Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Bronwyn Reviews: For Two Thousand Years

For Two Thousand Years
by Mihail Sebastian
translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Publisher: Other Press
Released: 2017

Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin

“Being persecuted is not just a physical trial. It is one that affects you intellectually. The reality of it slowly deforms you and attacks, above all, your sense of proportion.”

So says the anonymous narrator of the powerful novel For Two Thousand Years as he reflects on his time as a university student in 1920s Romania. But this book belies those words. Even as he and fellow Jewish students are assaulted daily, he seeks to understand himself, his attackers, and his own response to their anti-Semitism. The strength of this book is found in its clear-eyed reporting of conversations the narrator has with friends and colleagues – their candid brutality at times stunning – combined with his thoughtful reflection on what he hears and sees.

Originally published in Romanian in 1934, this novel by Mihail Sebastian has been available in French for some time. It has only now appeared in English in a translation by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, and it couldn’t be more timely. Then, as today, while the perpetrators get most of the attention, silent bystanders also get their due:

“If somebody set themselves up in the middle of the street to demand, let’s say, ‘Death to badgers,’ I think that would suffice to arouse some surprise among those passing by. Now that I think about it, the problem isn’t that three boys can stand at a street corner and cry ‘Death to the Yids.’ But that the cry goes unobserved and unopposed, like the tinkling of a bell on a tram.” 

The Nazis haven’t arrived in Romania yet, but anti-Semitism is on the march. Jewish students are attacked and beaten for having the temerity to attend their classes. Professors at best stand quietly by; at times they encourage the perpetrators. Each night the narrator returns to a dormitory where the victims compare wounds and try to imagine the future.

The novel follows this insightful young student into adulthood. The narrator changes his major to architecture, at the encouragement of a nationalist professor he idolizes. He becomes an architect and is hired by an eccentric American tycoon named Ralph Rice. He lives in Paris for a time, and eventually returns to Romania to work on Rice’s oil fields. The drilling kills the local plum trees, which are the heart of the peasant economy and culture. An entire village is moved to make way for oil production. Then the narrator takes on the design and building of a house for the professor he once loved, whose classes he used to be thrown out of by the professor’s young acolytes.

All this drama, though, is backdrop to the narrator’s deeper struggle not just to survive but to understand, and this is the beating heart of the novel that echoes through to today. As he moves through life, he meets with many anti-Semites. He attends their classes. He breaks bread with them, works side-by-side with them. He talks to other Jews with differing responses to the rising crisis. Most of the people he talks with – nationalists, anti-Semites, communists, Zionists, and oblivious foreigners – are types intended to represent a particular point of view. And yet, his conversations with them are fresh and engaging, as are his later reflection on them:

“Don’t allow yourself to indulge your suffering. There’s a great voluptuousness in persecution and feeling yourself wronged is probably one of the proudest of private pleasures…. Think how ridiculous we would be if we were alarmed at every shower of rain that soaked us.”

Mihail Sebastian is the pen name of Iosif Hechter, and this novel is thinly disguised autobiography. The other major work he is known for is the journal he kept from 1935 to 1944. When it was finally published in 1996, it was quickly recognized as an important chronicle of the rise of nazism in Europe. Sebastian’s humanistic observations of the catastrophe as it unfolded can help us understand his time and ours. Having survived the Holocaust, Sebastian was hit by a truck and killed while crossing a Bucharest street in 1945, on his way to give a lecture on Balzac. He was 37 years old. As the prescient young narrator says early in this book, making a failing of Sebastian’s great strength as a chronicler,

“Something tells me that we are unable to live any of life’s moments fully. Not one of them. That we eternally stand at a remove from what is happening. A little above or a little below things, but never at their heart… That the fires we lit to offer up our hearts smouldered out too soon.”


Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry, and creates zines. She will be an Artist in Residence at Denali National Park and Preserve in summer 2018. More at bronwynmauldin.com.  

