Svetlana Lilova: Metaphysical Dictionary (2016) A Collection of Poems with Illustrations by Graham Falk


Some of you may remember that I participated in Thomas’ (MystwostotinkiBulgarian Literature Month in June. Right after the month was finished, I was offered a copy of Svetlana Lilova’s poetry collection Metaphysical Dictionary. Svetlana Lilova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and emigrated to Canada as a teenager. Language is one of the major preoccupations of any expat or immigrant. So it’s not surprising that Lilova’s collection is inspired by this experience and written in the form of a dictionary.

This is such a unique collection. It combines Lilova’s poems with drawings by Graham Falk. The result is as original as it is thought-provoking.


You can open it anywhere you want and you’ll find something that will surprise or delight you.


It’s possible to read the book from beginning to end, but it’s equally rewarding to just open it at random and read an entry here and there.

If you click on the images, you can read a few of the entries. Here are some more:

nature      an endless song

a symphony of diversity and balance

inertia  outwardly;

a lot happening on the inside

demanding all attention

vital to attend



not moving enough to produce

a reflection or substance

to focus on

sad      unknown

suffused with rose water

choice     what we all have


This is the kind of book that would make an excellent gift. Not only for lovers of poetry and quirky texts, but also for those who enjoy the combination of words and drawings.md4

The collection has been published by Dumagrad Books, a Canadian publisher I wasn’t familiar with. For those who are interested in independent publishers, don’t miss visiting the website. They have a really appealing catalogue.

Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) Literature and War Readalong September 2016

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Luckily Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was one of my readalong titles or I might have given up after fifty pages. I found it hard to get into but once I passed the fifty page mark, I was so engrossed, I could hardly put it down. What a terrific, poignant, witty, and sarcastic book.

The novel is set on the last days of Bravo company’s victory tour. Billy Lynn and his comrades are heroes. They survived a firefight in Iraq, during which they overthrew a group of insurgents. One of the Bravos died in the fight, another one came back disabled. Nonetheless, this “sacrifice” might have passed unnoticed if it hadn’t been filmed by an embedded journalist. As a reward they receive medals and are sent home on a propaganda tour.

This does it; they throw back their heads and roar. In a way it’s so easy, all he has to do is say what they want to hear and they’re happy, they love him, everybody gets along. Sometimes he has to remind himself there’s no dishonor in it. He hasn’t told any lies, he doesn’t exaggerate, yet so often he comes away from these encounters with the sleazy, gamey aftertaste of having lied.

The last day is meant not only as a special tribute but as a special treat. The Bravos assist and participate in a game of the Dallas Cowboys. They are allowed to go back stage and to talk to the players, their manager and their rich Texan supporters. At halftime, they are on the field, right next to the musical attraction – Destiny’s Child. And during every break, the footage of their fight is shown on a giant screen.

During this tour, and especially on this last day, people force themselves on the young men, telling them how much they admire them, asking them questions about the war “Are we winning?” – “Did you kill many?” – “It’s a god war we’re fighting, right?”

Billy who’s done the most heroic thing, is the 3rd person narrator of this story. Like Holden Caufield he is equally precocious and naïve and such a terrific character. One of the central plot lines is his falling in love with a cheerleader. While his testosterone-fuelled feelings might not be love, as he thinks, hers are even further from the feeling as all she wants is “a hero” – “a soldier”, as Destiny’s Child sing. She wants the idea of a man, not the man himself.

“Hi, you’ve reached Faison! I’m not able to take your call right now…”

It makes for an odd sensation, watching her real-time person in the middle distance while holding her disembodied voice to his ear. It puts a frame around the situation, gives it focus, perspective. It makes him aware of himself being aware of himself, and here is a mystery that seems worth thinking about, why this stacking of awareness should even matter. Ant the moment all he knows is that there’s structure in it, a pleasing sense of poise or mental ordering. A kind of knowledge, or maybe a bridge thereto–as if existence didn’t necessarily have to be a moron’s progress of lurching from one damn this to another? As if you might aspire to some sort of context in your life, a condition he associates with adultness. Then comes the beep, and he has to talk.

It’s a very difficult book to review as it’s not very plot-driven. It’s the exuberant style that’s important, the descriptions of the absurdities, the frenzy with wich football and war are celebrated by the very rich, as if both only served one purpose – to make them feel good about themselves and about being Americans.

Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants.


No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children. These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants. Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.


All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a contemporary book that was so astute and harsh in its criticism of the negative aspects of American culture. It shows that most things are about money and consumption. And even when people pretend they care about something, they ultimately only care about what it can bring them.

Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.

The book is written in a frantic, quick-paced style, with long sentences and paragraphs that reminded me of listening to a frenzied sports commentator.

Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought – send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys – how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skits and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!

Sometimes, when I watch a war movie or read a book about war, I have my doubts. I wonder whether or not it’s really anti-war – as it should. I never wondered for one second while reading this book. It’s not only against war but against the justification, the fake heroism, the phony concern and gratefulness. But it’s kind to the soldiers. They are shown as victims who very often only joined up because they were too poor to do anything else.

I was thinking, if Salinger had written Catcher in the Rye right after 9/11, it might have been a lot like Billy Lynn. I loved the Catcher in the Rye. Needless to say, I loved Billy Lynn.

Since the writing is the most important thing in this book, I’ll leave you with some more quotes:

Don’t talk about shit you don’t know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are authentic. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths. That is their advantage, and given the masculine standard America has set for itself it is interesting how few actually qualify. Why we fight, yo, who is this we? Here in the chicken-hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of bloods up its sleeve.


Fear is the mother of all emotion. Before love, hate, spite, grief, rage, and all the rest, there was fear, and fear gave birth to them all.


It’s going to be a long, lonesome eleven months in Iraq, long and lonesome being the best-case scenario.


Everybody supports the troops,” Dime woofs, “support the troops, support the troops, hell yeah we’re so fucking PROUD of our troops, but when it comes to actual money? Like somebody might have to come out of pocket for the troops? Then all the sudden we’re on everybody’s tight-ass budget. Talk is cheap, I got that, but gimme a break. Talk is cheap but money screams, this is our country, guys. And I fear for it. I think we should all fear for it.


Other reviews





Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the German WWII novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski. Discussion starts on Friday 25 November, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö: The Locked Room (1972) Martin Beck Series


One could say that Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the grandfathers of Swedish crime. They wrote long before Nordic crime was the thing it has become. Their Martin Beck series is said to be one of the best around. A true classic. While the books have been around for as long as I can think, I never picked one up, although I have always been curious. Now, finally, because I was looking for a locked room mystery, I came across the eight title in the Martin Beck series, The Locked Room, and thought I’ll give it a try. I know it’s not ideal to start with book eight in a series but it was OK. I never felt liked I was missing a ton of information. According to Michael Connelly, who wrote the introduction to this book, it’s one of their best.

This book was not what I’ve expected. It was so much better. So good in fact that I immediately downloaded the first in the series.

Detective Inspector Martin Beck isn’t the central character in this book because he’s been shot and only just returned to work after an eighteen month break. To help him get back into the routine, he’s been assigned a minor case. A man has shot himself and Beck has to wrap up the case.

Parallel to this case, we follow the police investigating a bank robbery that has gone terribly wrong. One of the customers was shot. For years, the police have tried to catch a group of bank robbers, but they always escaped. The police are pretty sure that the robbers they are chasing, robbed this bank as well, even though they never shot anyone before.

The readers know from the beginning that someone else has robbed the bank. We also learn that the suicide Beck investigates was a murder. The man was found dead, shot, in a locked room and no weapon could be found.

These are two very different cases. The one Beck investigates is more suspenseful as we only know as much as Beck knows. The other case is rather hilarious. And this is exactly why this series surprised me so much and why I loved this book. Very obviously Sjöwall and Wahlöö were very fond of their character Beck. Beck, who is a bit of a loner, is very intelligent, a thinker, slightly sarcastic and disillusioned but not bitter. His colleagues aren’t too keen on him, they find him bizarre and too unconventional. He’s definitely an outsider. While we can feel how much the authors like Beck, we also notice quickly, how little they think of the police in general. They make fun of the bank robbery squad wherever they can. More than one of their missions turns into a farce. Some of these characters are very likeable too but dorky. Others, especially those higher up in the ranks are just clueless.

I really enjoyed the mix of such different cases. The quiet, introspective case Beck was on and the big bank robbery investigation that took surprising turns and had many funny moments.

Another aspect I liked was that the book was full of social criticism. It’s really quite harsh in places. The authors excoriate Swedish society and politics.

I know that Beck is more prominent in the earlier books, so I can’t wait to read a novel in which he gets more room. He’s a great character.

All in all, a very pleasant surprise. Sharp, pithy writing, combined with dry humour, appealing characters, a realistic setting, and two interesting cases. What more could you want?

