Book of the Week: The Sleep of the Righteous


Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous is a collection of short stories set in postwar East Germany. Hilbig’s prose, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, swirls, undulates, and evaporates like smoke in these stories, which deal in murder, espionage, politics, romance, and pursuit by the Communist Stasi police force. This uneasy theme of pursuit and evasion threads through every story in the collection, even when Hilbig neglects to clarify from what, or from whom, his narrators are hiding. 

    Hidden in the background of these tales, unspoken, is the chilling awareness of what Germany has recently wrought. Hilbig mentions the concentration camps only once, while discussing the setting of particular moments in his childhood, and from this point on, every sentence about smoke, ash, bone, and ember calls to mind the crematoria. At one point, a first-person narrator contemplates the ancient Germanic clans of his homeland, peoples who have long since been buried. He reflects upon the fact that their bodies have decomposed over time and been compressed into carbon-based fuels—coal, petroleum, and the like—which are now burning underground in subterranean infernos ignited during the war. He speaks of their presence in the smoke that curls up from cracks in the earth, and noticeably avoids the fact that, not long before, millions of innocents also curled up from German smokestacks and disappeared into blue-gray skies.

    These stories remind us, in a style both literary and uncomfortably disjointed, of our commonalities: fear, guilt, desire, and mortality. 

Spotlight: Joe Milazzo's Best of 2016

We're updating our shelves with our curator's lists for 2016, and we're pleased to deliver our favorite books one contributor at a time. Next up, it's Joe Milazzo, Bookseller Emeritus at Deep Vellum Books. Joes's interests span the literary world and we're always amazed at his picks each month. (And if you haven't picked up your copy of The Habiliments or Crepuscule with Nellie, you should drop everything you're doing, visit Deep Vellum, and immediately start reading these two from our very own Joe Milazzo.)

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing by Brian Blanchfield (Nightboat)

Brian Blanchfield, a Whiting Award-winner for 2016, takes a unique approach to constraint-based writing in this collection of essays. Simply by beginning with what he remembers or thinks he knows about a particular topic, he follows the thread of his own associations, never giving in to the temptation to consult the Internet for verification or correct himself, until he reacheswhat he terms "an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability." The truths he is able to dig up at theses sites, however, are never less that startling, not to mention devastatingly poignant.  

Look by Solmaz Sharif (Greywolf)

What does violence do to language, how is language infected with that violence, and how does language perpetuate violence? Solmaz Sharif's debut collection employs "words and phrases lifted from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms" as it tries to answer these and other questions and simultaneously resist the answers it uncovers. The poems here are sometimes brittle, often estranging, but always emotionally engaged and engaging. Look was named a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award in poetry. 

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi (Wave Books)

Don Mee Choi is a Korean-born, America-based poet and translator who first came to many readers' notice for her heroic work in discovering English that's equal to Kim Hyesoon's visionary poetry. This is the second book Choi has published of her own verse, and it pushes the formal boundaries of what poetry can both contain and convey. Experimental as it may be, Hardly War is still is rooted in the intimacies of her own family and personal experience as a displaced person. As she writes, this is a book of "geopolitical poetics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded.”

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams (Tin House)

This book is the first collection to appear in over 10 years from "quite possibly America’s best living writer of short stories” (according to NPR). In a series of brilliant, acerbic vignettes in which the divine and the mundane collide and commingle, Williams reminds us how much fiction really is the art of the possible.

Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir by Molly Brodak (Grove)

Molly Brodak's father was worse than a rascal. He was a criminal, and served seven years for 11 counts of bank robbery in the mid-90s. This clear-eyed, oddly lyrical memoir reckons with the presence and influence of this complicated, charismatic and doomed man in one woman's life. But it is also the story of how storytelling itself is often vital to our achieving a sense of who we are. But that means accepting some truths we'd prefer not to acknowledge. To Brodak's great credit, she’s not afraid to go there, and to take us along with her.

IRL by Tommy Pico (Birds LLC)

Birds LLC, which is based partly out of Austin, has over the past 5 years, earned a reputation for being one of the more consistently adventurous of American's small poetry publishers. Tommy Pico's IRL is a great argument for why we need presses like Birds LLC that are willing to advocate for a promote literature that might not otherwise reach a national audience. (And Tommy Pico was profiled by the New Yorker this year thanks the buzz surrounding IRL.) Their own description of this comical, magical and surprisingly urgent book speaks for itself in this regard. "IRL is a sweaty, summertime poem composed like a long text message, rooted in the epic tradition of A.R. Ammons, ancient Kumeyaay Bird Songs, and Beyoncé's visual albums. It follows Teebs, a reservation-born, queer NDN weirdo, trying to figure out his impulses/desires/history in the midst of Brooklyn rooftops, privacy in the age of the Internet, street harassment, suicide, boys boys boys, literature, colonialism, religion, leaving one's 20s, and a love/hate relationship with English.”

