16 February 18 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Consider this your friendly, neighborhood reminder to head on over to the Albertine Prize page to vote for your favorite French book in translation from their shortlist!

Last year’s inaugural Albertine Prize was won by Antoine Volodine and J. T. Mahany for Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo, published by Open Letter Books.

From the Albertine Prize press release:

Showcasing the diversity and inventiveness of contemporary French-language writing, the five nominated books map a literary journey that encompasses a Congolese orphanage in the 1970s (Black Moses, Alain Mabanckou); a young man’s sexual awakening in a French factory town (The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis); artistic rapture in the Middle East (Compass, Mathias Énard); and interior explorations of love (Not One Day, Anne Garréta) and violation (Incest, Christine Angot).

[. . .]

Dedicated to introducing the very best of contemporary French-language literature to American audiences, the annual prize was launched in 2017. “We launched the Albertine Prize with the belief that American readers, who have always had a deep appreciation for French literature, would eagerly embrace contemporary voices–our expectations were richly rewarded,” said Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States. “We hope to build on the success of our first year by creating a truly democratic prize that is a source of pride for both the readers and the winning author and translator.”


Readers can vote for their favorite title until May 1st. Prior to that, Albertine Books will host a book battle on April 10th, where five authors and journalists will defend one title each. The prize ceremony, which will be held June 6th, will also see the winning author and translator awarded $8,000 and $2,000, respectively.

For more information on the prize, the bookstore, and the shortlisted titles—and to vote!—go here.

15 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tara Cheesman, a freelance book critic and National Book Critics Circle member whose recent reviews can be found at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quarterly Conversation. Since 2009 she’s written the blog Reader At Large (formerly BookSexy Review).

As long as the Best Translated Book Award long list is (twenty-five books—which is pretty long) the majority of the books in translation published in 2017 won’t be on it. Yes, I’m stating the obvious, but it still merits consideration. I’m one of those people who calculates how many books I’ll read before I die, so this is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

Bringing attention to those books that could otherwise be forgotten or overlooked in the onslaught of titles published every year is one of the most important things this award does. As a judge I’ve read so many good books that it’s hard to accept a limit on how many we can talk about and promote in the context of the prize. So, I decided to throw a few extra recommendations out there. Here are three completely random books I enjoyed, found interesting, thought worth talking about and which may or may not make it onto this year’s long list.



Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba, has the distinction of being the first novel translated from Lingala, a language spoken by approximately ten million people residing in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring countries, into English. Which means that when it was originally written the likelihood was that it was intended exclusively for non-Western readers. That alone, in an increasingly homogenized literary landscape, makes it worth reading. But, curiosity factor aside, Mr. Fix-It is like an episode in a daytime soap. The protagonist drags us with him on his romantic misadventures and it’s all surprisingly amusing and incredibly sappy and just fun. (Phoneme Media)



Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell. I was hesitant to include this book if only because it gotten a ton of press, from Lithub to the New Yorker—but I found it so quirky that it felt more wrong not to write about it than to add my voice to the choir. The premise is deceptively simple: a dying woman lays in her hospital bed and has a conversation with her friend’s son. Together they attempt to retrace the events that have brought her to the present moment in which they are speaking. The immediacy of the two voices creates an eerie, searching, out-of-time quality similar to A Scanner Darkly (that 2006 movie with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., and Winona Ryder) or 12 Monkeys. Or, better yet, Rick Moody’s novella The Albertine Notes. Which, if you haven’t read it, go do that and then feel free to DM me on twitter. (Riverhead Books)



Hadriana In All My Dreams by the Haitian writer René Depestre and translated by Kaiama L. Glover, is the most traditional of the three books I’ve listed here. Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a young bride who seemingly dies at the altar from a heart attack, but is actually the victim of zombification. I’d describe the writing as more ribald than erotic, which actually helps to balance and make bearable the magical realism Depestre incorporates into the plot. Hadriana In All My Dreams is narrated from the perspectives of both the bride and her godbrother, a young boy at the time of the wedding who grows into manhood haunted by Hadriana’s fate. This story sprawls outward. The author has created a huge cast of characters, human and otherwise, all of whom he seems to feel real affection for. He writes convincingly about the tension and contrast between Catholicism and Voodoo. And has given us what might be the greatest description of a Haitian Carnival ever written. (Akashic Books)

15 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new season of the Two Month Review kicks off now with a general overview Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, one of the most beloved books Open Letter has ever published. Brian’s on the lam, or in witness protection, or something, so Open Letter senior editor Kaija Straumanis stepped in to talk about one of the first books she ever worked on for the press.

You can participate in the next episode—covering the Epigraphy, Prologue, and Part I (1-58)—which will be recorded on YouTube LIVE on Monday, February 19th at 9pm EST. All you you have to do is click here and you can comment or ask Chad, Brian, and Tom Roberge about anything you want.

The podcast recording of this episode will be released in normal fashion on Thursday, February 22nd. So you don’t have to watch it live, but if you want to come hang out with us and participate in the making of these episodes, we’d love to see you there!

As always, The Physics of Sorrow (and all the previous Two Month Review titles) is available for 20% off through our website. Just use the code 2MONTH at checkout.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood, for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And also follow Tom Roberge for more book and bookselling related content. (And other fun stuff.)

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Stars and Babies by Splendor and Misery, featuring Georgi’s translator, Angela Rodel!

14 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This semester, in my World Literature & Translation class, we’re reading twelve translations from 2017-18 and talking with almost all the translators, including Allison M. Charette, who is responsible for the publication in English of Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields. Over the past few weeks, we conducted this conversation through email about the book, and I thought it would be of interest to some of our readers. In terms of Allison’s background, she’s a University of Rochester MALTS graduate, founder of the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America, ALTA board member, translator from the French, and devotee of bringing Malagasy literature to American readers.



Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Restless Books)

Chad W. Post: As is stated in the jacket copy, Beyond the Rice Fields is the “first novel from Madagascar to every be translated into English.” I know that you started investigating Malagasy literature when you realized that nothing had been translated from there, but why did you/Restless decide on Naivo’s book specifically to be the first one translated?

Allison M. Charette: The English-speaking world got well into the twenty-first century without being able to read any novels from Madagascar, so whichever one got translated first would have to serve many purposes. First and foremost, it had to be an excellent book, great literature, of course. But it would also be most Anglophones’ first exposure to real Malagasy culture (sorry, no, the Dreamworks movie doesn’t count), so it would also necessarily serve as a primer to the Malagasy people. And Beyond the Rice Fields did one better by serving as a history lesson, too. Naivo’s book was also an excellent choice to translate because the original French novel is already very translation-like. Naivo had several audiences in mind when writing Beyond the Rice Fields, including a French readership from France, so a lot of the work of balancing the original unfamiliar culture of a book and making it accessible for an American/British/etc. audience (i.e. domestication) had already been done. We made some different choices for the English translation, including taking all the original French footnotes and putting them in a glossary at the end, but there were a lot of general translation decisions that I made by just asking Naivo what his thought process had been while writing.

Now, Beyond the Rice Fields wasn’t the only novel from Madagascar I was (or am) trying to get published in English, but on a practical level, it was helped along by several things: mainly, I received a PEN/Heim grant for it in 2015. That really kick-started the whole publishing process, and it’s how Restless found the book. It also helped that Naivo lives on this continent and speaks English very well, so he’s been very active in not only the translation process, but doing publicity for the English book, as well.

CWP: One of the things that struck me about the book is how, despite all the cultural differences in the book, that the plot and story are very recognizable. (Although the ending—NO SPOILERS—might set this apart from your average American novel.) I assume that Malagasy literature grew up alongside French literature, but are there particular authors or trends that sort of laid the basis for Malagasy writing? Or, in other words, what is the history of the country’s literature? (In brief, obviously.)

AMC: Briefly, yes: Malagasy literature was mostly oral until the colonization period, when Malagasies were exposed to French literature. Several writers at the turn of the twentieth century adopted the structures of French romantic, modernist, and surrealist poetry—Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is the greatest example of this. The Malagasy novel was born mid-century, again following the structures of French novels. Much of this writing is an attempt to make Malagasy ideas fit into and subvert French/Western structures at the same time, with subversion increasing as time goes on. Obviously, this is a very simplistic overview, and is directly the result of colonialism: students get educated in a French system, get taught that there’s a “proper” way to write, so they’ll write like that; add in the desire to get read by a wider audience and validated by other great (Western) authors, and this is what you get. However, there have been many authors who are really talented at writing a very Malagasy-feeling story in the French language and using Western novel structures, especially starting in the renaissance period of the 70s-80s. Naivo is one of them; he follows in the footsteps of authors like Michèle Rakotoson and Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato.

(Funny story about the ending of Beyond the Rice Fields: it’s such a trip that I actually forgot about one of the major players’ deaths when I was first pitching this book. I chalk it up to having read 30+ novels all in a row and trying to keep their plots straight, but . . . I did have to email one editor who had specifically asked about the ending to say “Whoops! Sorry, no, it’s the opposite of the way I told you. That changes things, doesn’t it?!?”)



CWP: That’s a great story! And I can totally envision certain editors or presses wishing they could just tweak the ending a bit . . . One specific choice that I was wondering about: Did the setting of the book (early 1800s) impact how you translated the dialogue? Was the idea that certain words “couldn’t” be used, or that characters should “sound” like they’re of the time even a concern for you?

AMC: Well, of course it did, but not very strictly. I never drew up any draconian rules for what characters could or couldn’t say, and sometimes the humanness and personality of the characters took priority over making them sound perfectly Victorian. Making this novel sound really contemporary would be doing it a disservice as historical fiction, but there were times, like when Fara becomes a teenager and is trying to figure out love and sex and all that, when I slipped in a few more modern-sounding turns of phrase.

The more interesting consideration with the dialogue was making the Malagasy characters sound Malagasy, even though you’re reading a book in English. Naivo used a lot of calques in the characters’ speech: direct translations of common Malagasy phrases, especially the oft-repeated proverbs, into French, which I then would take directly into English. They definitely sound weird, but they add so much richness and authenticity. One of my favorites is a really strong curse in Malagasy: “By my father’s incest!”

CWP: How familiar did you feel like you had to become with the customs of Madagascar before translating this book, or did you just let the text guide you? I personally didn’t realize there was a glossary in the back until I was about halfway through it, so there were a few things that confused me (like the role of Ranaka in society), but most everything was made clear by the context.

AMC: It’s rather relieving to hear you say that most things became clear through context, because there was a lot of research and conversations I had to get through before finishing the translation. In fact, the reason I originally went to Madagascar in 2014 was to learn what I could about Malagasy culture and customs, because I couldn’t get through a short story translation without feeling horribly lost. Naivo’s a good writer; between his writing and the glossary, I could easily have just let the text guide me, but there were a fair amount of things in my early drafts that almost bordered on fetishization—without a full understanding of the customs, if I was translating what I saw on the page, the English text became something between an oversimplification and a parody of the customs being described. The more Naivo explained to me, the better I understood the customs, the more I was able to depict them with the proper elegance and distinction, instead of playing into the rather awful trope of assuming that any culture different from ours is “primitive” or “backward.”



CWP: Beyond the more direct explanation of customs (like the dancing competition), there’s the much larger historical context, and Madagascar’s place in the world in relation to foreign countries and allowing foreigners (and their ideas) into the country. As a result, the book sort of balances a number of different goals—a fairly epic love story, an investigation of the impact of progress on Madagascar, and a retelling of a horrible massacre—in a way that’s supposed to be both satisfying to Malagasy readers, while also looking outward towards readers in France and the rest of the world. How do you feel that Naivo accomplishes this in the book itself, and did these various goals ever impact your decisions as a translator?

