: The Case of Sergeant Grisha

Stay tuned – and feel free to comment any of my blog posts. Your contributions are very much appreciated. You are also invited to subscribe to this blog if you like.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.