Monday, March 19, 2018

Seeking Reviewers for David Barbee's JIMBO YOJIMBO

Readers, my readers, I swear I have not forsaken you. 

Last year was a rough year for this blog. Many of our contributing reviewers left us to persue exciting projects of their own, and we found ourselves in the midst of an amazing opportunity to provide publicity for a handful of incredible small press authors. 

All of these changes, as awesome as they have been, meant less free time for reading and reviewing books here. And looking forward into 2018, it looks like we'll be up against more of the same. 

We'll still be featuring small press authors - it'll just be through more of the author series we host, and a lot less in the way of reviews. 

In the meantime, I'd like you to check out the current book I'm promoting: 

This is David Barbee's latest novel Jimbo Yojimbo
It's Eraserhead Press's first release of the year, and David and I are looking for reviewers. 

In this satirical, post-frog-plagued, bizarro alt-future, most of humanity has been reengineered by an evil restaurateur. Bushido Budnick is a mad master chef slash scientist of sorts, who has clawed his way to the top of the food chain, breathing life into strange (and tasty) fish and frog-like minions, who also serve as Menu Items if they fail to please their creator. 
Not one to let things simmer, Barbee throws us headfirst into a dungeon cell where our hillbilly samurai hero, Jimbo Yojimbo, and his ghost daddy are making a quick escape. Jimbo's taken a revenge oath against Bushido and plans to kill him and bring his entire Buddha Gump Shrimp Company down with him. 
Along the way, he has to fight endless armies of crawds and Quakers, genetically enhanced crayfish and ducks, all the while trying to shake Toadlicker, Bushido's grotesquely modified superspy and right-hand-man, who's convinced himself that Jimbo Yojimbo is his ultimate match. 
Fans of bizarro fiction will find much to appreciate here - Barbee's imagination truly knows no bounds - while newbies to the genre, provided they are prepared to suspend reality farther than they've ever suspended it before, are guaranteed to identify with the book's underlying themes of love, loss, and an unquenchable blood thirsty vengance. 
Jimbo Yojimbo is an action packed, mind blowing clash of good vs evil set in a world in which the only rule is that there are no rules.

If you think you might like to review this book, let us know! 
We have digital review copies in PDF, Mobi, and Epub. 

Also, check out these really cool black out poems that ST Cartledge created from the text within the novel:

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Kelly Cherry's Would You Rather

Bored with the same old fashioned author interviews you see all around the blogosphere? Well, TNBBC's got a fun, literary spin on the ole Would You Rather game. Get to know the authors we love to read in ways no other interviewer has. I've asked them to pick sides against the same 20 odd bookish scenarios.

Kelly Cherry's 
Would You Rather

Would you rather start every sentence in your book with ‘And’ or end every sentence with ‘but’?

    I use "but" frequently. That's because there are always so many sides to an issue and I feel a need to capture them.

Would you rather write in an isolated cabin that was infested with spiders or in a noisy coffee shop with bad musak?

    I'll choose the spiders! My parents were string quartet violinists and I grew up on late Beethoven. I think classical music is what keeps me alive. Besides, spiders don't attack; they just quietly climb up an down.

Would you rather think in a language you could understand but write in one you couldn’t read, or think in a language you couldn’t understand but write in one you could read?
 This is tricky. I'd rather think and write in the one language I know. In fact, I can't escape it.

Would you rather write the best book of your career and never publish it or publish a bunch of books that leave you feeling unsatisfied?

    I've already published 27 books. There are some I wish I could throw out, but it's too late. But again (all these 'but's, cf. above) there are some I believe in and would not throw out.

Would you rather have everything you think automatically appear on your Twitter feed or have a voice in your head narrate your every move?
Voice in my head, for sure. There are things I definitely do not want Twitter to know.

Would you rather your books be bound and covered with human skin or made out of tissue paper?
 Tissue paper. Even if it blows away, tumbling down a street.

