Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year! & Highlights of 2010’s Reading

Happy new year, dear blog readers! I hope you find lots of enjoyable books, new and old, to read in 2011!

I’ve enjoyed starting this blog in 2010: it’s been a fun way to meet new reader friends and keep me reading English-language fiction after a six-year stretch of reading mostly Russian-language novels. It’s nice to get caught up on the rest of the world! Here are some highlights from my 2010 reading:

Two favorite translated books: I read a lot of translated fiction, so couldn’t choose just one! I particularly enjoyed these two: Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador (previous post), thanks to wonderfully absurd situations and references to Gogol’s “Overcoat,” and Alain Mabanckou’s one-sentence Broken Glass (previous post), thanks to its narrator’s storytelling, humor and irreverence. (These review copies came courtesy of, respectively, Open Letter and Soft Skull.)

Favorite book by a Maine writer: I still have a good feeling when I think of Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters!, a thoroughly enjoyable novel about life under the threat of apocalypse. I loved it. (previous post)

Other favorite book written in English: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go starts slowly but builds momentum as it look at moral questions related to how we live and die. (I’m being vague here because I don’t want to reveal too much.) It’s beautifully put together, and the end is crushing. (previous post)

What’s on the way for 2011? I don’t make goals or resolutions for anything but I’m especially looking forward to a couple of review titles on the shelf: Copenhagen Noir, a collection of short stories, and Tim Davys’s Tourquai, a Swedish crime novel about stuffed animals. The books came from Akashic and Harper Collins, respectively.

I’m also looking forward to the Eastern Europe Reading Challenge that Amy is hosting on The Black Sheep Dances. I’m going to try to read something from every country on her list… Some countries – especially Russia – already have big presences on my shelves, but others, like Moldova and Latvia, will be new for me. I’m hoping the challenge will encourage me to finally read a few of the books that have been waiting in my bookcases for years, like Péter Nádas’s A Book of Memories and Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game.

That’s it for this year! Thank you for all your visits and comments. I’ll be back again soon in 2011, whenever I finish Mathias Énard’s Zone, a book that takes some time. I enjoy it but the one-sentence structure requires considerable concentration, which results in short spurts of reading. Happy new year to all!

Sparkler photo from raichinger, via

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Blizzards of Words as I Await a Blizzard of Snow

We have a blizzard warning here in Maine today, and the snow is just starting to fall as I get ready to post this entry: I always get excited for the first big snow of the year! I don’t have a book report for you this week because I’m only a third through Mathias Énard’s Zone, which Charlotte Mandell translated from the French… it’s quite a book, more about war, ancient and contemporary, than anything else, at least so far, and it’s (mostly) written as one big, long sentence. I’m enjoying it very, very much: it’s a tremendous piece of work with endless references to history and literature.

I probably wouldn’t have even posted today if the essay in today’s New York Times Book Review hadn’t been Ed Park’s “One Sentence Says It All,” about one-sentence books, those wordy storms that used to scare the hell out of me. Park includes Zone in his piece, but I was sorry he didn’t mention another one-sentence novel I read earlier this year, Alain Mabanckou’s very readable and funny Broken Glass, translated from the French by Helen Stevenson. It was perfect training for Zone! (previous post)

Since I’m here, I’ll also post the link to Robert Hanks’s rather negative opinion of Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, which I wrote about in November here. Though I had mixed feelings about the book and agree with some, perhaps even many, of Hanks’s criticisms – yes, “Ervin’s writing is often overwrought” and there were definitely “gratuitous cultural references” in the book – I thought he missed the whole point of Extraordinary Renditions. Freedom: I thought Ervin’s book presented variations on the theme of freedom. I’d also like to point out that Amy Henry of The Black Sheep Dances, who sent me her copy of Extraordinary Renditions this fall, wrote about the book, here, way, way back in late August!

Up Next: Favorites from 2010 and the afore-mentioned Zone

Disclosure: Thank you to Open Letter’s Chad Post, who is always a great source of information about translated fiction, for the review copy of Zone.

Photo credit: “Snow Texture” from penywise, via (I’m hoping we get nice, light snow like this…)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Not Enough Mystery in Secret Son

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son was a frustrating book for me to read: I’m glad it addresses the big, messy topic of youth, economic issues, and Islamic fundamentalism in Morocco, but I was disappointed that the book felt so neat. Lalami’s basic plot concerns Youssef, a student who grew up in a slum with his single mother. Youssef finds out from a magazine that his father, whom his mother told him died, is alive. And a successful businessman. Youssef goes to his father’s office and they develop a relationship; the father gives Youssef a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, an Islamic organization establishes a presence in Youssef’s old neighborhood.

I love writerly precision but Secret Son felt too controlled, almost surgical, for my taste. Lalami writes very well – it’s difficult to believe she grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic and French rather than English – and I’m glad she included Moroccan Arabic words, foods, and other specifics in Secret Son to give her timeless themes a concrete setting. But I felt like she was holding back, writing too tight a book and avoiding risks. The pages turned but I kept yearning for a bigger emotional and intellectual challenge: the characters felt predictably trapped in their situations and social classes, and coincidences, foreseeable coincidences, played a huge role in the book.

I was especially disappointed at Youssef’s fate, and his friends’ parts in it, at the end of the book: the ending seemed to fit current events or a plot outline more than the fictional characters named Youssef, Amin, and Maati. A positive: I liked Lalami’s emphasis on Youssef’s idea that people are actors.

I should emphasize that I found Secret Son disappointing rather than, say, “bad” or “boring” or unlikable. It’s solidly constructed and readable, and it’s a sincere look at contemporary problems in Northern Africa. Boston Bibliophile provides a more positive take on Secret Son here; Marie interviewed Laila Lalami here.

Holiday Gift Ideas: If you’re still looking for a happy holiday gift book, I have two suggestions from this year’s reading. For a book written in English: Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters! (here). For a book translated into English, Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass (here). Of course even my “happy” books have dark sides but I thought both of these novels were fun and memorable.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Secret Son at Book Expo America from Algonquin Books. Thank you!

Up Next: I’m not sure. Perhaps, or maybe probably, Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea.

Photo of Casablanca from mco4684, via

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wandering Frankfurt, Testing Shoes and Life

I think I’d categorize Wilhelm Genazino’s The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt (Philip Boehm’s translation of Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag, literally An Umbrella for this Day) using a phrase that might, at first, sound oxymoronic: a short, rather humorous novel about an existential crisis.

Genazino’s narrator is shoe tester who tells his anonymous, first-person story with anecdotes that bring levity to what might otherwise be a rather dreary and uneventful story. He and his girlfriend have split up and his job consists of walking around Frankfurt wearing shoes and then writing reports about the shoes’ performance. During his meanderings, he sees lots of acquaintances, sometimes by design, sometimes by chance. Just, please, don’t ask him about his childhood memories! That seems to chafe him more than a pair of ill-fitting shoes.

So yes, our wandering narrator is experiencing a bit of a mid-life existential crisis and he conveys his thoughts in detail that some, perhaps many, of us might call TMI. Early on, he says he’s no longer very young, particularly in the feet: “Whenever I look at my naked feet, they’re about fifteen years older than the rest of me. I study the veins that stick out so prominently, the ankles swollen like cushions, and the toenails that are growing harder and harder and taking on that sulfurous yellow color characteristic of the no longer very young. No longer very young!”

