One-Minute Book Reviews

September 20, 2007

Great Small Presses #5: Dalkey Archive

Fed up with the poor quality of so many books from major publishers? This is the fifth and last in a series of posts this week on great small or independent presses that have maintained high literary standards despite the Mitch Albom-ization of America.

Who might publish James Joyce’s Ulysses today if the major firms rejected it?

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that James Joyce were trying to find a American publisher for Ulysses today and the major publishers had turned it down. Who might publish it?

One answer is: Dalkey Archive Press Critics have used words like “experimental” and “avant-garde” to describe the firm, based in Normal, Ill. But director John O’Brien prefers “subversive” because so many of its titles go against the literary or artistic grain.

An outgrowth of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Dalkey Archive publishes many translations of books by authors who might not otherwise find an American audience. Its noteworthy titles include Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre, the daughter of refufees from the Spanish Civil War, who was raised in southern France And it has just published a new edition of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, a scathing critique of the American way of life that was one of the defining books of the postwar era.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google of Sept. 6, 2007. It does not accept books, galleys, catalogs, print or electronic press releases or other promotional materials from publishers.

Tomorrow: A review of and Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sara Gruen’s No. 1 bestseller, Water for Elephants.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2007

Is Dalkey Archive Press America’s Most ‘Subversive’ Publisher?

A French secretary fantasizes about countering a “No Smoking” sign with one that says, “LET’S OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.”

Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. Dalkey Archive, 117 pp., $12.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

If somebody offered you a million dollars to describe the difference between “a Random House book” and “a Simon and Schuster book,” could you do it? Or would you weep silently into your chai tea and think, “There goes the Lamborghini, the second home and my child’s education”?

If you have no idea how one publishing conglomerate differs from another, you’re not alone. These days the largest houses have little or no brand identity – at least not one that anybody but critics and scholars can define. Many of the smaller firms, don’t either. That makes Dalkey Archive Press a rarity: a publisher with a clear brand identity – although part of that brand identity is that you can’t imagine the staff saying “brand identity” instead of, say, “aesthetic” or “sensibility.” Critics often describe Dalkey Archive as a specialist in “experimental” or “avant-garde” books. Director John O’Brien prefers the term “subversive” because its titles to go against the grain. Many come from other countries, about half of them translation.

An example is Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre, who grew up in southern France. Peter Mayle was never like this. This brief novel is about the psychological unraveling of a widowed secretary in her 50s who works for a Paris advertising agency and sinks into a paranoid fury when a new co-worker arrives with the same title. One critic has said that you could read it as “a commentary on today’s cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throws the entire office ecosystem out of whack.” That’s true in the sense that you could read Moby-Dick as a commentary on what happens when you pack a lot of people together on a Nantucket whaler.

Everyday Life, as I read it, is about something larger. It’s a study in the alienation that results not from office conditions but from the isolation that leads people to overinvest emotionally in work. Suzanne is the sort of woman Americans used to call an “office wife.” Faced with a rival, she reacts as many women do to a threat of infidelity, except that her behavior is much more sinister than sifting through pockets and credit-card receipts. She is a hard – maybe impossible – character to like. But Salvayre, writing with a Cartesian spareness, makes you see that part of the problem is that she’s smarter and funnier than others. Suzanne is so enraged when the new secretary posts a “No Smoking” sign that, alone in her apartment, she can’t sleep and composes darkly comic counter-signs. One reads: “LETS OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.” Such humor wouldn’t have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago. By today’s standards, it’s subversive, and just what you would expect from Dalkey Archive.

Best line (tie): No. 1 “Discretion is, in my eyes, the cardinal virtue. I’ll go so far as to say that one ought to be discreet in one’s discretion …” No. 2 “I can’t stand parties, and don’t want to be ridiculed. The energy expended in trying to be frivolous is finally too exhausting.”

Worst line: One page contains only one sentence: “I loathe her, I loathe her, I loathe her.”

Published: November 2006

Caveat lector: This review does not evaluate Jane Kuntz’s translation. It was also based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the on-sale edition may differ.

Furthermore: Everyday Life is not listed on Amazon and possibly other online sites. It available from the publisher Click on this link to read a review of Gail Scott’s My Paris, also from Dalkey Archive. Visit the sites for Random House and Simon and Schuster if you want to try to figure out the difference between the two firms.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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