PEN World Voices Stand-Up Critics #6: Roxana Robinson

By Jane Ciabattari

Between April 25 and May 1, 2011, the PEN World Voices Festival has been presenting a team of National Book Critics Circle Stand-Up Critics. These influential and celebrated American critics will appear before every Festival event with the intention to enhance Festival audience already-extensive list of must-reads. These six tireless servants of literature will rotate throughout the week to suggest individual lists of thirty meticulously tested titles. The Stand-up Critics will present  1) a contemporary novel 2) a translated book 3) a classic 4) a small/indie press title and 5) a surprise! For more information, see the PEN World Voices Festival website,


Recommendations from Roxana Robinson

Contemporary novel: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (Knopf). This is one of the best contemporary novels I know. Its brilliant shimmering surface, its astonishing velocity, its imaginative construction are impressive, but what’s breathtaking is the confidence with which Egan moves through time, generations, and the music business. When we’re finished with this book, it feels as though we’ve read Proust, compressed.

Translation: Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis (Viking) This is a great book, translated by a great writer: what more can we ask? Flaubert’s mesmerizing narrative, about the flawed, gorgeous Emma, continues to confound us. We fall under her spell from our first glimpse of her, shadows cast on her face by silk and rain. Throughout the book Flaubert wrestles with his own ambivalence about her, and who are we to disagree with his ambivalence?   

Classic: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkonsky (Viking). It can’t get any better than this. This is one of the foundation stones of European literature, a solemn claim but true. The narrative is formed by two great arcs, that of Levin, slowly rising, and that of Anna, making her doomed descent. Tolstoy’s attentiveness to character and ideas, and his deep meditative love of his world, inform this novel, and sweep us into it. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, it will never leave you.

Small/indie press: Widow, by Michelle Latiolais (Bellevue). This is an elegant book of stories, precise and glittering, like jewels. Latiolais writes exquisite, mandarin prose, in  sentences you want to memorize. The stories are about excruciating loss, and other things as well – being alive, and having sex, and being betrayed, and having fun – and they will stay with you.

Surprise! Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Barnes and Noble). This choice is made in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and of the author, who was my great-great-great aunt. Great Aunt Hattie was a woman of great moral courage, and though this book is not a work of great literature, it’s a work of great bravery, written at a time when these thoughts and ideas were considered unacceptable. I’m proud to be a writer from her family.