There’s an interesting irony to this outpouring of podiatric information and all the other intimate details in the book, some related to the ostensibly taboo topic of childhood: our man on the street tells us a few pages after the foot description that he doesn’t always want to talk. In fact, he’d like to implement a silence schedule in his life: Mondays and Tuesdays, for example, would demand “non-stop silence,” and Fridays and Saturdays would allow for “unrestrained chitchat.” Sundays: “total silence.” The essence of his problem is that his inner world and the world around him don’t quite mesh. Hence the wandering. And the necessity of good shoes.

What amazes me most about The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is that it works, quite nicely. I’ll admit I had my doubts about all the micro-level introspection at the start but the narrator’s charming, off-beat humor – the afore-mentioned silence schedule, the mention that his shoe company boss likes to talk about model trains, and naming his melancholy Gertrude Gloom – prevented the book from diving into a deep, dark, dull cave. As do the narrator’s Institute for Memory Arts and a bit of a carnival, complete with “a spectacle of light,” at the rather happy end of the book.

Disclosure: I received The Shoe Tester as a gift from a blog reader and new friend who works in a bookstore. Thank you very much! I know the publisher, New Directions, through discussions about translated literature.

Up Next: Laila Lalami’s Secret Son.

Footwear photo from Sarnil, via

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bite Here, Hold the Garlic: Matt Haig’s The Radleys

Matt Haig’s The Radleys – a British vampire novel pulsing with lots of blood and deadpan humor, but not too much gore – was just the right, light book to take me out of my reading slump. This story of a British vampire couple who live in an upscale neighborhood, abstain from blood, and hide their vampire identity from their own teenage children, is a fun blend of social commentary, comic relief, and horror.

Haig’s novel revolves around four main characters: father Peter is a doctor (ooh, those blood samples!), mother Helen seems to enjoy her book club, daughter Clara is a newbie vegan, and son Rowan is an outcast at school. Peter and Helen’s flashy London past included some high-flying bloodsucking, much of which ended badly for the suckees. Now, however, they are successful small-town homeowners who’s kicked their bloody habits: they keep a copy of The Abstainer’s Handbook in the house but have tossed out their books written by vampires. Haig includes several lists of musicians, writers, and actors that his characters say were vampires; a bit of this is funny – I can accept Jimi Hendrix and Lord Byron as vampires but Van Morrison?! – though some of it feels a bit forced.

Despite ample family dysfunction, everything’s okay at the Radleys’ until Clara goes to a party and has an encounter with a drunk and disorderly boy. Then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose within the family and the community. Worst of all, Peter’s brother, Will, comes to visit. The kids didn’t know Will existed, and Will and Hellen (Freudian slip there, I guess) have some unfinished business. Will is an active bloodsucker with something of a reputation in Manchester. He’s part of a parallel world in which vampires are allowed to be vampires as long as they behave.

What’s most fun about The Radleys is that, at its core, it’s a horror story about what happens when people conform too tightly to societal standards. In the chapter called “Repression Is in Our Veins,” Rowan tells Clara that they are middle-class Brits, thus naturals at repressing themselves. Clara’s not sure she’s good at that.

Haig’s solution to the impasse between bloodless conformity and bloodsucking individualism is to write an ending that’s happy for nearly everyone. Moderation, it seems, is a virtue for all of us, fangéd or unfangéd. My assessment of The Radleys is also happily moderate: a bit slow at the start but fun, light reading that’s not mindless. I like that. The Radleys has been marketed in the U.K. for both YA and adult readers; I think it would make for great family reading and discussion.

Update: The Radleys won an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Alex Awards recognize "adult books that appeal to teen audiences." (press release with list)

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Radleys from Simon & Schuster/Free Press at Book Expo America. Thank you! (The U.S. release date is listed on Amazon as December 28, 2010.)

Up Next: The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt, Wilhelm Genazino’s short existential novel about a man who, yes, tests shoes.

Garlic photo credit: davidlat, via

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ending the Reading Slump of Fall 2010

Reading slumps are never fun, and mine, which has lasted for a month or so, depending on how you count, has been doubly enervating because it’s covered a series of Russian and English books that didn’t inspire me much. Even the bright spots – Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042 and Theodore Odrach’s Wave of Terror – have asterisks. The funny Moscow 2042 (which I wrote about on my other blog) is a reread so hardly qualifies as a discovery, and Wave of Terror (see below), though intriguing, is an unfinished book.

I’m hoping the last book in my English-language slowdown was Douglas Kennedy’s The Pursuit of Happiness, a love story set in New York after World War 2. When I say “love story,” I mean “love story”: this is 572 pages of loving, losing, and forgiving. Basic plot: Sara Smythe, a WASPy Bryn Mawr grad enjoys a passionate night with Jack Malone, a Catholic guy from Brooklyn. It’s only one night because Malone, who’s in the service, is sailing for Europe the next morning. We know they’ll get back together… but in the meantime, Sara’s time spent with her brother Eric, a comedy writer and former communist, was more interesting to read about than her scenes with Jack.

Eric’s former political leanings lead to difficulties during the McCarthy era and give the book a center of gravity but Pursuit still felt, to quote an Amazon review from G. Johnson “friendlygal,” like “escapist reading rather than literature.” I agree with that, and I agree with her assessment that the book is repetitive: physical and psychological action is fairly limited for 500-plus pages but there is copious [read: often extraneous] atmospheric detail of ‘40s and ‘50s New York. Worse, the plot’s dependence on OB/GYN crises (which I had a knack for predicting) wore on me and the characters felt undeveloped enough that I never grasped Sara’s attraction to Jack.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy, particularly because the book read easily and I did finish it: it had enough spirit of its time to keep me going, and I thought Kennedy handled many of the McCarthyism and HUAC situations fairly well. My bookseller told me The Pursuit of Happiness sold big in France, and I’m sure its portrayal of post-war mores and panoramic view of New York are factors. In a talk at the bookstore, Kennedy also mentioned parallels between HUAC and France’s war-time collaboration as a reason the book was successful in France. Though The Pursuit of Happiness falls into the “this just isn’t my book” category, I’d recommend it to readers looking for a period romance with some serious history. Clear language may make Pursuit appealing to ESL readers.

Theodore Odrach’s Wave of Terror, translated from the Ukrainian (Voshchad) by the author’s daughter, Erma, also looks at political changes, informants, and mistrust, but on a much larger scale. Wave of Terror is a curious unfinished novel about Ivan Kulik, a school principal in the Pinsk Marshes in 1939, the end of the height of the Stalin-era Great Terror. The novel covers lots of political and cultural territory as Kulik observes boorish local bureaucrats, falls for a co-worker’s lovely cousin, and tries to hold his life together despite the terror around and, increasingly, inside him. I thought the book’s touches of absurdity, such as uneducated educators and ridiculous language policies, were particularly apt because they reflect the times.

Erma Odrach (who is a friend on Goodreads) writes in her translator’s note that her father’s manuscript and drafts included “countless corrections and revisions in the margins.” Erma says she incorporated them into the translation, “to provide a broader and more comprehensive representation of his work.” Though Wave of Terror feels a little bumpy – which is to be expected with any unfinished novel – I think Erma’s handling of the material works. Perhaps that’s because the time itself was such a work in progress and thinking people, like Kulik, felt so physically and psychically unsettled. In any case, I came away from Wave of Terror with the feeling that I’d like to read more of Odrach’s work.