Announcing German Literature Month VI

“Who would want to be without Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month?” asks Sally-Ann Spencer in the 20th anniversary edition of New Books in German. The good news is that neither Lizzy nor I want to be without it. So it is our great pleasure to announce that German Literature Month VI is now inked in our diaries for this coming November.
Albeit a little less structured than in previous iterations. We’ve learned that regular participants are not short of ideas, and love to read as they please.  So that’s what German Literature Month VI is about. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poetry, classic or contemporary, written by male or female, the choice is yours. As long as the original work was written in German, read as you please, and enjoy yourselves!
That said, there are a couple of scheduled activities for those who like to take part in group readings.
1)  Lizzy will be hosting a Krimi week during week two, concentrating mainly on Austrian and Swiss crime fiction. (If anyone is looking for a cracking read to discuss that week, she recommends Ursula P Archer’s Five.)
2) I have scheduled a Literature and War readalong for Friday 25 November. The book for discussion is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing.
We are very much looking forward to this, and hope you will join us. Don’t forget to tell us your plans. There’s often as much fun in the planning as there is in the reading!
If you need ideas – go to the German Literature Page on this blog or to the GLM blog.

Lee Martin: The Bright Forever (2005)


This has been an odd reading and blogging year so far. I’m only reviewing about one in four or five books I read. Not only because I’m sometimes disappointed in my choices but also because I don’t have enough time to review them. But when I come across a book like Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever and know it will be on my favourites list at the end of the year, then I have to review the book or, at least, write about it.

The Bright Forever was a Pulitzer Finalist but I hadn’t heard of it until I discovered Lee Martin via his blog and a nonfiction flash class he taught online at WordTango.

The novel is set in a fictional small town in Indiana in 1972. It’s a hot summer evening and nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the richest man in town, takes her bicycle to bring back her library books. She never returns home. Told from the points of view of different narrators, the novel explores a crime and its aftermath, explores themes of loneliness, guilt, shame, and the desperate struggle for happiness.

This isn’t a crime novel, it’s a literary novel about a crime but it’s just as suspenseful as a crime novel. For the longest time we don’t know what happened to Katie, nor who is responsible.

The choice of narrators is not only great and gives the novel depth but it’s also extremely well done. Lee Martin manages to give each of his narrators a very distinct voice. Not an easy thing to do. First we have Katie’s older brother Gilley who feels responsible for the disappearance because he ratted out his sister. He told their parents that she forgot to return her library books. The next narrator is Mr Dee. A lonely, older man who teaches math. He is a bit too fond of Katie. We’re never sure whether his feelings for her a really fatherly or whether he’s a pedophile. This makes him creepy and touching at the same time. Clare is another narrator. She has done the unforgivable. Shortly after her husband’s death, she starts a relationship with a foreigner, Raymond R. Raymond’s voice is the last. He’s the most problematic figure. The most enigmatic and dishonest. Needless to say, that more than one person looks guilty.

Chosing so many narrators allowed Lee Martin to explore many different topics and to depict his characters from many different angles. We see how they perceive themselves, but also what others think about them. In Mr. Dee’s case that’s particularly poignant, We know he has secrets, but we also know something he ignores— some of the villagers know his secrets. This creates a mirror effect that is very arresting.

While I liked the story and the characters, the thing I loved the most was how Lee Martin captured those lazy summer days that seem to never end when you’re a kid or a teenager. It’s also admirable how he shows that even small town people’s lives are complex and full of pain, mystery and beauty.

The Bright Forever is a stunningly beautiful, mellow novel. It is told in lyrical, evocative prose, which suits this bitter-sweet, nostalgic tale so well. I’m not a rereader but I think this is one of a very few books, I’ll pick up again some day.

Here are some quotes to give you an idea:

That dream was still in my head, that crazy dream about Katie and me on Dumbo the elephant and Mr. Dees walking in the clouds. When I opened my mouth, the dream was on my tongue, as was the feeling that I’d had ever since–the sensation that sometimes life was so wonderful it was scary, not to be trusted.

Here’s Clare talking about Raymond

I think it was this: like most of us, he was carrying a misery in his soul. I don’t say it to forgive what he done, [sic] only to say it as true as I can. He was a wrong-minded man, but inside- I swear this is true- he was always that little boy eating that fried-egg sandwich in that dark hallway while the steam pipe dripped water on his head. I don’t ask you to excuse him, only to understand that there’s people who don’t have what others do, and sometimes they get hurtful in their hearts, and they puff themselves up and try all sorts of schemes to level the ground- to get the bricks and joints all plumb, Ray used to say. They take wrong turns, hit dead ends, and sometimes they never make their way back.

And Gilley looking back

I thought to myself then that it didn’t matter where I ended up; I’d always be living that summer in that town, wishing that I had done things differently, tormented by the fact that I hadn’t. I’d never go far enough to be able to escape it. Maybe you’re happy about that. Maybe not. Maybe you’re carrying your own regrets, and you understand how easy it is to let your life get away from you. I wish I could be the hero of this story, but I’m not. I’m just the one to tell it, at least my part in it, the story of Katie Mackey and the people who failed her. It’s an old one, this tale of selfish desires and the lament that follows, as ancient as the story of Adam and Eve turned away forever from paradise.