AMC: It is a lot to accomplish (which is probably why the book is so long!). Naivo is very good at balancing the personal and the politics, mostly by showing how the big historical decisions affected the lives of specific individuals. Tsito occasionally gets somewhat close to some of the major players of the era (Queen Ranavalona, Prince Rakoto, Laborde), but most of the time it’s just proclamations being handed down, witch hunts being encouraged and carried out (literally), even slave traders complaining about higher regulation. It’s the historical told through the personal. The dual narration also helps—because of the fact that it’s from two characters who (spoiler alert) fall in love with each other, their narration keeps refocusing on each other every time the politics start encroaching. And while yes, Tsito does get swept up in the larger political discussion and starts to learn how the French and British are affecting the Malagasy leadership, Fara has zero idea about all of that, just living a simple life in a village for the most part. Their different perspectives help keep things balanced.

The attempt to please both Malagasy readers and the rest of the world happens on a smaller scale in the writing, with Malagasy words being dressed in a Western context. What if a Western reader sees an unfamiliar phrasing, like the oft repeated “All this occurred in the nth year of the Sovereign King’s reign”? Well, it always occurs within a familiar structure, closing out a chapter or major section. And all these proverbs about transplanted rice and setting suns? Sure, they’re unusual, but they’re all talking about love and power and other fairly universal concepts.

My perspective is necessarily that of the rest of the world, and I can only speak to how satisfying the book is for Malagasy readers based on what they tell me. I’m an outsider. Fortunately, any English translation of this book is also primarily for outsiders, so I was generally able to just do the translation from my perspective. There’s always something familiar for an American/other Western reader to grab on to, so I just had to make sure not to erase or smooth over the elements that I found very jarringly unfamiliar—they exist for a different audience. And there are plenty of Malagasies in the States who were going to read the English translation, so even if I can’t know what their perspective is, I couldn’t just breeze over the elements of the book that are for them. Besides, those unfamiliar things can teach us Americans a thing or two.

13 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Alex Shepard from The New Republic joins Chad and Tom to discuss the state of book journalism, the new National Book Award for Translation, Chad’s annoying whining about BookMarks, Winter Institute, and more. It’s a fun episode that goes deep into some contemporary book publishing issues—and the disparity between the haves and have nots—while remaining entertaining and a bit unhinged.

This week’s music is The Best Trick in Modern Science by Unlikely Friends. Yes, this is the second week in a row that we’re featuring this album. It’s great!

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9 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments



Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)

Although five books is most definitely a small sample size of throwaway proportions, out of the books that I’ve written about for this weekly “column,” Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci and translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney is my favorite. I don’t know where it will stack up by the end of the year—there are a number of titles coming out this summer that I’m looking forward to, and as a gesture toward impartiality, I’ll should really leave Fox, The Bottom of the Sky, The Endless Summer, and other Open Letter titles out of these evaluations—but for now I’d put it ahead of The Perfect Nanny, In Black and White, Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Theory of Shadows. (And that is how I would rank them, one to five.)

As you can probably predict, I’m not going to write a full, well thought out review for this book. If that’s what you want, I’d highly recommend checking out Lisa Fetchko’s review over at the _Los Angeles Review of Books. She breaks the book down really well, and even gets into a particular translation issue about the use of _ in place of _Yo(Y), which is also discussed in an afterword that will be of particular interest to translators or those interested in the translation—or editing of translations—process.

I’m going to use this book as an opportunity to write about something entirely different, but before I do that, I have two or three quick points.

1) I like the use of the charts in this book. I’ll come back to this in a few different ways down below, but drawings such as this one—which is preceded by, “Here’s where this story ends,” a statement that means more once you have reached the end—is what makes this book unique.



And obviously, all the Venn Diagram charts are why I initially chose to read this book. Who doesn’t like a Venn Diagram?! This is one statement about math and statistics that everyone can agree on.

2) In a way, this is The Perfect Nanny for an entirely different set of readers. Written to be a blockbuster, The Perfect Nanny includes a lot of techniques and tropes and literary moments designed to make a certain set of readers feel comfortably stimulated. The set of readers (R-1) who prefer linear plots, heavy character development, detailed settings, psychological tension.

Empty Set generates an equal amount of reading comfort in a different set of readers (R-2) who feel more at ease in a text of evocative fragments, acrostics, plots like puzzles, and characters whom you don’t feel obligated to relate to.

For both R-1 and R-2 these books are equally successful in their approaches. And R-1 probably doesn’t care for Empty Set (“too confusing!” “I couldn’t relate to anyone!”), and vice-versa (“I’d rather see the movie”).

You could, I don’t know, draw a Venn Diagram of these two subsets of readers . . .

3) Not to take anything away from this novel, but wow have January and February been slow months for international literature. There doesn’t seem to have been anything buzzing on Book Twitter or Book Marks or in the blogosphere (doesn’t anyone say that anymore?) or at Winter Institute. I’ve written about the drop in translations both of the past two months, but that was just focused on pure numbers, not quality or sales or impact or anything else. But looking back at what I have read, and forward to what’s on my docket, it feels like pretty quiet year so far.

Although I’m personally hoping this New York Times review of Madame Nielsen’s The Endless Summer changes that, this still feels a lot like the current situation in Major League Baseball—the slowest in all of history—in which no free agents are being signed and nothing at all is happening. There are so many interesting explanations for this situation in which several of the game’s best players are currently unemployed: it could be collusion, it could be that clubs have more advanced understanding of the value available in the free agent market, it could be due to the fact that 1/3 of the teams are tanking in 2018 and another 1/2 aren’t really in a position to do anything but tread water, it could be because of the new collective bargaining agreement and traditional big spenders (LA Dodgers, NY Yankees) trying to reset their competitive balance assessments by getting under the spending threshold for one year, or it could have something to do with yachts. God bless Scott Boras!1

Anyway, this combination of thinking about baseball (how to best build a team, player valuations, etc.) + reading a novel centered around set theory2 + a stray comment I made in an earlier post —> an idea to try and create some core concepts for a sabermetric approach to the book industry.