Up next: Maybe Matt Haig’s The Radleys? I’m scanning my stacks for a humorous book and am a sucker for a vampire story, though don’t think I’ve read one in years… other than the first half of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch.

Photo of HUAC hearing (1947) from user Ted Wilkes, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Extraordinary Renditions in Ervin’s Budapest

Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions is a troika of long stories linked by location and theme: all three pieces take place in or around Independence Day celebrations in Budapest. The stories’ main American characters – a Hungarian-born composer, a soldier, and an expat violinist – are unevenly drawn but give the book three perspectives on political and artistic freedoms.

I think the first installment, “14 Bagatelles,” featuring composer Lajos Harkályi, is the most interesting, with its depiction of removal from one’s birthplace: Harkályi spent time at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp as a child, survived by luck, and rarely returns to Hungary. Harkályi, who is visiting Budapest for the premiere of an opera he wrote, is a little grumpy, perceiving TV as a sewer (as a TV-less person, I loved this!) and disliking hearing someone hum the theme of one of his symphonies.

In “14 Bagatelles” Ervin offers diverse bits of Budapest atmosphere: a street vendor selling flowers, local drink in a bar, diesel fumes, the subway, and a skinhead attack. The attack’s victim is Brutus, a black U.S. soldier who becomes the primary character in “Brooking the Devil,” the middle piece in Extraordinary Renditions. Brutus’s story is related to the most literal extraordinary renditions in the book since his base is involved in the War on Terror. Brutus is bitter about the military, and I wonder if Ervin included Brutus’s interest in Julius Caesar to reference Hungarian history, which included a period of Roman occupation. I thought Brutus’s chunk of the book was the least convincing, with too many details about routine and gratuitous references to Philadelphia… even if the Declaration of Independence was signed there.

Brutus winds up in Budapest on a terrible errand that brings him to the same bar where the reader meets Melanie, the expat violinist, and her controlling roommate in “The Empty Chairs.” Though I thought Ervin invested too many words in their drinking and relationship, the self-doubting Melanie steals two shows: her fantastically spontaneous actions during the performance of Harkályi’s opera premiere have a tremendous effect on Harkályi and the audience, injecting unexpected emotion into the book itself and transforming the reading experience. Ervin’s performance is as spectacular and unexpected as Melanie’s, as he describes artistic inspiration that results in a truly extraordinary rendition of a musical score.

What links the three stories is freedom – it’s Independence Day, after all – and the urges the characters feel to escape from regimented environments, be they Nazi occupation, the military, or sheet music. Though I thought the book was uneven and sometimes slightly marred by unnecessary exposition (details), it’s well worth reading thanks to Ervin’s ability to use his energy and independence to create disparate stories that fit together as something like a novel.

Disclosure: Thank you to Amy of The Black Sheep Dances for another hand-me-down review copy! She received Extraordinary Renditions from Coffee House Press.

Up Next: Odds and ends after a strange stretch of reading…

Image Credit: Budapest Jewish WWII Memorial Shoes on River Bank, from Csörföly, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Going Home Again: The Homecoming Party

Carmine Abate’s The Homecoming Party (translated by Antony Shugaar from the Italian original, La festa del ritorno) is an intriguingly curious and satisfying short novel that blends coming-of-age motifs with family and cultural rituals, and a mysterious Other. It’s a quietly eerie book about a boy, Marco, growing up in a Arbëresh town in southern Italy. Marco’s father works in France, and we learn from the start that something has made Marco’s older half-sister, Elisa, “increasingly unsettled.”

I won’t provide more plot, geographical, or cultural detail since there’s no sense repeating what other bloggers (see below) have already covered. Besides, what struck me most about the book is Abate’s use of religious and maturation rites: the book opens with a Christmas bonfire at the steps of a church and Marco is soon to drink his first beer with his father, who has returned home for vacation. Marco’s father also teaches him to shoot, and yes, Abate follows Chekhov’s guideline on the appearance of guns in drama. (Oddly, the use of the Christian calendar reminded me a bit of Doctor Zhivago, too, where Pasternak mentions many church holidays.)

Even more interesting is Marco’s recovery from illness later in the book. It feels like a symbolic rebirth, particularly when his grandmother takes him to the beach to recovery; she follows doctor’s orders by giving Marco deep sand baths. “Now I have my whole body in the grave,” yells Marco. Marco also learns to swim – another step in growing up and learning to survive – at the beach, going against doctor’s orders not to swim.

Marco’s forbidden swimming lessons are offered by a strange man whom Marco recognizes: the man has already saved Marco’s family dog after an encounter with a wild boar, and the man knows Marco’s sister. The man is a catalyst in the story, appearing at key moments for Marco and representing something Other, something adult that creeps into Marco’s life. The reader learns little about him, though his influence on Marco and his family is profound. The dog, Spertina, also plays a large role in The Homecoming Party, both as a companion for Marco and, as I read the book, a symbol of the shortness of childhood. I don’t mean to sound morbid but I think part of the power of childhood pets is that they teach us about mortality.

Another aspect of adulthood is work, which draws men to become migrant laborers, which makes for difficult family lives and many homecomings. As a friend of Marco’s father says, “The problem with emigrating is that once you leave, you can’t just come back home. You can’t do it. You get used to a job with all the various sacraments that down here you couldn’t even dream of.” The sacraments and traditions that run through The Homecoming Party bind people together, even when they’re furthest apart. I enjoyed watching Abate incorporate related ancient storytelling motifs – purity, family dynamics, coming of age, fears, and even the wild boar – to create a lovely, slightly spooky, and fresh short novel about the emotional and physical perils of approaching adulthood.

Disclosure: Amy of The Black Sheep Dances passed along her review copy of The Homecoming Party. Thanks to Europa Editions, whose booths I’ve enjoyed visiting at Book Expo America to discuss translation, for sending it to her!

Amy’s review of The Homecoming Party is here. Mary Whipple of Seeing the World Through Books wrote about the book here. Three Percent's review, by Grant Barber, is here. Boyd Tonkin's take, on The Independent, is here.

Up next: Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin, another hand-me-down from Amy (and Coffee House Press) that I'm enjoying.

P.S. My review of Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations, which I wrote for The Pennsylvania Gazette, my university’s alumni magazine, is online here. I’m especially excited because this is my first review for a print publication!

Image credit: Richard Lydekker, from Royal Natural History Volume 2, via user Shyamal and Wikipedia.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Below Norway’s Surface: Two of Karin Fossum’s Sejer Books

I enjoy detective novels and love Scandinavia so was thrilled to find a neat stack of Norwegian and Swedish detective novels at the library book sale. Among them: four of Karin Fossum’s books featuring criminal investigator Konrad Sejer. Last week I read Don’t Look Back and When the Devil Holds the Candle.

