Winterson's Latest Falls Flat
It should come as no surprise that the author of such lush poetic prose as Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, and Written On the Body faced a critical shark-attack on the publication of her recent work, Art and Lies: A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd. When reporters asked her to name her favorite book of the year, she chose her last book, Written on the Body. When asked to name her favorite author, she chose herself. She has also made it a hobby to publicly skewer any less-than-kind reviewers of her work, and recently pronounced herself "the only true heir of Virginia Woolf." All of this has fashioned her into the writer that people love to hate, and readers and critics alike could hardly wait to sink their teeth into her new book.
In Art and Lies, Winterson writes from the first person perspective of three speakers: Handel, a priest/doctor; Picasso, a painter who has mysteriously changed sex; and Sappho, as herself. The result is a disjointed jigsaw puzzle of voices and narration that seems to go nowhere. The characters are all on a vaguely described "journey" that leaves the reader flailing and directionless. Where Written on the Body fluidly bridged classical suggestions with modern - almost experimental - writing, Art and Lies suffers. Even Winterson's trademark gender blurring seems tired, and the humor falls flat. In attempting to expand the confines of traditional narrative for which she was successful in the past and for which she may be applauded, Winterson falls sadly short in this attempt to marry tradition and modernism.
Art & Lies. A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd by Jeannette Winterson (Random House) is available at The Globe (240 Kc).
Many expats are already familiar with Karen von Kunes through her weekly column in The Prague Post, "Czech List." Everything You Wanted To Know About Czech But Were Afraid to Ask is a compilation of the column, which provides a window to Czech culture and history through its language. While the columns can sometime seem too trivial on their own, as a collection the book is thorough, engaging, and educational. Inviting titles like "Going Crazy With Czech Motion Verbs" and "Ahoj, Allegorical Metal Monster!" sometimes promise more than they deliver, but the compilation succeeds in exploring subtleties of the language that would otherwise go unnoticed by beginning and advanced students alike. From pronouncing the ever-elusive "R" and consonant clusters to street slang you won't find in any text
Everything You Wanted To Know About Czech But Were Afraid to Ask by Karen von Kunes (PRAH) is available at Big Ben (98 Kc) and The Globe (100 Kc).
Crouched in 30 cm x 70 cm bunk beds and hiding behind blackout shades, a group of 13- to 15 year-old boys at the Terezin concentration camp produced a secret magazine they called Vedem ("In the Lead") every week from 1942 to 1944. Though the 800 pages of the magazine survived the Holocaust (one of the boys hid his copies until the war's end), they barely survived communism: the material was successfully suppressed until the revolution in 1989 because it wasn't "in accord with the cultural policy of the socialist state." Fifty years later, We Are Children Just the Same. Vedem, the Secret Magazine By the Boys of Terezin is finally being published simultaneously in Czech, German, and English editions.
Although the book centers around excerpts from the magazine, it is beautifully complemented by recollections of the few boys who survived as well as letter and diary excerpts, drawings, and photographs that give the Vedem articles context. A vivid portrait of life unfolds here, and the book is crafted so skillfully that it progresses much like a novel.
The weekly magazine reveals its young authors as at once naively boyish and chillingly adult. As one wrote, "We may be mature, thanks to Terezin, but we are children just the same." Another boy writes of interviewing the mortuary manager, asking him, "Do [your workers] handle them like bricks or treat them like dead human beings?" Passages like these are contrasted by charmingly boyish excerpts that detail the latest cell pranks and playfully deride each other in character portraits. This contrast is not unlike that found in The Diary of Anne Frank. We Are Children Just the Same not only introduces a major historical text to the Czech Republic, but is one of the most multidimensional works written on the Holocaust to date.
We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine By the Boys of Terezin by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc, and Zdenik Ornest (Jewish Publication Society). Available at Big Ben (690 Kc) and the Globe (500 Kc)
A comprehensive guide covering the entire former Eastern Bloc, Teaching English In Central Europe does much toward filling the gap in information on plying the trade in this part of the world. Listing over 400 language schools and organizations, it provides a good starting point for both amateurs and professionals. Its only weaknesses are that it fails to emphasize that established schools represent only a fraction of the English teaching market and leaves the impression that endless and effortless opportunity exists for anyone whose native tongue is English, regardless of skill. Nevertheless, its interviews with Anglophones who have taught in Central Europe are helpful, and aside from Transitions Abroad magazine, it is the only relatively up-to-date resource available on the subject.