*


     Sales(S)

This is an obvious building block. People usually value books based on how many copies they sold. “We sold 10,000 copies!” Or, “It was a best-seller in Mexico!”

(Not to be confused with “Print Run(PR),” which is a number based in hope that signifies nothing more than the publisher’s wish to sneakily manipulate the bookseller market. Print Run(PR) is equivalent to Scott Boras’s bullshit stats packages for players like Eric Hosmer who are hoping to receive contracts that are far larger than the value they’ll generate for their team. Print Runs(PR) are generally lies.)

Are sales really all that useful of a statistic though?

First off, the latter statement up there—repeated way too frequently in meetings with foreign agents—is crap. It’s descriptive, not objective, and lacks any and all context. How many books did this title beat out to become a best-seller? For how long was it a best-seller? How predictive is the Mexican best-seller list for a book entering other markets? Are the coefficients mapping it onto the French and U.S. markets radically different?

Another criticism: Sales in a vacuum takes into account none of the expenses involved with generating those sales. A book with a million dollar marketing budget that sells 100,000 copies is vastly different from a book that sells 100,000 based on a viral video that cost $.49 to make.

It also doesn’t take into account the list price of the book itself. It’s obviously way easier to sell 10,000 ebooks at $.99 than 10,000 hardcovers of a scholarly investigation into the sexual life of mollusks that lists for $149.

Sales is like batting average. A nice metric the average citizen can understand, but really not all that valuable.

Actually, that’s kind of a lie. Batting Average has values that most people can recognize as “good,” (.280) “amazing,” (.320) and “hall of fame.” (.340+). What are the equivalents for books? If I tell the people sitting next to me at the bar that we sold 3,000 copies of a book, will they think that’s great? Or pathetic? Without a commonly accepted baseline—among the larger audience, not just book nerds—this doesn’t mean a whole lot.

And it doesn’t take into account the idea that a book is more than its purchases. Thought experiment: Which is better? A book that sells 10,000 copies, 2,000 of which are read, with 10 readers capable of recalling the book one year later, or a book that sells 1,500 copies, 1,000 of which are read, with 200 readers taking this to the grave? (A: If you’re Big Five it’s the former, if you’re nonprofit the latter. There is no unified theory of sales.)

     (Sales(S) x List Price(P)) x Readership® – Fixed Operating Expenses(FOE) – Printing(PR) – Author Payment(AP) – Translator Payment(TP) – Marketing Costs(MC) = True Profit(RP)

OK, so this is two steps in one: I’ve added in all the variables mentioned above (costs, list price), but then thrown in the idea of “Readership®” to try and point at the fact that overall impact of a single printed book isn’t a one-to-one ratio with copies sold. On the most basic level, there are used copies. How many students a year buy used copies of The Great Gatsby for class? Or check it out from a library? A book’s true value, or “Profit” (capitalist term, I know), is always and forever greater than the number of printed copies.

We’re still missing a few things though: What about people who know about a book, yet don’t buy it? And what about the longevity of readership? It’s one thing to read Gone Girl and then keep on living, another to read Ulysses and have your life perspective changed. That Cultural Value(CV) isn’t captured here, and I’m not sure it ever can be quantified in this way. So let’s change tactics a bit.

     ((Expected Sales(ES) x List Price (P)) – ((Publishing Interest(PI) + Agent Status(AS)) – Total Expenses(TE))) ) = Cash Profit(CP) + Cultural Capital(CC)

If we really want to create a sabermetric approach to books, we have to look for exploitable inefficiencies in the marketplace. And my first inclination is that these inefficiencies come in two flavors: leveraging reputations against author advances and finding a way to decrease artist payments.

That’s not quite right though. Let me back up a bit and math this out.

In the early 2000s, there were no translations3 and there was a major gap between the best /most expensive translators (Margaret Jull Costa, Edith Grossman, Richard Howard, Gregory Rabassa) and everyone else. Without a middle class—and without competition—certain publishers saw an exploitable inefficiency. How much can you make when you pay $1,000 as an author advance, $1,000 to a grad student translator (“Hey, yo, we’re gonna like, launch your career!”), and can get $3,000+ from foreign agencies desperate for American publishers to acknowledge that their literature even existed? In that situation, you can flip 2,500 sales into a decent amount of money. That is the dirty truth of translation publishing in the early part of this century.

Then things changed! International lit got more popular. Translators got organized. Now, the idea of going overseas to find the best books that no one knows or cares about is complicated by the two dozen new presses trying to beat you there, and the combination of ethical obligations in relation to translator payments and agent involvement in raising author advances (good in the short term, maybe, and probably not in the long term, but that’s its own metric), raised Total Expenses(TE) in an astronomical fashion. As well as altering the Agent Status(AS) (“I have the next Ferrante on my list . . . “) and the Publishing Interest(PI) (“We’re starting a new press and want in on the hot trends, so which book is the one that’s going to get us critical attention AND be most readable by the (R1) readers of The Perfect Nanny?”). Increase the second half of the equation above while not changing the overall sales, and you’re going to kill your margins.

That doesn’t mean that publishers will stop pursuing books that are unlikely to earn back expenses. Look at Penguin paying a million dollars for a Knausgaard novel. There’s basically no way that he’ll earn that back in straight sales. Same with Knopf and Javier Marías. PRH can definitely expand the audiences for these authors, but there’s a ceiling. Even knowing that, they’re willing to go ahead because there’s a value just to having these names on your list. Reputation, cultural capital, whatever you want to call it, it’s part of this equation as well.