I think I enjoy reading detective novels from other cultures because I like hunting for insights into other countries’ fears. Though these two Fossum books are quite different stylistically, they have a common motif: physical and psychological problems and imperfections that lie below the facades of our skin, clothes, and homes. A blurb from The New York Times Book Review about Don’t Look Back put it this way: “There’s no mistaking this psychologically astute, subtly horrifying crime study for a cozy village mystery.” Indeed! Both these books are set in the clean, orderly Norway I remember from visits, and Don’t Look Back mentions Legoland, cod sprats, Vigeland Sculpture Park, and Sigrid Undset. But Fossum’s books definitely aren’t advertising the beauty of Norwegian fjords...

Don’t Look Back starts off as if it’s a book about a kidnapping: Raymond, a young man with Down syndrome, picks up a small girl and takes her to his house. He brings her home unharmed but she and Raymond saw a teenage girl’s corpse during a walk. Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre investigate. Socially, Sejer is a fairly typical criminal inspector: he’s a somewhat lonely widower whose large dog keeps him company. He adores his little grandson.

Fossum excels at showing sinister currents beneath the town’s quiet surface: a strange neighbor who sleeps in a quirky bed, an odd rug salesman, and the sad family histories of the dead girl and her boyfriend. It’s very telling – both for Sejer, in solving the case, and for the reader interested in local mores – that the dead girl learned something unpleasant by looking through a neighbor’s window. There’s peeping though real and metaphorical windows in When the Devil Holds the Candle, too, but it’s a very different type of novel: we know from the book’s early chapters what happened to a missing man named Andreas.

The good-looking Andreas, who sometimes works as a nude model for a local artist, and his friend Zipp (for the zipper on his tight jeans) are petty criminals who’ve barely grown out of the “juvenile” category. Their trouble starts when they need beer money and steal the purse of a woman pushing a baby carriage. That crime goes bad, as does an attempt to rob an older woman in her home; Andreas disappears. The reader knows where Andreas is, thanks to a first-person narrative delivered by a disturbed mind, but many of the characters have no clue.

I write “many of the characters” because Fossum shows us several critical lapses: one belongs to the police and Zipp, of course, is terrified to say much about the evening’s events because he doesn’t want to get into trouble himself. Plus he has strange feelings about something he learned from Andreas. Meanwhile, Sejer has doubts about his girlfriend, Sara, because he keeps thinking he smells hashish in his own apartment.

When the Devil Holds the Candle is oddly suspenseful, thanks to Fossum’s characters’ psychological depth and her gradual presentation of events. The contrast of the book’s parallel lines – Skarre and Sejer’s investigation, plus the inner thoughts of the crimes’ perpetrators – give the reader a feel for both police work and the (fictional) criminal mind. For me, the thoughts of criminals who control life and death are the ultimate mystery in detective novels, so I enjoyed watching how the guilty parties reacted when confronted with their own crimes. Another interesting plus: nobody is infallible here, and Fossum may let characters in both books get away with murder. Fossum’s books left me with the feeling I’d witnessed a silent scream: they leave an impression more similar to dark Edvard Munch paintings than Norwegian tourist brochures with lovely photos of sunny fjords.

Up next: I don’t know!

Satellite image of Norway, from NASA, via Wikipedia.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Calm in Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light

Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light is what I think of as a personal epic, a book about human goodness and love, told by a Mennonite couple, Will and Katherine Kiehn, who are missionaries in China during 1906-1933. Katherine provides medical care and Will offers sermons as they build a congregation in Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, which means City of Tranquil Light. Caldwell wrote the novel using material from the lives of her own grandparents.

City of Tranquil Light focuses primarily on describing survival – there are threats from illness, drought, politics, and bandits – and it’s very engaging, thanks to Caldwell’s skill at hearing and conveying Will and Katherine’s voices. Caldwell tells the Kiehns’ stories through two types of first-person narrative: Will is the primary storyteller, and Caldwell works in entries from Katherine’s diary that complement Will’s accounts. Will frames their stories about China by saying that he is, in the present time, living alone in the U.S., after Katherine’s death, in a home for retired missionaries. Caldwell aptly conveys the emotions of expats, including the Kiehns’ difficulties readjusting to the U.S. after many years overseas.

The Kiehns’ voices are gentle, and their religion calms them when they are impatient or angry. The Kiehns are generally so low-key in discussing their beliefs, which are linked to God but expressed more in terms of goodness, forgiveness, and redemption, that even I, a reader without religious ties, usually (with a big exception I’ll mention below) felt able to identify with them.

Though the novel was absorbing, my selfish side sometimes wished the Kiehns had been a little less, well, tranquil. [Mild spoiler alert] I thought the best parts of the book involved the most conflict-ridden episodes for Will: after Will has a very difficult stretch at home, a bandit holds him captive, forcing Will, who is not a doctor, to provide medical treatment to the bandit’s son and “affiliates.” The bandit reappears later in the book, becoming its most interesting character.

I’ve long thought first-person narratives – particularly successful ones, such as this – are both a benefit and a curse. The benefit, of course, is a well-told story where I feel like the narrator is sitting next to me and speaking. But the curse is that a good narrator, a narrator who stays in character, tells only the stories he wants to tell, the way he wants to tell them. Caldwell’s tremendous ability to hear voices means Will speaks only of what would seem natural for a real-life Will Kiehn to speak of. It’s a minor and selfish point, but I sometimes felt a little removed from the Kiehns’ surroundings, wanting to learn more about, say, character traits of Chinese colleagues or even what went into some of their meals.

I had more difficulty relating to Will’s ability to accept God’s will. (Or perhaps God’s Will?) Will’s acceptance is a crucial element of the book’s tranquility and its unrelenting – and, yes, refreshing – focus on goodness and devotion, but it left me feeling a little empty when I closed the book. I feel ungrateful writing that because City of Tranquil Light read smoothly, never lost my attention, and succeeds beautifully on its own terms… but I think I’m more partial to books that involve more intense internal conflict, questioning, and even, yes, rebellion.

Bonus: The mentions of noodles in City of Tranquil Light got me craving ants on a tree, a ground pork and noodle dish that my mother used to cook when I was a kid. Here’s a recipe that’s very similar to hers. I realized too late that my package of noodles was thin brown rice stick noodles instead of cellophane noodles, but it was still good, particularly leftover for lunch the next day.

Up Next: Karen Fossum’s Don’t Look Back.

Thank you very much to Henry Holt and Company for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of City of Tranquil Light.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Buttoning up That “Overcoat” in The Ambassador

Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador (Sendiherrann in the original Icelandic) is a peculiarly entertaining book that might not sound very intriguing in a brief summary: a divorced Icelandic poet who works as an apartment building super travels to Lithuania to represent Iceland at a poetry conference. During the course of the novel, Sturla Jón Jónsson buys and loses an expensive overcoat, is accused of plagiarism, meets a Belarusian poetess, and drinks a lot.

The Ambassador isn’t my perfect book – it feels a bit longer than it should be, with a few too many flashbacks and memories of things like a childhood road trip and Sturla’s own children – but it’s a fun novel about originality and art, thanks to translator Lytton Smith’s rendition of Ólafsson’s humor. Sturla also manages to work himself into awkward, mildly absurd situations, like not getting onto the bus to go to the conference and stubbornly perpetuating lies. I found him an oddly sympathetic character, despite some alarmingly stupid decisions.

