Blurb-roll: The Devil is a Black Dog

Just this week I received the galley for my translation of The Devil is a Black Dog by Hungarian short story writer Sándor Jászberényi. This week will call for double celebrations, as this fantastic blurb for the book just arrived from seasoned Middle East reporter Brian Dabbs (New York Times, Al-Jazeera):

“This is one of the most honest books I have ever read. The author forgoes the journalistic altruism and moral obligation that books on reporting in crisis regions typically, disingenuously emphasize. Instead, The Devil Is a Black Dog is a truly authentic dive into the psyche, spirituality, and frailty of mankind. Jászberenyi deftly portrays all that through the lenses of both situations accessible to Western readers and exotic circumstances in a region regarded as violent and rife with hardship.”

This compliments a great blurb by international literary star György Dragomán:

“Fierce, tight, and violent – beautifully constructed, tough, exciting prose.”

More to come. Or not. It’s a good book regardless.



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Travel Writing Course: Budapest

The poster for a micro writers workshop I am running in Budapest, Hungary.

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Pride and Prejudice: Why should you hire a professional to critique your manuscript

You just completed a manuscript, and are wondering just what you’ve got. Is it gripping from the start? Does the plot flow? Are the characters fully realized? Is it any good? It’s time to get it out there to some readers and find out.

Friends and family – though as perceptive as any readers you are likely to find – come to your work with a certain disposition. They love you, they have invested in you; they truly want you to succeed. Moreover, they are proud of what you have done. And they should be. Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment; and the writer, particularly if they are somebody we care about, deserves our encouragement and support. With this inevitable (and healthy) attitude, a reader who knows us well will be attracted to the strong points in the manuscript, and will likely – intentionally or not – overlook the weaknesses. It’s like accepting the shortcomings of a romantic partner. Without the ability to see past their flaws, we would simply be unable to participate in any enduring relationship.

As a writer, where does that leave you? A truly honest manuscript critique can only be performed by somebody who has no preconceptions of you as a person; who is not afraid to be blunt, and can deliver impartial, honest feedback: somebody who is not prejudiced in your favor. It also helps if your reader has a lot of experience in the field. You need an ally, not a friend. At Wordpill, I don’t want to be your friend, in the best way possible. Check the Manuscript Critique page for details.

Matt Ellis is an author coach and manuscript editor at Word Pill Editing. Have a look here for an affordable Manuscript Critique.

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The Case for László Sárközi

Some day you will be able to talk about László Sárközi without having to mention that he is a Roma (and one of the very few Roma poets publishing in Hungary today). But now, for better or worse, he is burdened with that mantle and all the expectation and associations that come with being a gypsy writer in post-communist Central Europe.

Pilvax was lucky enough to be the first literary review to publish Sárközi in English. But getting Sárközi in print proved to be a challenge. For starters, he is not an easy man to find. I had to go through an intermediary, who kept promising me Sárközi, but whenever we were supposed to meet, the writer was indisposed. I finally did catch up with him, at a private writers’ canteen in Pest. He could only manage to make a scrawl on the publishing agreement as his writing hand was mostly unusable due to an incident that was either a bar fight or a slip on the pavement (the explanation was vague, as was about everything that came from Sárközi’s mouth). The second time I met him, he was in a hospital near Marczibányi Tér, where he was recovering from another mysterious accident, which left him slightly crippled. When offered cab fare to attend a reading of his work, he declined, preferring to take the tram. He did show up at the reading though, along with a gang of thuggish guys who tried the patience of just about everybody around them. Later I was informed that they were his former residents of the orphanage he was raised in.

There are many stories surrounding Sárközi and talking to him in person did little to distinguish the truth from the mythologizing. I know he was raised in an orphanage, and was discovered and mentored by the infamous Hungarian poet György Faludy. It is also said he was homeless (unlikely – there are relatively few homeless gypsies in Budapest – they tend to squat or live communally). What is for sure is that he is forever getting in accidents or otherwise injuring his body, his place of residence is constantly changing, and anybody seriously interested in contemporary Hungarian poetry knows his name. Sárközi may be obscure as a person, but his poetry blossoms in gorgeous imagery and is chiseled and rigorous in style. He is a genuine talent, and perhaps a genius. And, what he has made for himself in this life, he made through the craft of poetry, which is unlikely for a person of any race.

Below is a portion of László Sárközi’s Inner World: A Sonnet Wreath, expertly translated by Andrew Singer (the entire fifteen sonnet cycle was previously published in Pilvax Issue Three.


I. Night

I walk the valley of green and silent dreams
and still don’t know where I will be tomorrow;
my moods propel me, they drive me far,
anticipating night, craving respite.
Nightfall is a scaly wound, and then
night’s well holds the moon – a brave warrior’s fate
in shining armor; recoiling to die again.
Down endless streets, new streets run
and where this movement ends, I’ve no idea.
I straddle the border-stone, gazing at naught.
Cold flash, and yellow lamp regards me,
light glints off blue-musted cobblestones:
with ten thousand solitudes, the night caresses,
where a black moon renders every shadow brown.
II. Beggar’s Sonnet

Where a black moon renders every shadow brown,
from a dirty cardboard box a beggar coughs,
his dog poking him – “Leave me, it still hurts so…” –
and eying his master in a Faithful Zen Ring.
The dwarf shifts cannily; no one cares;
he is crawling now on backward-facing knees;
now he throws his cup pugnaciously down:
dawn’s anger recoils on marble walls.
So I wandered by with pocketed hands
and spat into the beggar’s jolting cup –
may the rest be veiled and then forgotten…
but neither of us turned lighter from it.
I’m wretched: good intention has died in me.
My twenty-nine years are just a giddy game.
III. Facing Eternity

My twenty-nine years are just a giddy game,
one day I am ornate; the next I’m plain,
an endless whirl of good and bad design.