     Expected Sales(ES) = Author Fans(AF) x Purchasing Coefficient(PC)

If someone were able to come up with an algorithm that was even 90% accurate in predicting sales, they would be in a position to basically print money. Long time readers—or anyone involved in the book word—know that publishers don’t really do any market research. Unlike movies, there is no pre-release tracking figures for blockbuster titles. Sure, you can “have a pretty good sense” about how well a book is or isn’t going to sell, but outside of Harry Potter, James Patterson, and a handful of other brands, the error bars on predicted sales are really wide.

Past performance by the author and publisher are major indicators of how a particular title will sell, so maybe this is something that could be calculated . . . Throw in a few sensible metrics about the author—Twitter Followers(TF), Reviewing Connections(RC), etc.—along with some sort of figures about the publisher—Sales Reps(REP), Average Reach(REA), Influencer Access(IA), etc.—and maybe you can come up with some sort of prediction.

     (Pace of Reading(PAC) x Length(LEN)) x (Character Connections(CC) x Plot Points(PP)) x Buzz(BUZZ) = Reading Desirability(DES)

Amazon’s metrics about how fast people read various books, where they tend to stop, which titles are most/least likely to be read in their entirety, etc., totally freak literary people out. There are a ton of Silicon Valley people who would love to create a program that would use some complex algorithm to churn out best-selling book after best-selling book without any author’s involvement whatsoever. They would flood the market with exactly what most people want, all more or less for free, and utilizing some sort of textual analysis that combines all the typical plot elements of popular books (hero’s quest, typical plot structure of rising action, climax, denouement) with other quantifiable elements (language level, sentence and chapter length, number of chapters) that have been found to keep readers engaged and flipping pages.

Take all that, mix in some BUZZ (readers want to feel like they have to read a book so as to not be left out) and you can figure out how likely a book is to appeal to a wide audience.

     Turnover(TO) x Cash Profit(CP) x Hipster Quotient(HQ) = Indie Stock(IND)

Bookstores actually have the ability to come up with a ton of different measurements, depending on what they want to track or evaluate. Sales per linear foot in given sections. How fast different subjects turn over. Average amount spent by a customer. Frequency of returning customers. There’s tons of data sitting right there that could be analyzed in a totally straightforward fashion.

But indie stores aren’t necessarily about efficiency in the way Barnes & Noble or Amazon would like to be. Part of their reason for being is tied to having the books that you don’t always find at the big box stores, at pushing a sort of aesthetic agenda that sets them apart. If, as a store owner, you could always know which books will both increase your coolness factor with your clientele and sell with the necessary velocity to keep you paying your rent, you’d be in the best spot possible. This might seem intuitive, but I think it can be a bit more complicated depending on how you value your reputation. For example, you may not want to carry Fifty Shades of Gray because you have standards, but that means you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. And carrying too many different titles that sell one time a year, yet make you seem like the smartest bookstore around, is a recipe for closure. Figuring out that balance—and which books maximize Cash Profit(CP) and Reputation(REP)—would be ideal.

*


There are tons and tons of different types of equations one could come up with in hopes of finding exploitable inefficiencies. And that could be kind of fun! But so is ignoring data completely and publishing/reading/stocking a book just because it feels right.

Besides, a lot of this calculus is already done on a daily basis by most everyone. Even though it’s not quantified in a sortable, sharable way, people are constantly making these sorts of decisions. They may not think about them quite as honestly as they should though, and maybe something like a set of publishing sabermetric ideas could help publishers and stores be all that they could be. It’s fun to come up with various calculations, mostly because it makes you think about what you’re actually trying to measure, and why the measurements you might already have fall short. It can help define your mission, and by working in various intangible benefits, you can better justify various investments or decisions.


- – - – - – - – - – - – -


1 For anyone not willing to click through (and good on you!), here’s the amazing quote from super-agent Scott Boras:

The off-season is like the America’s Cup. We have 30 boats in the water. They take off and eventually they get to the free-agent docks. Normally, there are trade winds, and there are economic investments in the capacity of the boat, which allow those boats to get to the appropriate free-agent docks.

This year, there was a detour to Japan, where there was a $250 million asset available for $3 million (Ohtani). All boats went to Japan. Then they sailed back a good distance. They came to Florida and found a sinking ship and all of its cargo was in the water (Dee Gordon, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich). All teams tried to load it on their boats.

That took additional time. Then, as they moved forward to the free-agent docks, they found other ships dumping cargo—Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and a few others—which then slowed their arrivals to the free-agent docks. So, trade winds, Japan, shipwreck in Florida, more cargo-spewing, all those things artificially delayed the arrivals to the free-agent docks.


Sorry, I have no idea—but I love it! More literary agents need to go off the rails when making random comments about the books they’re trying to auction. That would liven up book journalism!

2 Representative bit from Bicecci and MacSweeney’s Empty Set:

There isn’t much documented evidence of this, but during the military dictatorship in Argentina, teaching basic set theory was prohibited in schools. We know, for example, that a tomato belongs to the tomato(TO) set and not to onion(ON) or chilies(CH) or coriander(CO). Where’s the threat in reasoning like that? In set theory, tomatoes, onions, and chilies might realize they are different foodstuffs, but also that they have things in common, like the fact that they can all belong to the fresh hot salsa(FHS) set and, at the same time, to the Universe(U) of cultivated plants(CP), and might perhaps unite against some other set or Universe(U); for example, that of canned hot salsa(CAHS). In short, a community of vegetables. Venn diagrams are tools of the logic of sets. And from the perspective of sets, dictatorship makes no sense, because its aim is, for the most part, dispersal: separation, scattering, disunity, disappearance.