Would you rather read naked in front of a packed room or have no one show up to your reading?
 I am happy to have never had to give a  reading naked. On the other hand, I have given a reading to the one person who showed up for it.

Would you rather your book incite the world’s largest riot or be used as tinder in everyone’s fireplace?

   Here I'll vote for the riot. Maybe someone will find something in it more alluring than a riot.

Would you rather give up your computer or pens and paper?
  I have already given up pens and paper, and I still wonder if was the wrong choice. My computer is unruly and far too complicated.

Would you rather have every word of your favorite novel tattooed on your skin or always playing as an audio in the background for the rest of your life?
 I hope I never have to deal with either, but in a  pinch I'll vote for the tattoo over the noise, which would make it hard to think.

Would you rather meet your favorite author and have them turn out to be a total jerkwad or hate a book written by an author you are really close to?
 Well, I've already met some jerkwads. I'd choose the to meet the writer whose book I hate but whose person I respect.

Would you rather your book have an awesome title with a really ugly cover or an awesome cover with a really bad title?
  Awesome title, please! It's titles that sell books, not covers.

Would you rather write beautiful prose with no point or write the perfect story badly?

    The latter, although I try to make my prose as beautiful as I can.

Would you rather write only embarrassingly truthful essays or write nothing at all?

Embarrassingly truthful. I think I've already written some of those.

Would you rather your book become an instant best seller that burns out quickly and is forgotten forever or be met with mediocre criticism but continue to sell well after you’re gone?

   I think I've already missed the opportunity to have a best seller that burns out but I do have hope that some of my books will reach readers after I've gone.


Author of 27 books, 11 chapbooks, 2 translations of classical drama. Former PL of Virginia. Emerita, Poets Corner, NYC. Hanes Poetry Prize, NEA, USIA (the Philippines), Rockefeller, Bradley Lifetime Award, Phillabaum Prize, Weinstein Award, Notable Wisconsin Author, three Arts Board fellowship grants  and two New Work awards from Wisconsin, Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award (2000, for 1999), Walker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Letters; four Prize anthologies. Eminent Scholar, UAH, 2001-2005.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Guest Post - Lynn Sloan on Downsizing Her Library

Downsizing a personal collection of books is not an easy feat for a booklover. More accuractely, it is probably a task that most booklovers procrastinate at or avoid at all costs! Just the thought of removing books from my shelves to place into storage bins gives me anxiety... let alone contemplating CULLING any.

Today, we welcome Lynn Sloan, author of the recently released This Far Isn't Far Enough, to the blog as she shares her recent experience with doing just such a thing:

The Wisdom and the Folly of Downsizing a Library

“So these’ll be gone, right?” George, the house painter, nods at the long wall in my bedroom of floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with books.

Like all avid readers and most writers, I have books in many rooms—cookbooks, in the kitchen, obviously; local history and poetry in the living room, less obviously; in my office, predictably, dictionaries, style guides, books I turn to for inspiration; in my workroom, reference books, books I mean to read, and books I’ll never read but can’t give away because of the giver; in the den, art, more art, photography, travel, history, essays, film studies; and so on.

The books that really matter to me are in my bedroom. George, sizing up the job ahead, and I look at them, me with affection, George with a baffled, who-needs-books expression.

I am a fiction writer. Most of the novels and short story collections that I’ve read in the last twenty-five years are here, in my most private, intimate space. No book goes on these shelves unless I read it to the end. Non-fiction I’ll read on my digital devices, but books of fiction I want to hold in my hand as objects; I want to turn their paper pages; I want to write in the margins. When I became a fiction writer, I gave up borrowing novels and story collections from the library and started buying them as a way to support living authors and the legacy of the dead, so this twenty-foot-long wall of books has become a three dimensional record of my history as a reader of fiction. Arranged in alphabetical order by author, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners alongside out-of-print, mid-twentieth century British Penguins, hardbound books written by my personal favorites, cherished volumes from friends, soft with many readings, peeling pulp paperbacks with lurid covers bought secondhand. Books stacked in front of other books, groaning shelves, a twenty-foot long wall, my most personal library.