The Ambassador caught me in its first pages, during Sturla’s expedition to buy an overcoat at Aquascutum. The coat costs more than Sturla seems to be able to spend, reminding me of the clerk Akaky Akakevich, from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (on my Russian blog here). Ólafsson drops Gogol’s name, too, confirming that my suspicions about a Gogol influence were grounded. As in Gogol’s story, an overcoat is stolen, and Sturla borrows another poet’s poetry, a practice that isn’t too many steps away from Akaky Akakevich’s job as a copy clerk. All of which means that Ólafsson borrows themes and plot turns from Gogol, displaying Gogol’s influence on his own fiction… which is largely about influence. Everyone takes something from predecessors.

Ólafsson links his coat and book themes in another way, too, when he compares Sturla’s waterproof overcoat’s fabric to “a laminated dust jacket” at the very beginning of The Ambassador. Near the end of the novel, he compares the “waxy texture” that keeps a coat’s wearer dry to the protection a book’s dust jacket gives to writers. The title word “ambassador” has multiple meanings, too, including Sturla serving (sort of) as Iceland’s ambassador at the poetry conference.

There’s plenty more to enjoy in The Ambassador, particularly for readers who like – as I guess I do – novels about travelers who drink a lot, poets who like to go to conferences, and the peculiarities of the former Soviet Union. Besides, I have to think that any Icelandic novel with a character from Minsk has something going for it.

A big thank you to Open Letter's Chad Post, who is always a great source of information about new translations, for sending me a review copy of The Ambassador.

An excerpt of The Ambassador is available here.

Up next: Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Dreams.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall got off to a rough start for this reader. I don’t mean to sound like a snarky nitpicker, but my first minutes of reading hit two irritants:

Page One, Problem One: Gimmicky Nickname. The first line of By Nightfall is: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” The second line is: “‘Are you mad about Mizzy?’ Rebecca says.”

The Mistake (Mizzy) has a real name – Ethan – and he’s Rebecca’s younger brother. Sure, he’s a problem adult-child – he’s been in rehab for drugs and has no career – who was born late in his parents’ lives. Maybe I’m the one with “issues.” And maybe I should transfer my dislike for the name on to Rebecca not Cunningham, but the nickname felt a little gimmicky and cheap to use in the book’s first lines.

Page Two, Problem Two: Use of Earwormy & Awful ‘70s Song Lyrics. I don’t like Styx and have never liked Styx, so the two lines from a Styx song that go through the head of Peter, Rebecca’s husband, on the second page of the book nearly gave me as queasy a stomach as Peter has when the lyrics churn. I’d feel sick, too, if I were remembering that in a NY cab! The Styx lyrics felt cheap and easy, too, like shorthand for a corner of Peter’s taste and generation (he’s about my age). Or maybe Styx is an indication that the reader is about to enter a banality-filled version of Hell? (To reveal the song, click here.)

Despite that traumatic start, I finished reading the book. Though I thought some passages were good, it’s probably obvious that By Nightfall isn’t a favorite. By Nightfall is, essentially, a book about midlife (a.k.a. existential) crisis. Peter, the ill-at-ease taxi passenger remembering Styx, is a New York City art dealer who questions his work, marriage, and life purpose, and remembers his brother Matthew, who died of AIDS. Peter’s wife, Rebecca, edits an art journal. Ethan is Rebecca’s wayward and good-looking brother; he comes to visit because he thinks he might want to work in art, too. I think it’s safe to say that aesthetics and brands are important to Peter and Rebecca. Oh, and their daughter Bea has “issues” with Peter, which makes Peter feel guilty.

By Nightfall is the kind of book that made me want to yell “Get over yourself!” at the characters. I have no problem with unappealing characters – this week’s book on Lizok’s Bookshelf is narrated by a manipulative woman who’s more unpleasant than the introspective Peter – but I don’t enjoy spending time with them if their creators don’t let them show me anything new. And that’s the problem with By Nightfall: there’s not much freshness or conflict until the final quarter or third of the book, when Ethan’s visit becomes a catalyst for Peter to (re)consider his life and relationships. (I won’t reveal particulars…)

What’s most unfortunate is that much of the material near the end of the book is quite decent, leading me to think that By Nightfall could have been a very good short story or novella if most of the worn-out background details had come out. It was Ethan’s visit and his interactions with Peter that caught my interest, not all the endless, tired details of Peter’s work, art deals, or apartment. I love the outsider-wreaks-havoc-on-everyday-life model and wanted it to kick in many pages earlier.

My favorite lines in the book come from Ethan, who doesn’t sound like a mistake when he tells Peter that he, Ethan, is ordinary, not brilliant, exceptional, or spiritual. Ethan can accept that but he isn’t sure the people around him – his family, who always follow him into crisis – can. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but it seems that Peter comes to appreciate the beauty of ordinariness and imperfection at the end of the novel… rather like how one of his artists transforms regular people into superheroes.

For More: Sam Sacks’s not-very-favorable (and quite apt) review in The Wall Street Journal has spoilers and specifics. has a mixed but more favorable view, here, also with more details. I’m happy to leave discussion of the literary allusions to them… the allusions were painfully obvious in the book, though a little mysterious since I’ve read so little Mann and Joyce. For my part, Peter’s stomach and existential problems reminded me of Sartre’s Nausea, which I think is due for a reread.

Up Next: Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador, a genial novel about an Icelandic poet. He’s just arrived in Lithuania for a poetry festival…

Disclosure: I received a review copy of By Nightfall at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux booth at Book Expo America. Thank you!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Keeps Things Fall Apart Together

Every now and then I feel almost indifferent to a book as long as I’m reading it… but don’t close the book when I finish the last page because I’m ready to go back to the beginning, to revisit and analyze. These books tend to stay with me. Such is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which combines vivid detail of Igbo (or Ibo) tradition with literary archetypes to describe religious and cultural transitions that came to Nigerian life through colonization.

There are plenty of online summaries of Things Fall Apart – such as this one on Wikipedia and this one on ImageNations, a blog about African literature – so I’ll focus primarily on a few motifs I found most interesting. I know some of you have read the book so would love to hear your thoughts about favorite passages and themes.

Express Summary (without revealing plot twists): Things Fall Apart describes the life of Okonkwo, a prosperous, hard-working, and angry yam farmer with three wives. Okonkwo is determined not to resemble his father, Unoka, who was “lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.” The first half of the novel depicts Okonkwo’s life at home and in his community, then Achebe broadens his settings and draws in missionaries and colonization.

Here’s a sampling of what struck me most:

Wrestling: Achebe mentions Okonkwo’s wrestling skill in the first paragraph of the book: “As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat… Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water.” Wrestling matches resurface later in the book, but I liked the use of wrestling as a metaphor for many types of struggles: between Okonkwo and his surroundings, between Igbo spirituality and Christianity, between masculine and feminine...

Masculine-Feminine: Okonkwo dislikes weakness and has such a preference for masculine over feminine that he often wishes his beloved daughter Ezinma were male. He looks back on his warrior days with nostalgia, saying “Those were days when men were men.” I thought one of the most interesting passages in the book was a mini-lecture from his maternal uncle, who tries to impress on Okonkwo the importance of a mother’s protection, mentioning that the commonest name is Nneka, which means “Mother is Supreme.” Okonkwo doesn’t seem too impressed.