3 My sabermetric principles apply to BOOKS in general, not just translations, but I want to focus on exploiting this market since it might explain what’s going on in 2018 with the weird decrease in translation publications.

Although! Let me promise the four of you reading this that next month I’ll run some three- and five-year rolling average stats to avoid comparing 2018 to the Best Year Ever. I’ve been statistically irresponsible and I know it. Sorry.

8 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s BTBA post is from Jeremy Kang, an avid reader, writer, artist, and photographer and freelance reviewer. He is interested in film, languages, culture, and history.



Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Seagull Books)

“The Ballad of Denmark Square”

A car crashes into another car and two lovers die,
everything you want to die, is there on Denmark Square.

There is a grave site on the slope above Fjosanger Street.
There is a petrol station on Michael Krohns Road.

There is an empty apartment on Ibsens Road. Here lived a
Charlotte once.

On Denmark Square. Without Denmark. Without Charlotte, without Josefine,
without Olga, without Stine, without Suzanne, without
Pia, without Mette, without Amalie, without Maja, without Janne;
what do you actually do here on these streets without names?

Without the city. Just a place where cars meet as the cars
speed by. Just streets, no city. No forest.

No trees, No field or marsh. No animals. No
river. Just this endless stream of traffic that

flows that trickles that rumbles that meanders past.
That flows in –fast-flowing streams past the nothing square.

Tomas Espedal has created such a unique genre in Norwegian literature. Part of his work is all about confessions from his inner self and the daily occurrences in his life. The other part is about the poetic nature of each phrase. He tries to find his own truth through looking at himself. Nothing is definable in his writing.

In Bergeners (an allusion to James Joyce and his Dubliners) Tomas Espedal takes the reader to New York, where he is with his girlfriend. He travels to different major European cities as if he is on a journey. In a book that seems dedicated to place, Espedal often shows how difficult it is for him to be settled hence why he is constantly traveling.

He also meets with Dag Solstad in Madrid and gets advice on how to really look and see Goya’s black paintings. I am dying to go to Madrid now and look at them this way.

We must describe the city we live in, the times we live in, our discussions, our politics, our loneliness. We mustn’t lose ourselves in a made-up, hypothetical universe, a false literature, what we write must be truth, and we must describe what’s real with all we possess of earnestness and strength, I said.

The front and back cover of this book is also unique. The front photograph is from New York and it contains a half body of perhaps a writer or a student and the head is tilted a tad and to the front are some blurred windows. The back photograph is from a Berlin train station. Natural light is used. It is almost like you are observing, entering, and exiting all at the same time in different places when you look at them together.




The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo, translated from the Spanish by Douglas J. Weatherford (Deep Vellum Publishing)

Juan Rulfo was born in San Gabriel, Mexico and grew up during the Cristero rebellion in western Mexico. Rulfo is best known for Pedro Paramo. It is the novel that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. In his writing, Rulfo is fascinated with death and the meaning of death to those living.

The first story presented here is “El gallo de oro” (“The Golden Cockerel”). It tells the story of Dionisio Pinzon, who is unable to work because of his mutilated arm. He calls cockfights to make money. One day someone gives Dionisio a half-dead rooster. He buries the rooster in a hole and in a few days the rooster comes around, but then his mother dies. He leaves the town accompanied by his Golden Cockerel. He travels around putting his Golden Cockerel in fights around Mexico. He soon meets a singer nicknamed La Caponera. The Golden Cockerel dies in a fight shortly after and La Caponera comforts him and the two travel around together betting their lives away. La Caponera becomes Dionisio’s good luck charm and the gambling continues. Only when Dionisio loses his luck does he realize what is going on around him and once he realizes it, he can’t bear what has happened.

I really enjoyed discovering these lesser-known works in this book. One of my favorite short stories was called “A Piece of the Night.” It is about a prostitute who gets picked up by a gravedigger who is carrying a baby (not his baby though). The two of them walk through the night talking and just enjoying their time together and falling in love. When they find a hotel, the woman refuses payment and goes to bed alone. The way Rulfo writes this story is so relaxed and the shift into sleep and memory is fascinating. There is also a letter Rulfo wrote to his wife Clara in February 1947. I highly recommend this book to anyone especially if you are interested in Latin American literature.

Thank you Deep Vellum!

8 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The following is an excerpt from an interview that was conducted by David Damrosch and Delia Ungureanu—both of Harvard University—with Madame Nielsen in Copenhagen this past July. If you would like to see the entire piece, email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu

David Damrosch: Across your career, your several avatars have delved very deeply into questions of identity and I was wondering, as a way of contextualizing your work for our readers, maybe you could talk a bit about these stages of identity, how you reflect on them and what has impelled the changes?

Madame Nielsen: I was born nameless, and well, most people say I’m born as Peter Hansen, but I guess no one is baptized before birth. I was named Claus Beck-Nielsen, a Danish name, as my parents are Danish. I grew up in Denmark. I made my debut as a writer, but not as Claus Beck Nielsen because I was still a wannabe poet—I started by writing poetry—and I thought that if I write and send in my poems under the name Anders Claudius West, if they then are rejected, it will be bad for Anders Claudius Westh, but not for me. They ended up being accepted, so it was good for Anders Claudius West, but maybe not that good for me. So at that time, Anders Claudius West was me and not me. After that, I also did performances; my second solo performance was about Andy Warhol, where I incarnated him. I had my hair dyed light blond as his, which made me look completely like him, and that’s why there is a photo of Andy Warhol in my passport. I originally made the performance in Hannover in Germany, and started to work with a German photographer; we made a company called Beck-Nielsen Hannover, where I was “the man with the famous face” and I met with all the important people of the Niedersachsen region— Gerhard Schröder, a princess, mayors and business men, lawyers, philosophers, and the rock band The Scorpions, among others—to discuss the future of Hannover in the years leading up to Expo 2000. Then in 1997 and 1999 I published two books as Claus Beck-Nielsen. I moved very much as a small child, and everywhere I was the new person in the class, and it was always a provincial city. My mother was a fan of the Beatles and she wanted me to have the Beatles’ hair. Being always in the provinces, when I came to a new school and a new class with my Beatles haircut, the boys wouldn’t believe I was a boy until we had the first gym class. There I took off my clothes and they saw and somehow accepted that I was a boy. I was always between a boy and a girl, especially with my feminine features.