I assure George, the painter, that I will deal with the books before his crew arrives.


The painters were due.  It was time to box up my books.

I’ve done this before. I’ve boxed and moved books from college to my first apartment, which is why I still have my musty copy of English Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Movement, to my next apartment, and the next, to one fixer-upper house after another, to my current beloved cottage. Books have made the journey with me. My bedroom wall of books is personal.

These are the books that have entertained me, challenged and taught me, and sustained me. But I have too many books. The shelves are double-stacked. I don’t even know what’s behind the visible rows of books.

I drag out boxes, dusting rags, and the stepladder. Amis, Kingsley and Martin, Atkinson, Atwood, Austin—my eyes drift over the faded spines, past Richard Yates, and two bottom rows of Best American anthologies. Many of these familiar friends I haven’t opened in years. Do I need them any more? Which of them will I ever read again? I have so many books that I sometimes hesitate to buy new books, and so many good books are published all the time.  

I decide to keep only those books I truly expect to read again. Most of Kingsley Amis I save, none of Martin Amis. I keep Atkinson’s Life after Life and God in Ruins, set aside her Brodie mysteries for a mystery-loving friend, the others go in a stack for the public library’s sale. I move through the As and on to the Bs. Each decision is tough. Baxter, Berlin, keep, most of Brookner, to the library. I persist. Each book that I have loved tests my resolve, but if I figure I’m not going to read it again, out it goes onto the library pile. Soon the library pile becomes several piles. I am ruthless. My book-loving husband walks in and is shaken.

“Are you sure?”

Such a question is no help. If I weaken, I’m doomed. Ahead I envision a beckoning openness, not dusty yellowing volumes from the past, but a spacious and blooming future.

I have three hundred hardbound books and eighty-three paperbound books to give away. I am exhausted, and I am content.

The painters do their work. We move back in the bed, the bedside tables, the lamps, the reading chair, but the shelves remain empty. I want them to dry thoroughly before I bring in the books.

On a sunny day, I carry in the boxes and begin. I’m glad to see my old friends. Each volume seems fresh and new. Some authors’ works I place sideways so the titles can be read easily. Here and there I leave space for new acquisitions. When I step back to review the result, it looks as if an interior decorator has been at work, arranging the books just so, in other words, my wall of carefully chosen books does not look like my library. What I have left is a skeleton, the remains of a formerly living organism. I try not to be disappointed. I try not to obsess over the Veronica Gengs and the Malcolm Muggeridges, the Tom Rachman, the Téa Obreht, the four hundred books I gave away. I want them all back.

I avoid looking at that wall in my bedroom for weeks, until one day I need to look up a passage in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Guided by my old penciled notes, I find what I’m looking for. Delighted that I’d saved this book, happy that the process of finding what I wanted was so easy, I pull down nearby books. They are full of notes I’d written in the margins; inside the back cover are thoughts I’d had and connections I’d made between passages. I discover bookmarks from now-closed bookstores. I remember buying each of these books, some in distance towns, and most near home. Each book tells not just the author’s tale, but my mine too.

Opposite the passage I’d gone looking for in Interpreter of Maladies, I found, “It was only then . . . that I knew what it meant to miss someone . . .”

I miss the books I gave away. I’m happy to have lots of free space on my shelves to fill with new books and new experiences, but I miss what I no longer have. It will be years before I have to face downsizing again.


Lynn Sloan is a writer and photographer. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and American Literary Review, among other publications, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the author of the novel Principles of Navigation (2015 Fomite), which was a Chicago Book Review Best Book in 2015, and the newly released short story collection, This Far Isn't Far Enough (Fomite, 2018). Her fine art photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. For many years she taught photography at Columbia College Chicago, where she founded the journal Occasional Readings in Photography, and contributed to Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure. She lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband. Learn more at http://www.lynnsloan.com/