Tragic Flaws & Archetypes: Though Okonkwo’s tragic flaws are obvious – all that pride, anger, and violence! – he has a positive side, too, in his loyalty, work ethic, and ability to support his large family. The ambiguities in Okonkwo, as a character, often parallel ambiguities in his culture.

Oral Traditions & Spirituality: Achebe begins invoking oral tradition and folk themes on the novel’s first page, where he mentions that the founder of Okonkwo’s town “engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.” He later includes an untranslated song plus folk tales told at night in the family’s huts and among friends. There is also talk about slavery that shows interesting attitudes toward storytelling. Initially, nobody thought the stories were true, and Okonkwo’s uncle comments, “There is no story that is not true. The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.” Also: Near the end of the book, after Christianity has begun to take hold, I was interested to see an example of dual belief: a woman is suspended from church for allowing “her heathen husband to mutilate her dead child” in a traditional ritual.

Things Falling Apart: When Okonkwo discusses the disintegration of his culture with a friend, the friend tells him:

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act as one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Up next: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which incorporates lyrics from Styx on page two. *cringe!*

Image credit: Scartol, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Carlotto’s Bandit Love & Sofer’s Septembers

Massimo Carlotto’s noirish Bandit LoveL’amore del bandito in the original Italian – is a fast-moving detective novel with sociopolitical themes. Marco Buratti (a.k.a. The Alligator), an ex-con and unlicensed investigator, narrates; Antony Shugaar’s translation gives him a dry sense of humor. The book opens with the kidnapping of a belly dancer, the girlfriend of Buratti’s smuggler friend Beniamino Rossini. Rossini is heartbroken. To oversimplify: Burrati, Rossini, and Max La Memoria, who co-owns a bar with Burrati, look for her. They also look into the theft of 44 kilos of narcotics that had been stored at a lab, apparently for analysis.

Carlotto’s spare prose enables him to work plenty of characters – such as a cocaine-dependent call girl who proves helpful to Burrati in multiple ways – and plot twists into 180 pages. I found Carlotto’s approach to characterization refreshing: his combination of bits of back story and a few habits creates people who seem real but doesn’t stall the story with TMI. Max, for example, loves to cook, and the Alligator loves the blues and Calvados. The book made me thirsty for Calvados and hungry for gnocchi, and I will take Max’s advice and never roll oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes in prosciutto.

These guys may be violent but they’re also softies, and they observe special moral codes in a book containing ample doses of seediness, corruption, and New European organized crime. Carlotto intentionally places his characters in situations that reflect 21st-century news and reality. He discusses the strategy for his Alligator series (of which Bandit Love is not the first) in an article on the Europa Editions site; it initially appeared in a Greek magazine, then in Mystery Readers Journal. Carlotto concludes:

“People today feel betrayed; they no longer believe the truths handed to them by a State that has proved itself dishonest. And in this literary genre they find a source of truth and information. Naturally, the literary quality of each individual novel is immensely important. It is not enough to plot an important story; one must also know how to write it.”

I’m sure Carlotto’s own experiences contribute to his desire and ability to write crime novels that address social issues: I also read The Fugitive, his memoir of life on the run after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Carlotto describes, with surprising humor, his elaborate disguises, life in Mexico, loneliness, and the horrible effects of fugitive life on his health. The Alligator hides out, too, and his loneliness – and description of friendships – felt especially genuine because I knew Carlotto had survived far, far worse. Bandit Love reads quickly, but it left me with a surprisingly strong melancholy feeling… just what I like from noir. I’m looking forward to reading more of Carlotto’s novels.

Also… Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz, a novel about Iran after the overthrow of the Shah, left me less satisfied, though I’d looked forward to it thanks to positive reviews and an interest in Iran. Sofer shifts her book’s action between members of a family: Isaac, a jeweler who has built a considerable business and is arrested at the start of the book; his wife Farnaz, who waits for him to come home; their young daughter Shirin, who begins to understand political danger and does something very brave; and their son Parviz, who lives in Brooklyn and begins working for his Hasidic landlord after rent money from Iran stops coming.

Much of the book felt familiar – I’ve read a lot about political repression in the Soviet Union – but the novel never quite jelled for me. I’m not quite sure why, though it’s easy to say that poor Parviz felt literally and literarily marooned in Brooklyn… but a convenient device for Sofer to convey the family’s relationship (and future?) with its Jewish heritage. Farnaz felt real but she seemed more linked to comforts and possessions than ideas, so her chapters felt a little empty. I thought Shirin, who keeps big secrets and has difficulty adjusting to the new Iranian reality, overshadowed everyone else. I wish Sofer had given her more ink.

For more:

Disclosure: Thank you to Europa Editions for giving me copies of Mossimo Carlotto’s books at Book Expo America, where I enjoyed speaking with Europa about their translations. Bandit Love will be released on September 28, and The Fugitive was published in 2007.

Up next: I don’t know…

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Neither Hot Nor Cold: Russian Winter

Daphne Kalotay rolls lots of recognizably Russian motifs into her debut novel, Russian Winter: ballet (the Bolshoi, no less), amber jewelry, poetry and poets, secrets, and wariness among friends. Russian Winter’s main character, Nina Revskaya, connects them all.

In the novel’s historical track, set in Stalin-era Moscow, Nina is a Bolshoi Ballet ballerina whose poet husband gives her jewelry. Wariness comes in through arrests and informants. In the novel’s contemporary track, Nina has retired in Boston and donated her jewels for an auction to raise money for the Boston Ballet. Through the auction, Nina meets Drew, a divorced auction house employee, and re-encounters Grigori, a widower and Russian émigré who was adopted at birth and never knew the identity of his birth parents. Grigori, a professor, also translated Nina’s husband’s poetry.

I didn’t love Russian Winter – much of the characterization and plot felt as predictably worn and creaky to me as Nina’s aged joints – but I did find the book fairly absorbing. It lived up to the “page-turner” description on the front flap of the book that HarperCollins sent to me, though I was disappointed that Russian Winter felt more plotted than organic, as if Kalotay carefully meted out details to keep the reader interested in learning her characters’ secrets.

Thanks to my interest in Russia, I found the chapters in Moscow more compelling than the chapters in Boston, though some material felt more like it came from Kalotay’s research than her characters. (Notes at the end of the book confirmed my suspicions.) I thought some of the lowest-key Russian scenes – like night swimming at the dacha – were the best in the book. In Boston, I had no interest in jewelry auction details and I tired of Nina’s crankiness. That’s not to say it felt unnatural: Nina is essentially housebound, and her curmudgeonliness almost made her seem like a native New Englander.

Russian Winter is filled with romantic, professional, familial, adversarial, and Platonic relationships, and I think Kalotay is at her best focusing on characters’ loyalties and trust during the Stalin era, demonstrating how doubt poisoned friendships and lives. She also shows plenty of beauty and kindnesses, as with certain telegrams that Nina’s mother sends. Perhaps best of all, Kalotay presents a sincere and sensitive portrayal of episodes, both light and heavy, in the lives of Nina and the people around her.