DD: Was it hard for you to make friends, or did they accept you once they realized you’re a boy?

MN: It meant that I was always the outsider, but it also meant that I was interesting for the girls, they fell in love with me as I was handsome. The possibility of being an Other was always at hand. In 2001, when I had declared Claus Beck-Nielsen dead, I wrote a biography of him, and there I tried to show how this idea came to be. I had an idea in 2000 that took shape slowly: I wanted to show something real, not to make fiction, only reduction. I reduced my name to Claus Nielsen to make it more generic. I picked up an old thin sports suit I had and a cap and I took a train to Germany, where I had lived in 1994-5 and then I took the train back to Copenhagen and somehow erased the years between 1995 and 2000. I had no papers and no money, and I had removed from my memory all names I knew, all places, as well as my social relations. This meant that I was like a blank sheet of paper. Then I made up a very basic rule to follow: Each day you must find food, drink, and a warm shelter, considering it was December. I was waiting for a new life to start, and it did. It was very hard but also very fascinating. I lived like that for two months, listening to what advice other people would give about how to get a life. It turned out that I was more than simply homeless: I was like an illegal sans-papiers. So, following the advice from the other homeless people, I took my story to the local newspaper Ekstra Bladet—pretty similar to The Sun. Soon after I was taken by the Police and interrogated for twelve hours by four people, until I gave in because of my wife and newborn daughter. I figured it would cause problems for them if I didn’t give in.

DD: During those twelve hours were you still not having memories from seven years before?

MN: Well, it was one of the rules. And then the big article in the newspaper came out; it included a note by a doctor discussing whether this could be caused by a tumor or a case of amnesia, but the doctor felt that this wasn’t the case and thought there was hope for me. The article included a picture of me and a telephone number where people could call if they knew me. My cousin in Jutland whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years was very upset and called, saying he knew me. Newspapers started debating whether this was a social crime, so I wrote a series of ten articles from the point of view of Claus Nielsen for the more left-wing newspaper Information, which is closer to The New York Times. This double life led into divorce as my wife couldn’t live with these two persons. I was now addicted to this Claus Nielsen. I brought him home and he kicked me out, and I found myself in the situation he had been. For the next year, I lived in the apartment of a professor of semiotics who was on research leave at Stanford. For a year, I lived in his clothes, wearing his underwear, using his desk, receiving his correspondence, etc and even voted for him at the elections in 2001.

DD: You became a semiotician for a year?

MN: Exactly.

DD: Under what name were you answering his correspondence at that point? His name, or a different name?

MN: I was using his name, Per Aage Brandt. After that, I was offered to become director at a small theater, which was part of a big musical theater on the outskirts of Copenhagen, where the musical theater director wanted to have some kind of artistic blueprint of his boulevard theater and thought I’d bring him that. I had also done some performances and written some plays, so I made this theater look like a worn-out East German nuclear power station. I chose to call it Das Beckwerk. We made it into a legal company with a board of directors, and I was employed as a nameless being; what you would call in English a “subject,” but in German Versuchsperson, a person or body with which you could carry out experiments. The board of directors could tell me what I should do. For ten years, 2002-2011, I was this nameless leader of this company, until in 2011 we organized the funeral of the now long-since dead Claus Beck-Nielsen, including a seven-day deathbed, a funeral procession of a thousand people, a burial ceremonyy by a priest and a grave in a cemetery with a gravestone and everything.

DD: And you published death notices in the press . . . ?

MN: Yes. The reason was that since 2001, where I had declared Claus Beck-Nielsen dead, people had nevertheless continued to refer to me as Claus Beck-Nielsen. So I wondered what was it that was missing for CB-N’s death to be publicly accepted. Then I found this theory in Carl Ginsburg related to what makes the death of a person, what makes it real in a society. It’s not the biological death, but the ritual, the burial, and we hadn’t carried that out. So we organized a real funeral; however, not being able to use my actual body for it, we organized it in the Roman way of the funus imaginarium. They always kept a double of the emperor made in wax in case the emperor died abroad, or his body was lost in a shipwreck or battle in a foreign land. So they buried the double instead in order not to make him haunt the city. We kept the body for seven days in a building constructed especially for this project in the center of Copenhagen. After that the company Das Beckwerk had become a celebrated part of the arts world, and we really wanted to become something else. We decided to close it down before it became just another marketable art product, which all kinds of curators could move from biennial to biennial around the world making money but no art. After we closed down Das Beckwerk I took a year off any public performances trying to find the way to a new life and a new form of art. I wondered: Were there any other artists in the course of history who had produced two lifeworks? It was a very dark and suicidal year, I didn’t see the light, no ideas came from just waiting. And then one day I put on the dress of the mother of my boy; I thought: hey, you’re not that young anymore, you’ll be just a skinny middle-aged man, but you look much more beautiful as a woman! This wasn’t something really that astonishing as in my teens everybody thought I was gay! So I thought: why not become a woman? And interestingly, there were almost no women in the history of Das Beckwerk. Since then, I have been Madame Nielsen and I hope to stay that way until my death. If a cat has seven lives, I have nine deaths.

Delia Ungureanu: Any reason why you chose a French designation?

MN: I realized I just told about Madame Nielsen as if it happened in a moment, but it was in fact a gradual becoming. I had put on this dress, and felt good. Then, at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen I got a lovely white dress, and I brought it to Paris where I was going to live in a residency for four months.