And one more

When someone you love disappears, it’s like the light goes dim, and you’re in the shadows. You try to do what people tell you: put one foot in front of the other; keep looking up; give yourself over to the seconds and minutes and hours. But always there’s that glimmer of light-that way of living you once knew-sort of faded and smoky like the crescent moon on a winter’s night when the air is full of ice and clouds, but still there, hanging just over your head. You think it’s not far. Your think at any moment you can reach out and grab it.





How Do You Feel About Errors and Clichés in Short Stories? or Some Thoughts On Ann Patchett’s Switzerland


I’m baffled to say the least. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a story with more factual errors. Since I haven’t read a lot of Ann Patchett’s work, I was glad to see that the September issue of One Story featured her short story “Switzerland”. To be entirely honest, I found the title a bit odd. Did she really write a story about Switzerland? Or is it only a setting? I’m not sure why, but I immediately found it a bit problematic to give a story the title of a whole country. Just imagine I would set a story in Rome and call it “Italy”. Be it as it may, I was willing to give it a try and expected to enjoy it.

The story can be summarized quickly. Teresa is a seventy-something woman from LA who just retired. One of her children, Holly, has been living in a Zen community in Switzerland for over twenty years. Teresa’s only seen her very rarely. Her decision to travel to Switzerland and not only visit her daughter but be part of the Zen community for a few weeks, eat, live and meditate with them, is major.

The stay at the Zen community is a life changer and will help Teresa come to terms with things that have happened in the past. So far so good, and I’m pretty sure, I would have liked this story if there hadn’t been so many errors and clichés. And not just little things but big things that annoyed me a great deal.

What kind of errors and clichés you may wonder. Here goes

  • Teresa takes a plane from LA to Paris and then to Lucerne. Her daughter waits for her at the airport in Lucerne. The airport and her stay there are described in detail The only problem – there is no airport in Lucerne. It’s impossible to fly there.
  • When Teresa gets off the plane she comments about the cold. It’s icy – because, of course, we’re in Switzerland and it’s September. Let me assure you, unless you’re on the top of the Matterhorn, it will not be cold in Switzerland in September. Not even cool. Right now it’s still 100°F. It might be cooler in Lucerne, but not under 90°F.
  • The Zen community sells walking sticks that have been made from original Swiss stone pine. Hmmm. This tree doesn’t really grow in Switzerland. It’s a Mediterranean tree.
  • She mentions two newspapers Le Matin and Blick and then says Holly didn’t buy them because she can’t read German so well. Well – Le Matin is obviously French. But that’s not the only thing. Someone living in a Zen community would hardly read such trashy newspapers (the equivalent of the UK Sun).
  • Teresa sees goats and, of course, the goats look like they were waiting for Heidi or her grandfather.
  • And then, of course, Swiss chocolate is mentioned. Holly eats Toblerone.

One or two internet searches and these errors could have been omitted. Teresa could have landed in Zürich. The sticks could have been made of some other wood. She could have chosen between the newspapers NZZ and Weltwoche – far more believable in this context. Upon seeing the mountains she could have thought of Meinrad Inglin or Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. Instead of Toblerone, she could have eaten a Kägi fret. Or bought Ricola instead. And what if she’d stepped off the plane saying: “Wow, I never expected Switzerland to be this warm in September.” That would have been a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming changes in her perception. Alas!

I’m not normally hunting for errors  and clichés but these mistakes are huge and annoying. How did they get past the editor? Or are these just liberties she’s taken? If that were the case, I’m not sure why she would do that. Many readers enjoy discovering other countries via literature. As an author you have a duty towards those who are not familiar with a setting—don’t misinform them.

How do you feel about such errors/liberties?

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2016: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Next up in the Literature and War Readalong 2016 is Ben Fountain’s novel on the war in Iraq Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Billy Lynn is Ben Fountain’s first novel. Before that he was mostly known as a short story writer. Many of his stories were published in prestigious magazines and received prizes (the O.Henry and Pushcart among others). A lot of people who already read this novel, told me how much they liked it. If I’m not mistaken, the book is set in the States and not in Iraq. It’s neither a war zone story, nor a home front story but a story of soldiers who are back home to celebrate a victory, before they will be shipped out again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain,  307 pages, US 2012, War in Iraq

Here are the first sentences

The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and windwhipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and limo’s mini bar. Five drinks in forty minutes is probably pushing it, but Billy needs some refreshment after the hotel lobby, where over caffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.

Here’s the blurb:

His whole nation is celebrating what is the worst day of his life

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour.

During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty.

Tomorrow he must go back to war.


The discussion starts on Friday, 30 September 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.