The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas (Coffee House Press)

It seems that agents and editors are constantly on the look out for the next Bolano, or the new David Foster Wallace. But the small press world may havefound him in the person of this Ecuadorian novelist. The subjects and themes of this novel will no doubt be familiar to may readers of South American literature: dictatorship, exile, the problems of being an artist in times of upheaval. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is original in its textures. Cardenas juxtaposes the austerity politics of Ecuador's "lost decade" with a style that is defiantly wayward and maximalist. Sentences sprawl into paragraphs, characters disappear and reappear without warning, and one entire section of the book remains "untranslated" from the Spanish. This is a challenging book, on par with notoriously difficult titles like Gaddis' The Recognitions or McElroy's Women and Men, but it's one that repays whatever efforts readers are willing to dedicate to it.

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems by Rosmarie Waldrop (New Directions)

It's hard to believe, but this is the first career-spanning retrospective for Rosmarie Waldrop. She is of one of the our leading experimental poets and belongs in any discussion of our most important independent publishers courtesy of her work operating Burning Deck Press. (Her partner, husband Keith, is also a fantastic poet and accomplished visual artists in his own right.) Waldrop verses and prose poems are wide-ranging (polymathic?), endlessly inventive, and Dickinson-ian in their incisiveness. Throughout it all, though, she reveals her unwavering commitment to music and rhythm. As smart as these poems are, we still have to feel them to catch what and how they mean. Luckily, the invitation to do so is right there on the page.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Two Lines Press)

This is the first of Noll's works to be translated into English. Noll is one of Brazil's most important living writers. This novel bears something of a resemblance to Cesar Aira's apparently improvised caprices, and, like many of Aira's books, it can be consumed pretty much in one sitting. Where Aira prioritizes delight, however, Noll is out to unsettle reader. (In fact, the opening pages of this book evoke the films of Michael Haneke as much as they do any literary predecessors I can recall.) This unique mediation on time, history, and the privileged actors who claim that history is made by and through is puzzling in the best possible sense of that word. Quiet Creature on the Corner is not so much a mystery as it is a confrontation with the frightening banality of the unexplained.

The Attraction of Things by Roger Lewinter (New Directions)

Lewinter carries forward the traditions of the French nouveau roman, but also pushes the new novel's fascination with the world's surfaces and superstructures into a new sort of rapture. Anyone passionate about the sentence as a medium for expression will find much to surrender to in Lewinter's lovely, delicate-yet-resilient, neo-baroque prose.

Catch up on additional 2016 favorites from other contributors here.

Spotlight: Will Evans' Best of 2016 Reading List

It's been a great year for Deep Vellum, and we're pleased to deliver our favorite books from 2016, one contributor at a time. First up, it's Will Evans, Co-Founder of Deep Vellum Books & Publisher at Deep Vellum Publishing. He's our fearless visionary and knows more about Russian literature than just about anyone in Dallas. Will's reading year was cut a bit short due to the arrival of Andy, his (now, almost) seven month-old, adorable, talkative son, but we're impressed with his selections. Read on, friends:


Gessell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated by Andrea G. Labinger (Open Letter Books)

A brilliant example of why we read foreign fiction: to see a master at work doing something completely different than what we're used to, in this twisted, timely, political thriller from Argentina. It's like Ricardo Piglia's paranoid fiction twisting down history's darkest forked paths.

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Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (Saga Books)

Ken Liu is an astonishingly good young writer crafting an entire universe before our very eyes that we don't ever want to leave by closing the book. This book is damn near perfect, an epic sci-fi/fantasy that even the most common or most literary reader will fall in love with.

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Picador)

American satire is alive & well, and this book will be remembered long ahead into the future of American history. Reading Beatty for the first time gave me the same sense of delight and wonder as when I first read Vonnegut at 16, blowing my ever-loving mind, and it's amazing to see this book win the Man Booker -- sometimes those literary prizes get it right!


One of Us is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated by Martin Aiken (Open Letter Books)

I tried to make a rule not to include any Deep Vellum authors, but this really is one of the best books I've ever read: a heartbreaking, sensual meditation on grief with haunting images of nature that make you realize the beauty of this mortal coil and the tragedy that awaits us all. If that doesn't sell you on this book, then nothing will.


The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Penguin)

So when I went to Seoul once upon a time, I was force-fed meat by a waitress, living out a scene in this book I'd read before going, and it makes you realize the power of conformity in Korean, nay, all world society, and the punishments those who tread their own path must endure. And, of course, the novel goes down its own brilliant path to make even higher points about the human condition, but this book has stuck with me, especially the thought of becoming a tree.


Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despuentes, translated by Sian Reynolds (The Feminist Press)

Badass French feminist erotic love story - it's like Bonnie & Clyde in France. The only word to describe Despentes and all her books is that she is a badass and by reading her you become more badass, or at least she makes me feel more badass, and that rules, because reading is badass.


Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao (Coffee House Press)

Haunting poetry like I've never read before. I thought a lot about loss in 2016, and this book hit me in the right place (gut) at the right time (now)


Nicotine by Nell Zink (Ecco)

God bless Nell Zink out there keeping it weird for the rest of American writers who are just so boring.