My life is like a dream – it comes to naught,
realizing absurdly the weight of the grave –
nor is the stone’s perfume enjoyed in moss.

Whatever I build is in vain, for windmills
and dusty lips are rumbling from the past,
for all is fleeting that once was joy:
the once-shining diamond shall be as ash.

My light fades, morning falls to night –
Once you regaled the evergreen dark
Pandora: a box forever opened, as
I go on – shivering, wounded by light.

About the author: Matt Ellis is an author coach and manuscript editor at Word Pill Editing. Have a look here for an affordable Manuscript Critique.

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Manuscript Critique Special

Wordpill manuscript editing and author coaching is pleased to offer a special on Manuscript Critiques. If you don’t want a full edit but still want professional feedback, this is an affordable and efficient choice. For a detailed editorial letter evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your novel or non-fiction manuscript, just write Matt at  Have a look at the manuscript critique page for more information.  Happy writing!

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Judging a Cover by its Book

Book covers never get their fair due in the review pages. I don’t know why only the guts of the book (in the publishing industry, referred to as ‘foul matter’) is worthy of note, when innovative designers like Chip Kidd have turned cover design into a form of public art – and one of the publisher’s most valuable marketing tools. A cover should be like a label on wine: eye-catching, emotionally evocative; though moreover it should communicate the feeling, if not content, of the book: a picture that is worth many thousand words. Consider the job: designing a book cover might be as difficult a task as creating an effective film preview, without showing any scenes from the movie.

If you were to judge a cover by the book: both these somewhat recent foodie offerings would come up lacking, though for different reasons. Concerning David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula, well, no book could be as bad as its tacky cover: the Statue of Liberty holding a bunch of metallic green arugula leaves; red, white, and blue bunting along the borders: it has to get the prize for worst-dressed book of the year. Combined with the clunky title, it is a packaging turkey. This is a shame, because Arugula gives a clear, cogent history of gourmet cooking and eating in America, beginning with the 1939 World’s Fair in New York when some of France’s top chefs alighted on American soil to showcase their county’s cuisine (and stayed), up until the celebrity apotheosis of TV chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. Along the way Kamp charts sudden changes in our taste and desire for fine food: which, like the Calvin Klein brand, started as haute couture, and was eventually craved by the masses. The book is at its best when chronicling the unsung heroes of the food world (like food writer Michael Field, and Horatio Alger-like chef Pierre Franey). At its worst, it reads like an extended magazine profile (Kamp is a magazine writer for Vanity Fair). There is not much critical thought here, but how can you resist a book that narrates the heated and still-unsettled debate over the invention of pasta primavera?

In his chapter regarding the rise of organic, locally sourced cuisine in California, Kamp states, “The fresh food movement…may well have been the (sixties) couterculture’s greatest and most lasting triumph.” Though he doesn’t follow up on that tantalizing thought, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma does, and then some. From its introduction, this book is filled with lazer-sharp insights into how we eat in America today, though, really, it is about how we farm today; which is why it is misleading and therefore an equally inadequate cover as The United States of Arugula. The sub-title – a Natural History of Four Meals – feels like a publisher’s afterthought to make the book a sexier package. The cover picture, which looks like the lunch of a raw-foodist French monk, has little to do with the material the book concerns itself: primarily corn and grass. You would think the industrial and organic agro-business of growing corn and grass would make for a fairly dry read, but in Pollan’s hands, it is a riveting, if not urgent, topic. After only a few pages of this book, you cannot help but realize that what you put on your plate is both a nutritional, ethical, and political act: and its ramifications go far beyond filling your belly. But, really, how do you make growing grass sexy to the upscale market of Pollan readers? I think Penguin has not given the reading public enough credit. This book asks to be bought by sophisticated foodies, when in fact it should be read by one and all, particularly those who believe their ‘cheap’ food does not come with unseen costs. I hope the paperback is at least marketed to the younger Fast Food Nation crowd, as The Omnivore’s Dilemma has more in common with Naomi Klien’s polemic – and extremely youth-popular – No Logo, than it does with a comfy Ruth Reichl memoir.

Luckily, both these books were lent to me by Budapest uber-foodie Carolyn Bánfalvi, so I didn’t have the chance to pass them over in the bookstore (especially in the case of Pollan, who seems to be popularizing, if not writing, the canon on ethical eating). With both titles, like corn manipulated to look like a bowling-pin shaped breakfast cereal, what you see is not necessarily what you get. Pollan knows this. Maybe some day his publisher will catch up.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.


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