Book Reviews


…of translated books in the U.S., that is. I’ve just finished SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD by Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman), a beautifully written and moving story of a young Mexican girl who crosses the border into the United States in order to deliver a message to her older brother, who crossed long before her and had stopped sending letters or messages of any kind back home to her and her mother. The story is ethereal, poetic, and yet is grounded in familiar descriptions, moments, and feelings.

I found this lovely book when I went to a deceivingly large bookshop (the pathway through many bookshelves winds forever to reveal a sizable shop, despite its small storefront) in Hyde Park in May called 57th Street Books, where one of the authors I work with at St. Martin’s spoke about her book on the South Side. The owner handed me this book. And he also passionately shared his goal of stocking the best translated literature out there.

Though I could label myself as an editor or a writer, I call myself first and foremost a lover of literature. I grew up reading translated works of literature, from Kafka or Flaubert or Marquez. And as an editor, I have the ability to help these kinds of riveting, eye-opening stories make their way into the marketplace—and thrive. Of course, getting to publish new American authors is one of the great pleasures in the work that I do. But I want my list to be filled with works from all over the world in an effort to remind American readers that there are many, many perspectives. And without reading them, we run the risk of folding into our own little world.

So go out and buy a translation! Another one that I read recently (and affected me very deeply, in more ways than one) is WILLFUL DISREGARD by Swedish author Lena Andersson.



Moving to a foreign city can be somewhat daunting. I remember moving to Paris and having to adapt not only to a new city but also to a new culture and a new language. It’s difficult at first, but as time goes on, you get the hang of things. Parisians started becoming my family, and French my language. Moving back to the States was a reverse culture shock, and I missed drinking wine on a daily basis and buying a baguette from the boulangerie right the down the street from my house.

This is Mexico: Tales of Culture and Other Complications (She Writes Press, March 2015) by Carol M. Merchasin begins much like mine. Merchasin moved to Mexico with her husband, envisioning a fresh and new way of life. What she finds is a culture shock like no other. From chapter to chapter, she recounts her experience with merchants who give no change, house maids who bring their children to work, and other culture quirks that at the same time annoy and inspire her.

This expatriate sets up the book with a different story for every chapter, highlighting a different aspect of Mexico that presented a cultural challenge for her. As she infuses elements of humor and a light tone, Merchasin presents Mexico as her and her husband (or, as she refers to him in the book, Senor Reoberto) see it as foreigners adjusting to a new world.


Travel writing can be a difficult feat, and while Merchasin does a thorough job of presenting Mexico as an expat might see it, there was not a keen sense of connection with how Mexico functions. I wished I were reading individual stories of people she interacted with every day, rather than the solo story of Merchasin’s daily life. Though she gives glimpses into those lives—particularly with her cook and maid—I thought a unique story like this would have provided a more rounded view of Mexico had she centered chapters around other people rather than herself.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a light, interesting narrative about an American’s life in Mexico, this is the book for you.

The following review appears in East Coast Ink’s fifth issue, Bones.

Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Film by Glenn Kurtz

What if finding an old home video—created by family long before you were born—helped you discover the lost history of a town that was almost entirely changed during World War II? What if it introduced you to the realities of Nazi-controlled Poland, told from the mouths of those who lived it?

Inspired by an unlabeled three-minute clip of a small town in Poland—sandwiched between shots of London and Paris—Glenn Kurtz sets off to find out more about this village portrayed in his grandfather’s 1938 home video of a trip to Europe found in his parents’ Florida basement. The video shows a vibrant, thriving community of children and townspeople welcoming the Americans and leaving cheder (Jewish elementary school) to investigate the excitement. After much investigation and many questions, Kurtz discovers this is the town of Nasielsk, Poland, shown in that video only one year before the beginning of the war and the destruction of almost all of the town’s predominantly Jewish population.

The book takes readers through Kurtz’s step-by-step process as he sifts through public records in New York, attempting to find names and contact information for any survivors that may have known was Nasielsk was like firsthand. He visits the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to submit the film as well as restore the original strip. Perhaps the most exciting moment is when he travels across the United States to meet a survivor whose memory gives him many names, places, and details about the town that, in turn, leads him to find other survivors, photos, and important facts.

In the process, Glenn learns about life in a small, Jewish town pre-World War II; life during the war as Nasielskers fought to survive as Germany fully occupied Poland and as the Soviet Union forced those who escaped from Poland into forced labor camps; and, finally, the intricate and fascinating history of his own family, and how that fits into his life today. It’s a story about Nasielsk, but, perhaps more importantly, it’s the story of the survival of a people, their love for their hometown, and their desire that their history be shared and celebrated.

Rich in history and detail, Three Minutes in Poland reads more like a fast-paced mystery novel rather than a non-fiction narrative. Kurtz is an expert storyteller, and his passion for Nasielsk’s history jumps off the pages and he walks readers through interviews with natives, his personal research, and his travels to Europe and Israel. He meticulously organizes the information, accumulating the names, places, and stories told by those who lived in Nasielsk, making them his own memories, and, in turn, the reader’s memories.

Towards the end of the book, he sits with two survivors who were friends as young boys. As they talk, laugh, and reminisce, Kurtz guides the reader through their conversation, clarifying each person to whom they refer—and sometimes, he participates in the conversation himself. It is this moment when the reader realizes how deeply Kurtz cares about this town, its people, and its history.

Three Minutes in Poland looks at the horrors of the Holocaust in a totally different way—it celebrates the life that existed before the war and shows how truly beautiful it was. Today, Nasielsk has changed—what was a primarily Jewish town before the war has become almost entirely Polish in the modern day—but there are still traces of the community that used to thrive there. What Kurtz has done here is give that memory a true heartbeat.