Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Trail We Leave

by Rubén Palma

Larissa Kyzer wrote me about a collection of short stories that she thinks is phenomenal, written by a Chilean-born Danish author. 

After she finishes her Master’s in Library Science, Larissa wants to move to Copenhagen to learn Danish.  Her ultimate plan is to be a middle/high school librarian who spends those long summer vacations translating wonderful books into English.

 She has her own blog, The Afterword, which includes an archive of her book reviews on literature in translation, crime fiction, young adult literature, and other articles and bits of interest. The address is

 Here’s what she says:

Guest Blog by Larissa Kyzer

About five years ago, through a convoluted and fortuitous series of book recommendations and discoveries, I discovered Scandinavian literature. (And although I am an emphatic fan of Nordic crime fiction, I’m not just referring to Henning Mankell or Helen Tursten or Arnaldur Indridason or many, many others.) Reading everything from lovely modernist short stories by out-of-print Nobel Prize winners (“The Polar Bear” by Henrik Pontoppidan) to hilarious existential novels about unfortunate house guests (The Pets by Braggi Olafsson) to harrowing explorations of the sex trade in Finland and life in Estonia during the soviet occupation (Purge by Sofi Oksanen), I fell into this world of rich, evocative literature that felt as if it had been waiting for me all these years.

It’s rare—not unprecedented, but rare—that I read a Scandinavian novel or short story collection that doesn’t appeal to me; but occasionally, I’m lucky enough to run across a really exemplary title—something that especially resonates. Earlier this year, I had just such an experience when reading The Trail We Leave, a short story collection written by  RubénPalma, and translated from Danish into English in 2005. Jumping between empathetic observation and a sense of humor which delights in the enduring absurdity of personal relationships, this is, hands down, one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a long time. (The last really wonderful collection being Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, for what it’s worth.) 

Most of the stories deal with the experiences of usually Chilean immigrants in Denmark, which no doubt draw inspiration from Palma’s own life. According to his bio in the back of the book, he grew up in Santiago, Chile, graduated from high school in 1971, and, after dabbling in “esoteric and eastern philosophies” he “participated actively in what he believed was a libertarian, leftist movement,” which he eventually left because of its “authoritarian nature.” Palma deserted the army after the coup in 1973 and became a refugee with the United Nations’ protection shortly after. The next year, at the age of 19, he moved to Denmark.  After 25 years in his adoptive country, Palma started writing in Danish, the product being The Trail We Leave. 

Within these stories we meet a Chilean man whose relationship with his longtime Danish girlfriend is completely upended when his language instructor sends an amorous postcard to his home. Another character flees to Finland over New Year’s after some particularly complicated relationship issues, where he meets a man from Bangladesh who is futilely trying to win the affections of a foreign aid worker he met while she was volunteering in his hometown. A little girl practicing her lines in Danish for a school play remembers her hometown of Playa Verde. 

The thread that runs through each of the stories is one of disjuncture and alienation, the turbulent negotiation of learning to integrate in a society so entirely different from one’s own, of wanting to become something and someone new, while still desperately hanging on to what one once was. And while the experiences of the characters are all exquisitely unique and completely specific to them, Palma not only captures the “borderland,” or the “strange places between a country forever lost and a new one,” (as the translator writes in his notes), but also the very sticky process of identity creation and revision that everyone goes through at some point in their lives. 

As our own national debate about immigration rages on, The Trail We Leave humanizes the vast range of emotions and circumstances experienced by those struggling to make a new home in a foreign place. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and frequently insightful, it’s a wonderful collection. We’d be lucky to have more of Palma’s work in English in the future.


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Sienkiewicz Trilogy

Sometimes people email to tell me about the books they’ve been reading recently.  It’s always great fun for me to get one of these emails, both because it’s intrinsically interesting to hear about what others are reading but also because I somehow inevitably add the books to my ever-growing “to be read” list. 

Here’s a recent email from Kay Robart, who describes herself as “a technical writer who reads constantly and hosts two book clubs. I especially love good historical novels and mysteries.”

Guest Post by Kay Robart

My latest discovery is not a new book, but a trio of old ones, the trilogy written by Henryk Sienkiewicz about the history of Poland, which won him the Nobel Prize. The books are purely adventure/romance stories of the late 1800s, but historically accurate and extremely well written. Even though they are mostly about war (and I was the girl who skipped all the war in War and Peace), they are really exciting and about a period and place that most of us Americans don’t know much about.

The first book, With Fire and Sword, is about the Cossack rebellion of 1648, which ultimately resulted in the Ukraine splitting off from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yan Skshetuski is a young Polish officer in the hussars of the Ukrainian Prince Yeremi Vishnovyetski. Just after Yan becomes engaged to the lovely Helen, Prince Yeremi sends him off as an emissary to Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, the leader of the Cossack rebellion. But Yan is sent too late. When he arrives at this destination, the rebellion has already started.

Yan escapes with difficulty from the Cossacks and makes his way through the war-torn landscape, all the time worrying about Helen. But his duty is to his Prince, who because of the political landscape ends up fighting the Cossack invasion with very little help from the other Polish or Lithuanian nobles. Helen has been kidnapped by the wild Cossack Bohun, who also wants her for his wife, but Yan cannot take time to look for her. He must leave on another mission for Prince Yeremi. In the meantime, his friends, Pan Zagloba, the fat buffoon; Michal Volodyovski, the small, continually lovelorn knight and master swordsman; and Longinus Podbipyenta, the gentle Lithuanian giant, try to help Yan by rescuing Helen.