For more:

  • An excerpt from Russian Winter.
  • An interview with Daphne Kalotay here.
  • Library Journal loved Russian Winter: Review
  • Publisher Harper Collins organized a blog tour for Russian Winter. The previous post, a review, is on She Is Too Fond of Books here. Tomorrow’s post will an interview with the author on Bookin’ with Bingo. BTW, I noticed Bookin’ with Bingo has a review of Babushka’s Beauty Secrets: reading the review brought back memories of similar advice I heard when I lived in Russia.
  • My Russian literature blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf, has posts about books on related topics: Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers (very readable nonfiction about the Stalin era), my top 10 greatest hits of post-1917 Russian fiction, and Irina Grekova’s Ship of Widows (difficulties of communal apartment living). I wrote about Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, a much different kind of book about mistrust, on this blog, here.

Disclosure: Thank you very much to Harper Collins for providing me with an advance review copy of Russian Winter at my request. (I’d hoped to get an ARC signed at Book Expo America but arrived too late after getting stuck in traffic somewhere in sweltering Massachusetts!)

Up next: Dalia Sofer’s Septembers in Shiraz, which I found disappointing.

Photo of the interior of the Bolshoi Theater from AndreasPraefcke, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For: Shipwrecks

Akira Yoshimura’s short, dark novel Shipwrecks, translated by Mark Ealey, tells the story of several years in the life of a young boy, Isaku, who lives in an isolated Japanese village. Yoshimura’s storytelling has an ethnographic feel as he describes the hardships of life centuries ago: the villagers depend on the ocean for fish and salt, which they trade for grain in other towns. Varying catches make subsistence living so difficult that many people, including Isaku’s father, sell themselves into indentured labor to feed their families.

The village has another, more occasional and troubling, source of goods, though – the back cover of my paperback rightfully calls Shipwrecks a “Gothic tale.” Every winter, after a ritual involving a pregnant woman on a boat, villagers boil ocean water down to salt at night under raging fires stoked to entice ships to run aground. Then they take its cargo. I don’t want to reveal too much so will just say that Shipwrecks shows what happens when ignorance and poverty drive people to do too much to profit from the misfortune of others. The village itself feels a little like a wrecked ship.

Shipwrecks is bleak and spare, with little plot beyond basic survival. We see Isaku improve his fishing skills, learn to care for his family, and develop yearnings for a village girl. Yoshimura’s mentions of the beauty and harshness of nature – changes of seasons and annual runs of certain types of fish – parallel births, maturity, and deaths in the village. I thoroughly enjoyed Yoshimura’s depictions of the simple and cruel truths of everyday village life, particularly when the tone darkened and emotion intensified after the horrifying consequences of a second shipwreck.

(Beware: this Times review contains a lot of story detail.) Richard Bernstein’s very positive review of Shipwrecks, from The New York Times, July 24, 1996.

Up next: Russian Winter from Daphne Kalotay, then Dalia Sofer’s The September of Shiraz. I also just borrowed Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, a 2009 Booker Prize finalist, from the library…

Most intriguing reviews of the week: The first paragraph of Francine Prose’s New York Times Book Review review of Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key ends by saying the books “are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.” That’s a little strong -- hyperbolic, perhaps? -- but the books sound very good. I also like the sound of Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment, as described here on International Noir Fiction.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why Everything Matters!

Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters! is the first old-fashioned “you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry” book I’ve read in a long time. What could be more laughable or more cryable than a novel about the absurdity of the human condition, tricked out to fit Junior Thibodeau? Junior is born hearing a God-like voice that lets him in on all sorts of secrets, like the ultimate demise of Earth as we know it, by comet, about 36 years after his birth. Oh, heavy burden.

The wonder of Everything Matters! is that Currie makes the story, which includes mini-apocalypses, both fun and believable by letting his characters – including the slightly officious nearly omnipotent voice that informs Junior of everyone’s destruction – narrate the novel. The book’s polyphony shows how well Currie hears voices, too. Junior speaks about coping (or not) with his knowledge. Junior’s girlfriend, Amy, talks about Junior. My favorite narrator is Junior’s older brother, a superlative baseball player whose childhood cocaine addiction causes brain damage; the transcripts of his answers to his badgering therapist’s questions demonstrate his loyalty to his brother. Junior’s father, a laconic Mainer, talks about Vietnam, his family, and working in a bakery.

Currie uses plot details to connect their narrations, giving the novel a sense of continuity. Even more impressive, Currie infuses the title message with surprising freshness and emotion by showing how much Junior and his family care about each other, despite (or because of?) their difficulties. Though the book’s message sounds simplistic, Currie piles up moments, memories, and actions to create Junior’s personal microcosm of the “everything” in the title, without letting the novel feel too magpie-ish or cute. He even gives cameo appearances to real people, notably Ted Willams and Maine senator Olympia Snowe.

I think Everything Matters! works because the book feels so sincere and even traditional. Currie shows fantastic patience and balance: there’s plenty of alienation but he accentuates the positive sides of relationships instead of estrangement, and a twist toward the end says loads about the choices we make and our perceptions of the lives we live. The novel also has an authenticity I appreciate. Currie, a native Mainer, works in details of Maine life that show grittiness and dignity without letting the Thibodeau family’s problems descend into depressing naturalism or annoying quirkiness. Despite the prophesy, alcoholism, cocaine, and lack of money.

Currie’s work in progress, from which he read a few weeks ago at Longfellow Books in Portland, also seems to demonstrate an ability to balance interesting form with an emotional, very human story. I can’t wait to read it. (But please! Take your time, Ron!) I probably have a couple years to check out Currie’s debut book, God Is Dead, a collection of stories that won the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library. Everything Matters! won a 2010 Alex Award from the American Library Association and is being translated into many languages.

I’ve limited details in this post not because of a grand quest for blandness but because I was glad I didn’t know too much about Everything Matters! before I read it. If you want to read a very positive review and don’t mind knowing more, here’s Janet Maslin’s review from The New York Times. I think it qualifies as a rave.

Up next: Akira Yoshimura’s spare Shipwrecks and Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter.

Most intriguing review of the week: Murray Bail’s The Pages, here, in The New York Times Book Review. I enjoyed Bail’s Eucalyptus years ago and am interested in this take on Australia and philosophy.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Debuts: A Walk in Broken Glass Park, a Scratchy Gramophone, and Needy People in Suvanto

I seem to be on quite a debut novel streak this summer: this post discusses three, I just finished a fourth, and I’m now reading a fifth. I’ve always had an affection for debut novels because I think (or imagine?) there’s a unique energy in first novels, as if the writer is finally having a say about something important. I love seeing how new novelists handle all that papery space.

Though I don’t think any of the three novels in this post quite achieved what they might have, all three held my interest more than enough to want to finish them. (I am quick to dump anything I don’t like!) Even better, I would happily consider reading each author’s next novel.

Characterization, setting, and an energetic voice are Alina Bronsky’s tremendous strengths in Broken Glass Park, translated from the German by Tim Mohr. Seventeen-year-old Sascha tells why she wants to kill her former stepfather, who killed her mother. Sascha, her family and neighbors, and her run-down German apartment building felt so believable I thought I was with them, but the book’s strong positives had the unfortunate effect of emphasizing the novel’s slight weakness – a lack of forward narrative momentum.

I didn’t think Sascha’s anger and ideas about revenge were quite enough to sustain a novel. Plenty of things happen – a cousin comes to care for Sascha and her siblings, Sascha has sex, Sascha exacts a small revenge, and Sascha learns fear (or admits she learns fear) and has an epiphany about a neighbor – but the many episodes and the anticlimactic ending added up to a book that felt more like a portrait than a story with a narrative arc. Of course this isn’t inherently a bad thing, particularly in Broken Glass Park, which presents a compelling and vivid portrait of not just a person but of cultural and class differences, loyalties, and violence.

