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.