Teaching English In Central Europe by Stephanie Hinton and Judy Moore (Webb/Wright international) is available at Big Ben (500 Kc) and the Globe (500 Kc).
Expat Mixed Bag
"Future Hemingways and Fitzgeralds will chronicle our course..." Soon after these words were published in The Prague Post, the city became overwhelmed with Anglophones in search of the literary life and the chance to be among the first to document the modern-day Paris of the Twenties. Four years later, the race is over and the first spate of books on the Czech American experience were published within a few weeks of each other. Each author brings impressive credentials to the task of defining the American experience in Prague: Journalists David Lytle and John Allison both started out teaching English and went on to become, respectively, a founding editor of The Prague Post and the editor-in-chief of Prognosis. Czech-born Jan Novak moved to the U.S. in 1969 at age 16, becoming thoroughly Americanized. Twenty-four years and three acclaimed books later, he returned to his native land for a year as both tourist and insider. All three authors bring promise to the task of penning the definitive American-in-Prague volume, which Lytle takes ever so seriously, Allison pokes fun at, and Novak skillfully sets himself apart from.
Anyone who has viewed the first year of MTV's "The Real World" knows just how dull people's daily lives can be. If the show had been set in Prague and transcribed, it might have read like David Lytle's Pink Tanks and Velvet Hangovers: An American in Prague. Lytle wastes pages on excruciatingly dull accounts of his daily life, enthralling readers with such topics as how he courageously managed to purchase metro tickets, honed his gesturing skills to perfection, ate delightful rohliky, and in a triumph of assimilation, learned to live without American breakfasts.
When the text departs from these details Lytle's writing carries itself, particularly in his historical and political descriptions, which are carefully summarized with brevity and style. For the most part, however, this is a book that clumsily switches gears between historical nonfiction, travelogue, and autobiography. While attempting to glorify the expatriate experience Lytle unwittingly exploits it, reducing it to its lowest boring denominator.
If Pink Tanks and Velvet Hangovers is a serious attempt to represent life in expatriate Prague, The Adventures of Joe Marlboro: The Great American (in Prague) Novel is its parody. In fact, Allison says he wrote the tiny book, originally serialized in Prognosis, "to participate in the cliche that Prague was swarming with aspiring American novelists."
The story follows cowboy Joe Marlboro through Prague in his quest to find a land without feminists. Joe, as the Nike-clad, BBC listening, L.L.-Bean-backpack-carrying, Gap-T-shirt-wearing, Fruits-de-France shopping cowboy, is both irresistible and contemptible. Along the way we also meet Joe's high school friend Stephanie, living the prototypical yuppie expat life with all its trappings: an IKEA-filled apartment, a jam-packed Day Runner, a cellular phone, a 6 a.m. aerobics routine, and meetings at places like the Ministry of Privatization. "Steph, is there anything Czech in your apartment?" Joe asks. "Bread," she replies, "and some crystal." In chronicling the trials and tribulations of Joe, Allison describes in thirty pages what Lytle can't manage in 300 - a slice of life from the freewheeling post-Revolution days.
Although Jan Novak strongly identifies with being American, the contrast to Lytle and Allison makes Commies, Crooks, Gypsies, Spooks, and Poets read like an insider's guide. Having spent roughly half his life in the U.S. and half in the former Czechoslovakia, Novak's keen observations on life in the new Czech Republic and recollections of the old come from a man caught between two worlds. The result is a native's insight and a tourist's freshness, a perspective from which Novak writes about Prague's nouveau riche, etiquette lessons, the witch hunt for former secret agents-turned-Mafioso men, and a former mayor of Prague now happily editing the Czech edition of Playboy. He accomplishes this with vivid narrative and a casual wry view; in one chapter he describes pastimes of "the Playful President and his Hradcany Gang." In the camouflage of a native, Novak opens doors that a Lytle or an Allison will always find locked.
Pink Tanks And Velvet Hangovers by David Lytle (Frog Press) is available at The Globe (450 Kc) and U Knihomola (530 Kc).
The Adventures of Joe Marlboro: The Great American (in Prague) Novel by John Allison (Argo) is available at The Globe (65 Kc) and U Knihomola (65 Kc).
Commies, Crooks, Gypsies, Spooks, & Poets by Jan Novak (Steerforth) is available at The Globe (450 Kc), and U Knihomola (495 Kc).