DD: Was that your first salon?

MN: Yes, exactly. Once I was there, I realized I should organize a salon. In Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu Madame Verdurin has a salon. So I thought Madame Nielsen should have one as well, where I was doing all the music.

*


DU: It seems there’s no real distinction between the text and the body for you. I think all these revolutionary actions you’re been involved in are remarkable. How do you relate your poetry to the tradition of revolutionary poetry like Rimbaud and Lautréamont?

MN: I’ve always read a lot, though I have no formal education and I’ve always been disturbed by that. As a child, I was living in the provinces where there’s only sport, then, when I was a teenager, someone forgot to turn off the TV after a football game and there was a transmission from a concert hall where Sergiu Celibidache was presented as a doctor in philosophy, mathematics, nuclear physics, psychology, and music. So I thought: I want to have that too, five doctorial degrees! Because I was too busy to get an education I became very disciplined in reading. I did read a lot of revolutionary poetry, but when I write poetry and make music it’s because I’m too tired to work. Other people watch TV to relax; I take my guitar and start playing. When I write poetry, I don’t have any heroes in mind who inspire me. But indeed, all the things I’ve read go through me. I’ve been very interested in the avant-gardes, especially the Russians (1910-20), but also in the second avant-garde of the ’60s. Rimbaud and Baudelaire come in very early for me, and also the German romantics.

DU: You must like Nerval and Hoffmann for their obsession with the double that goes through all their writings.

MN: I’ve never read Hoffmann, but I do like Nerval, Schiller, and Heinrich von Kleist. The utopian dimension is something that I am fascinated with in this revolutionary poetry.

DU: Since I’ve started reading your poetry and lyrics I was struck by the multingualism—you mix Danish with English, French, Spanish, German. We were wondering whether this is another way for you to engage with the world politics you’re so interested in.

MN: The ideal would be to be a world citizen able to speak all languages. I can’t separate the dimensions of my work, so I can’t say that I’m a novelist, or a poet; I’m not even an artist, I’m just someone who does all sorts of things. In general I write in Danish, but in my poetry, I like also to open the space for many languages. I also wrote a novel that is a mix of German and Danish, it’s a linguistic hybrid.

*


DD: I have a pen from Belgrade with a quote from Tito saying “every revolution consumes its heroes.” Now to close up, we’ve heard who is Madame Nielsen. But who is Madame Nielsen going to be?

MN: I want to think of the human being as a potential, and instead of becoming “the one I really am” or that one I want to be, I’ll try to live as many different aspects of these potentials I have. I will stay Madame Nielsen as long as she’s producing things I’m interested in. My writing—The Endless Summer, The Invasion, and The Supreme Being—has changed completely for me with this identity change and these three recent novels are very different from the things I wrote before. I’ve always loved the French writers—Flaubert, Proust, Rimbaud, Stendhal, Claude Simon, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras, Koltés, and Celine—so I think they influenced me from the way I conceive the sentence to questions of love and memory. My body is getting older, so I have more and more past to host in. I became more reflective and more Proustian in a sense.

DU: So is this the reason why your Endless Summer is in the form of a requiem, like Vinteuil’s sonata for Proust?

DD: . . . or the cathedral for Proust . . .

MN: Yes, well, you know, a requiem fits perfectly in a cathedral. Now I’m writing the music for Proust’s cathedral. Maybe that is what I’m doing in these years. It takes time.

7 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a few weeks away from podcast, Chad and Tom reunite to talk about sales of Fire and Fury and its lasting impact, Milo’s edits, the TA First Translation Prize Shortlist, Rochester’s failure to land the new Amazon HQ, Wormwood, and more.

For those keeping track as you listen, here’s the baffling video presentation Rochester & Buffalo sent to Amazon and here’s a link to A.N. Devers’s article on Brigid Hughes and The Paris Review.

Sorry, while we’re goofing on Rochester’s delusional ambitions, I have to share this. Please try and make sense of those statements.

This week’s music is Crooked Numbers by Unlikely Friends. Now that football is over with Minnesota’s crushing defeat to the Eagles, it’s almost time to pay attention to America’s game!

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. Also, if there are articles you’d like us to read and analyze (or just make fun of), send those along as well.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and other places. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss




7 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Rochester, NY—National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu has approved more than $25 million in grants as part of the NEA’s first major funding announcement for fiscal year 2018. Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $35,000 to Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester for the Open Letter Books Women Writers Series. The Art Works category is the NEA’s largest funding category and supports projects that focus on the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and/or the strengthening of communities through the arts.

“It is energizing to see the impact that the arts are making throughout the United States. These NEA-supported projects, such as this one to Open Letter Books, are good examples of how the arts build stronger and more vibrant communities, improve well-being, prepare our children to succeed, and increase the quality of our lives,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “At the National Endowment for the Arts, we believe that all people should have access to the joy, opportunities and connections the arts bring.”

“There are few things as gratifying as receiving an NEA grant,” said Chad W. Post, publisher of Open Letter. “It’s thanks to grants like these that we’re able to bring international voices to American readers, and it’s especially gratifying this year, since we decided to focus our entire project on publishing women from around the world. Less than a third of the books published in translation over the past decade have come from women writers, and that’s pretty appalling. Thanks to the NEA, we can help make a little bit of a difference in changing this.”

Specifically, this project will consist of the publication of six works by women writers, all in translation: The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen, translated by Gaye Kynoch (Denmark), Ma Bo’le’s Second Life by Xiao Hong, translated by Howard Goldblatt (China), the easiness and the loneliness by Asta Olivia Nordenhof, translated by Susanna Nied (Denmark), Fox and American Fictionary by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams, and Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać, respectively (Croatia/Europe), and Night School by Zsófia Bán, translated by Jim Tucker (Hungary).

For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.

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I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

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Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

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Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

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A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
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Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

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