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett (Greywolf)

Hell yes, I'll take any book influenced by Kafka's Metamorphosis, but I'll especially take one that fleshes out the influence to a level of satire that makes you question (if you didn't already, and if you didn't, you should) why we are forever placing white Eurocentric culture at the center of the world. There's just so much more to enjoy in life through diversity.

Deep Vellum Review: The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera, Translated by Lisa Dillman

Cover Image Courtesy of And Other Stories

Cover Image Courtesy of And Other Stories

On the heels of his Best Translated Book Award-winning Signs Preceding the End of the World comes Yuri Herrera’s short, gritty, noir-esque The Transmigration of Bodies, winner of the English PEN Award, translated by Lisa Dillman and published by And Other Stories. The book, set in an unnamed city, is Herrera’s “response to the violence of contemporary Mexico”, giving us a glimpse into the lives of people affected by drug wars and gang violence. It starts off with our protagonist, as yet unidentified, waking up to an eerie, apocalyptic scene outside his bedroom window. The streets are quiet, abandoned, and as the protagonist looks around at the ominous setting before him he discovers swarms of mosquitos—carriers of a mysterious and deadly plague that has swept the city into a wave a frightened, paranoid hysteria—sucking on what appear to be puddles of blood in the street.

It’s here where we quickly understand that the protagonist, along with being fairly drunk, is a tired, sad, sexually frustrated (although apparently charming) man whose idea of normal is a life of violence and death, who would surely be more shocked to see an act of kindness than of brutality. The mental state of the protagonist becomes even more interesting when we learn his identity, as The Redeemer, an attorney-turned-fixer who goes between feuding crime families to solve conflicts before they escalate into all-out wars. This is a man who is struggling to grasp whatever frayed threads of goodness remain in his warped world, who seems without hope and who is trying, without much succes, not to give up on the idea that there is such a thing, somewhere out there, for someone.

What Herrera manages to accomplish quite spectacularly in this compact story is an enormous depth of character and a strange, gripping, disconcerting, brilliant examination of the human condition and the ways in which people adapt to survive.


Deep Vellum Review: Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev, translated by Angela Rodel

Tanya Wardell & Party Headquarters @ Deep Vellum Books

Tanya Wardell & Party Headquarters @ Deep Vellum Books

Party Headquarters takes place in the 80s and 90s in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and communist Bulgaria’s transition to democracy. We join up with the narrator in Hamburg as he visits his dying father-in-law, an exiled former communist boss identified only as K-Shev. Our protagonist, who, like most of the characters in the book, remains unnamed throughout, is tasked with collecting a briefcase full of money for the cancer-stricken K-Shev—getaway money stashed by the former leader as Bulgaria’s communist party crumbled. What follows is the story of a man in anguish, whose tortured memories seem to leap out of the pages and engulf the reader in a hallucinatory, radioactive whirlpool where thoughts, images, and characters burst in and out of time and space in disorienting explosions of near-chaos.  

The book is divided into three short sections, each piecing together in muddled bits a narrative that is at once haunting love story, aching reflection, and vengeful thriller. We experience our narrator as a man who seems to simultaneously exist in the past and present, living through each instance in his memory and each moment of the present with dispassionate commentary that quickly erupts into outbursts of anguish as he struggles to comprehend the unanswered questions, disillusionment, and anger leftover from years gone by.  

He returns to the days following the Chernobyl disaster, when communist leaders, in what he considers a spectacular display of incompetence and finger-pointing, failed to tell the people of the dangers they faced as the radioactive fallout seeped into the soil, air, and drinking water. He remembers, with a certain bitterness, how his wife, K-Shev’s daughter, was taken and tested for radiation poisoning while the masses were left uninformed and suffering. We learn of his participation in a communist youth Pioneer camp, the time he spent as a soldier in the army, his attempts to become a pilot, cosmonaut, and medical student, his presence at the burning of the Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters, and his struggle to discover his identity while the world crumbled around him.

K-Shev is omnipresent throughout, a supernatural force who hovers menacingly on the shadowy edges of the narrator’s every memory, an inescapable tormenter. The protagonist never seems to be quite sure if K-Shev is in fact a man or some monstrous construct of all the communist party’s failings, and though he gains some small satisfaction from the cancer slowly killing his father-in-law, the man of many crimes whose actions (or lack thereof) caused thousands upon thousands of people to die painful, slow deaths, he is tortured by the finality of the man’s eventual demise. He knows that in the moment of K-Shev’s death, the protagonist cannot escape the terrifying possibility that K-Shev will take his final, immortal place as the ghost in the protagonist’s dreams:

“To tell you the truth, I know that in the end his death will rob me of everything. It will leave me only the monuments, from which you can’t demand accountability, not for anything.”

Party Headquarters, winner of the Vick Foundation Novel of the Year Award and artfully translated by Angela Rodel, is a poetically gritty, vivid examination of the aftermath of the fall of communism in Bulgaria, and particularly the lasting effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the people who lived through it. Tenev delivers a grotesquely humorous, deeply heartbreaking, and absurdly beautiful story, and his haunting, hallucinogenic writing remains with the reader long after the last page is read.