Bronsky said in an interview with Marie of Boston Bibliophile that she did no “special research” for Broken Glass Park: “The novel is based on my own experiences and observations.” This felt absolutely obvious to me because Bronsky didn’t cram the book with gratuitous or incongruous details that made me feel she wanted to get in all her research.

Then there is Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Many of Stanišić’s descriptions of childhood in Bosnia – such as a party to celebrate the opening of an indoor bathroom – combine humor, cultural specifics, and a sense of impending doom. Reminiscences of grandfathers are very strong, and scenes from the war are terrifying. Form and content are absolutely inseparable here: the narrative itself is as fractured as young Aleksandar’s life. I admire Stanišić’s eye for detail and the absurd, and recommend the book for that and its portrayal of the consequences of war, which Stanišić experienced. Though I liked the book, I thought its shattered structure often detracted from the story more than it reflected or supported it.

Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto feels like a lite mashup: an early 20th-century Nurse Ratched at the Hotel Overlook with the scent of cardamom rolls. I don’t mean to sound flippant: Suvanto is a novel about Sunny, an American nurse and control freak working at a remote Finnish hospital for women. Sunny works on a floor housing emotionally needy “up-patients,” essentially expat wives escaping their lives. Some, like Julia, a former ballroom dance instructor suffering from various female problems, have real physical “issues,” too.

Beyond that, Suvanto is, well, atmospheric; I usually think of “atmospheric” as shorthand for books with lots of weather, seasons, and (maybe) food but little plot. Such is Suvanto: there are mentions of Finnish character (quiet), Finnish cold and ice (Finns know when it’s safe), and Chapman includes some Finnish vocabulary, but I didn’t think the book felt inextricably tethered to Finland. I’m simplifying but, absent a few details, the setting might have been another northern place with ice and quiet people, say, northern Norway or Alaska. (Even my own Maine, where ice, Finnish heritage, the term “people from away,” and the desire for privacy are common, might fit.)

Chapman uses a mannered first-person plural narration and focuses on building up the arrival of Something Evil. The book culminates with several deaths, some mysterious, but little is resolved, and the identity of “we” isn’t revealed. My vote is that a patient is speaking for the group: reviewer Mary Whipple reminded me that Chapman mentions Euripides’s “The Bacchae.” I’ll leave that topic to Whipple’s post, particularly since she includes photos of the sanatorium Chapman visited and used as a model for the place in her book.

Other (re)views:

  • Boston Bibliophile wrote about Broken Glass Park here.
  • Complete Review on Broken Glass Park here.
  • Europa Editions has a PDF sample chapter of Broken Glass Park here.
  • The Black Sheep Dances posted a favorable review of Suvanto here.
  • The New York Times Book Review on Suvanto here.
  • An excerpt of Suvanto is here.

All three books came to me from their publishers: Europa Editions gave me a signed copy of Broken Glass Park at Book Expo America. Grove Press sent me a copy of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Graywolf Press gave me a copy of Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto at Book Expo America. Thank you to all! (Disclosure: I’ve met all these publishers at BEA and asked them about their interest in translated fiction.)

Up next: Yes, it’s more debut novels: Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter then Ron Currie, Jr.’s Everything Matters!.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Grip of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

I’ll be absolutely transparent: I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. With its existentialist themes, clear characters, convincing narrative voice, and moral questions, this is my kind of fiction. The additions of an eerie parallel world – you could consider it dystopian, I guess – and a human view of biomedical ethics put it way over the top.

Never Let Me Go is a novel on a very long, very slow fuse. Yes, Ishiguro mentions something cryptic about carers and donors at the start, but the first 75-100 pages of this first-person narrative feel most remarkable for feeling fairly unremarkable. A woman, Kathy, reminisces about life and friends from boarding school, often focusing on small incidents that affected their relationships. The students sound sheltered, and some of the rules at the school seem a little odd.

When I look back, what felt most remarkable to me at the start is that so much chat about not so much held my interest. I already knew the book’s secret, which I will mention below, after a warning, but Ishiguro gave me just enough to hang on to that I didn’t consider skipping or skimming to get to the good part. Beyond creating a credible, colloquial female voice that I never doubted, he adeptly works in objects and themes – a cassette related to the title, child art – that become more and more important toward the end of the book but don’t seem contrived.

Warning: I will now discuss specifics of the book. Part of what I admire so much about Never Let Me Go is that it made me feel very uncomfortable. Ishiguro presents an England in which cloned children are created and raised to serve as donors who provide body parts to “normals” until they, the donors, “complete.”

The premise behind the cloning is, of course, repugnant, and the guardians at Kathy’s school hide much of the truth from the children. They fear the children but also collect the children’s art to prove they have souls. During their years between school and their forced careers – first as carers for donors, then as donors – some of the students look for “possibles,” their originals, to try to learn about their identities.

They also wonder about ways out. Though they seem passive and have been raised to believe they are special and doing something good, they perpetuate rumors that deferrals from donorship are possible if they are in love. Kathy and Tommy, a student who has been intuitively angry all his life about his future and has already made multiple donations, take their request for a deferral to Madame, the former head of their school, Hailsham. The rumors aren’t true.

Kathy and Tommy’s discussion with Madame and one of their former teachers is beyond sad. Madame calls them “poor creatures,” adding “I wish I could help you. But now you’re by yourselves.” Another former guardian says she dreaded the children every day. The behavior of Kathy and Tommy is far more human, more soulful, than that of the “normal” guardians, who avoided the truth and were part of a system that perpetuates using their former students for body parts, to put off the completions of normals.

Ishiguro returns again and again to loss in Never Let Me Go, mentioning lost physical objects and lost lives. Perhaps the biggest losses for Kathy, Tommy, and their friend Ruth, though, are the underpinnings of what make us human: free will, the mystery of death, and the illusion of mortality that comes with youth and love. Denying the deferrals – a reprieve to simply live – felt especially cruel. That cruelty is one reason why Never Let Me Go still won’t let me go, even though I finished it several weeks ago. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth aren’t so different from us normals – we also want love, deferrals, and illusions of immortality to enliven us before we complete.

Beyond that, I used to write about biotechnology, including techniques involving cloning. About nine summers ago, I heard Michael West, then president of Advanced Cell Technology, speak about human cloning, including reproductive cloning. The setting was a dinner at a biotech conference, and the tables were decorated with candles and shells. Most of the electric lights were off, and the room flickered and glowed. West spoke about Osiris, letters he’d received from distraught people whose loved ones had died, and extending life. It probably doesn’t sound like much here, but everything about that talk felt so otherworldly – somewhere between séance and science – that I still shiver when I think about it, even now, on another warm night. Never Let Me Go is at least as eerie, but it is literature that is beautifully conceived, and it is achingly timeless and timely.

Never Let Me Go contains simple language that would make it a great choice for nonnative readers of English.

For more:

Sarah Kerr’s review for The New York Times Book Review

Michiko Kakutani’s review for The New York Times

Up next: Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, and Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

Photo credit: "Old tape" from tulp, via