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I reviewed Chinelo Okparanta’s Happiness, Like Water for The Daily Beast:

Scheming mothers and selfish husbands, fathers, and brothers domineer over the sensitive women of Happiness, Like Water, Nigerian-born Chinelo Okparanta’s debut short-story collection. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Okparanta was named one of Granta’s six New Voices in 2012. It’s a fitting honor: the unsparing stories of Happiness, Like Water show Okparanta to be a champion of young, frequently misunderstood female protagonists whose voices are too often stifled. In many of these tales, Okparanta’s women struggle to control their fate in the face of oppressive circumstances.‬

The full review is here.

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towersI reviewed A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar in today’s New York Times Book Review.  A snippet:

The collective memory of prewar life repeatedly saves Omar and his family. The bloodthirsty horticulturist drops his threats when he realizes he is menacing the father and son of his beloved boxing instructor. The leader of the tunnel diggers is none other than their old gardener’s assistant, a hardworking teenager and Omar’s partner in kite-fighting; upon finding his old employer’s son and grandson in captivity he orders their immediate release. Omar’s retelling startlingly transforms each horror into a reminder of what lies beneath the rubble: an openhearted, hospitable community of generous, gregarious people, “one minute laughing and the next minute shouting” and always fiercely loyal to their kind.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 8.32.12 PMWith more than 100 world-class writers in dozens events spanning a week, this year’s PEN World Voices Festival line-up is pretty daunting.  I did manage to carve out time to make it out for a few things– and I blogged about an event earlier this week for Words Without Borders.  The topic was “The Critic’s Global Voice,” and the panel featured Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Ursula Krechel, and Mikhail Shishkin (with Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio moderating):

Reports of the death of American literary culture have been, well, at least a little exaggerated.  There’s no other way to explain the steady stream of lively essays bemoaning the health of book reviews, book critics, and literature itself. “Like hazing, reviewing is inflicted by the old and popular on the young and weak,” Elizabeth Gumport wrote, dismissing the genre in n+1. Literary culture is in the midst of a “long slide, reflecting not just a hard market but the manners of a bygone world,” as Michael Wolff recently put it in a churlish column predicting the demise of the New York Times Book Review.  At any rate, “most contemporary literary fiction is terrible,” J. Robert Lennon griped in Salon.

But what of the rest of the world?  Are we to believe that such assessments hold true for the public dialogue about books—and the role of “professional” readers—in other languages, other markets, other cultures?  Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio put the question of the role of criticism to writers from Russia (Mikhail Shishkin), Haiti (Jean-Euphèle Milcé), and Germany (Ursula Krechel) in a Wednesday night PEN festival discussion of “The Critic’s Global Voice.”

Head over to Words Without Borders for the rest of my dispatch, and for coverage of other PEN events (there’s a nice dispatch on the “Speaking in Languages on the Edge,” event, and interview with Susan Bernofsky, host of “How to Be a Translator” — and more coverage to come).

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Head over to Words Without Borders for my review of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge

If an enterprising reader were to map the through-lines linking the quiet, twisted (and subtly interconnected) tales of eccentric strangers and mysterious deaths in Yoko Ogawa’s new collection, Revenge, the resulting diagram would likely look something like a spider-web: Delicate, spindled, and perfectly designed for entrapment. The experience of reading Revenge is like getting caught in a beautiful, lethal web—or maybe, like wandering through a labyrinthine haunted mansion. These stories’ charm lies in their treacherous unpredictability. In each tale, it’s impossible to anticipate just what particular nightmarish turn the plot will take, or to guess what shadowy character or tiny detail from an entirely separate tale will reappear (a dead hamster left in a trashcan, a brace designed to make the wearer taller, a three-digit number used in a report). There is a spooky fun-house quality to this collection.

In fifth grade, four of my classmates and I tested out of elementary school math.  Instead of one more year of long division, every day during recess we marched ourselves across the muddy field separating the elementary and middle school and entered a strange land of lockers, period bells, puberty, and pre-algebra.

One day, while sitting in the back of Mrs. Lambiotte’s classroom (the back of the room, I discovered, was the best place for witnessing the novel hormonal mayhem of a seventh grade classroom — and also for finding the kinds of students who didn’t mind talking to a 10-year-old), I chewed a little too hard on my red pen.  A bitter taste erupted in my mouth; within moments, my jaw was covered in red ink. I fled to the bathroom.

This is a story that could’ve easily ended in tears and a lifelong loathing of math.  Instead, after some quality time with the faucet, I skulked back to Mrs. Lambiotte’s class, where after a mild ribbing, my spectacle was forgotten as my classmates got back to business of being twelve and thirteen-year-olds — trading moony glances, tightly folded notes, spitballs, and the like.

I lucked out that day.  But when I think about how scary school — and math in particular — has a potential to be, I think about the flash of terror that descended when I realized that I’d eaten open my pen, underscoring my presence as the classroom freak for once and for all in a burst of bright red ink across my face.

Everything that’s awkward about school is multiplied in the math classroom.  That’s why I was particularly excited to explore the topic of “math anxiety” last week — through an interview with Dr. Rose Vukovic, professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and in a visit to MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan.  Listen to the piece that resulted here.