The second book, The Deluge, is about the 1655 Swedish invasion of the Commonwealth. The Cossack rebellion is still going strong and the Russians are invading from the East, so many of the Polish nobles simply hand the government over to the Swedish King, and the Polish king must flee the country. Andrei Kmita is a Lithuanian knight who has been living a wild life, rioting around the country and fighting off the Russians with a band of hooligans who do not treat their own countrymen any better than the Russians. But then he meets his fiancée, Olenka, an upright girl who lets him know he needs to mend his ways. Prince Radzivill offers him the opportunity to redeem himself, he thinks, and help save the country. But the Radzivills are misleading him. They have other things in mind than their country’s welfare, and it is awhile before Kmita figures this out. In the meantime, the Radzivills have taken Olenka hostage. How can Kmita redeem his name, try to mend his errors, fight for his country, and win back Olenka? His redemption starts with the defense of a famous monastery from the Swedish army. In the meantime, he keeps running into Yan Skshetuski, Pan Zagloba, and Michal Volodyovski, who are fighting the Swedes under a Lithuanian general. They don’t know whether he is a hero or a scoundrel, but they end up fighting beside him.

I haven’t started the third book yet, Fire in the Steppe, about another invasion by the Ottoman Empire, featuring the small knight Michal Volodyovski, but I can hardly wait to begin. The books are hefty reads (book 1—1035 pages; book 2—two volumes of about 1700 pages; book 3—500 or 600 pages), but they are worth every minute of your time. There are two major translations and some controversy about which is best. I read the one from 1991 by Kuniczak, which is very well written but much longer than the original translation by Curtin.

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Waiting to Know You

by Karisha Kal’ee’ay

Stan Thompson is an engineer for an electronics company in Costa Mesa, CA.  Via email he told me that he spends his “days thinking about small mundane details that our customers will probably never care about, but I spend my evenings lost in fictional worlds where anything can happen.”  Because he travels often (like to The Consumer Electronics Show, where, I must say, technonut that I am, I’ve always wanted to go), he spends many evenings reading.  Here’s one of the books he’s recently enjoyed: 

Guest Blog
by Stan Thompson

When I travel for business, I like to take a book with me to ease the tedium of airport layovers and lonely hotel evenings. While searching new authors for something interesting, I came across the unusual name, Karisha Kal’ee’ay. The blurb for her book, Waiting to Know You, intrigued me, so I took a chance on it and my gamble paid off. The story begins with Virginia, who has tracked down her half-brother Dan, and is renting a Southern California apartment just a few doors down from his. Dan is unaware of their family connection because he and his older brother Lunt were abandoned by their mother when they were very young. Virginia has been shunned by her father because of her morbid obesity and is desperate to have the friendship, love, and acceptance that a caring brother might give her. While Virginia befriends her brother, we wait in anticipation while she tries to find the courage to reveal their family bond. Through Virginia’s emotional isolation and the stark contrast between her life and the frivolous self-obsessed lives of those around her, we come to understand that it is the emotional bonds we share that really matter. 

On the other end of the personality spectrum, Virginia’s half-brother Lunt is a high-energy comic tornado. His life comes together like a series of wild adventure dominoes when a road trip with his brother Dan turns into a rescue mission to save two young women from polygamy, which in turn, leads him to fall in love with an over-worked public attorney. 

Dan meanwhile is struggling to live something like a normal life after learning that a one night stand back in college resulted in a daughter who has recently died in a motorcycle accident. What is a person supposed to feel when he loses a child that he never knew existed? We follow Dan as he struggles with this question throughout the book.

If you’re looking for something different to read, this is it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that looked at life from so many different angles; and after getting to know this cast of characters, I feel I know myself a whole lot better.

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Instead of a Letter

by Diana Athill

Over the last decade or so, Diana Athill has written a series of well-reviewed accounts of her life as an editor and writer in London.  It’s hard to see how any inveterate reader wouldn’t devour them with joy.  Yet each time a new book was published, I wondered anew why her first—and to my mind, still her best (as much as I’ve enjoyed the others)—memoir, Instead of a Letter, had never been reprinted.  I loved it when I read it in 1962 and lent copies to all my friends until it went out of print and I sent my last remaining copy to a friend in Australia a few years ago. But now, mirabile dictu, her publisher, W. W. Norton, has remedied this situation and made Instead of a Letter available for a new generation of readers. I have to admit that I had some misgivings as I opened the new edition to the first page; I worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memory of it.  (As all re-readers know, this happens frequently.) But, to my great relief, I was quickly reassured that the book had not lost any of its appeal for me.  Athill grew up bookish in a large country home outside of London that was owned by her grandparents. When she was 15, she fell passionately in love with a young man, whom she calls Paul, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford and a member of the RAF (Royal Air Force).  When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, however, Diana knew that nothing would (or could) ever be the same.  Does Paul live? Do they marry? Are they happy together?  Readers of her later memoirs like Stet and Somewhere Towards the End will already know the answers to these questions; but even they, I think, will enjoy this early, sterling example of what a memoir can and should be.


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