Back in graduate school, when I was working on my dissertation on Goethe, I began writing reviews for World Literature Today. I started with reviews of German novels but was occasionally sent American ones as well. Over the years, I have written reviews of Birgit Vanderbeke, Christine Brooke-Rose, Angela Krauß, Paul Theroux, Erich Loest, Joyce Carol Oates, Jens Sparschuh, Muriel Spark, Christoph Peters, Philip Roth, and many more. What a lineup! The short format -- 500 words -- taught me to be succinct while also telling what the novel was about. (Have you noticed how that information is missing from so many book reviews?)
It was a good exercise, plus I have been able to keep up with contemporary literature. I must admit that I have not always been excited about the German writers, but certainly one of my favorites has been Martin Mosebach (pictured at the right), whose Der Mond und das Mädchen I reviewed for WLT. Besides being a wonderful chronicler of Germany and of Frankfurt in particular, Mosebach is refreshingly politically incorrect. Listen here to a interview with him on Das Literatur-Café. A very intelligent and thoughtful man.
No doubt the most interesting book I reviewed for WLT was Tau und Gras by Galsan Tschinag (b. 1944), a Mongolian writer and shaman from the small nomadic tribe of the Tuva, who traditionally occupied yurt settlements in the pastures and valleys of southern Siberia and Mongolia. I was reminded of Galsan Tschinag the other day, when I came across the photos of the Mongolian yurt above. It was among a series of photos of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia on the Big Picture website.
Mongolia, a newly independent nation since 1990, was formerly a Soviet-based communist republic. The shamanist story traditions were already being eroded by Soviet collectivization when Galsan Tschinag was born. Like many promising young men and women from formerly socialist lands of the Third World, he was sent to Leipzig to study in 1962, where he made himself a master of the German language. Tau und Gras and his other stories and novels offer a glimpse of a people for whom, according to Herder anyway, poetry was once a spontaneous cultural product. Galsan lives today mostly in Ulan Bator, but travels widely in Europe giving readings of his works.
I was unable to pull off any pictures of Galsan from the Internet (but go to the Wikipedia entry), but Big Picture includes many from Mongolia, including this arresting color composite image (made using shortwave infrared and green wavelengths) of the Edrengiyn Nuruu, which forms a transition one between the Mongolian steppes to the north and the arid deserts of northern China to the south.