The Gamble; Or, Thoughts on Afterwords and Forewords

In the past two days, I’ve read two challenging novels in translation. I say challenging because, first, their style made it hard to get into a reading groove and, second, they come from very different places and times from my own. Because of the second challenge, the publishers and translators included an afterword (Swallowing Mercury) and a foreword (Judgment). These two approaches to helping a reader understand the contexts of these books got me to thinking about what an ideal supplement would look like—at least for me.

James Charles

Most of the time, I prefer to go into a book knowing just a few specifics about the plot and nothing more. Occasionally, I might seek out a longer review or look a classic up on Wikipedia if I can’t figure the book out on my own. I like going in mostly blind because I want to be able to make my own impressions. Once I read a convincing argument for how a book should be read, I have a hard time shaking it.

With an afterword, I learn about the author’s context, inspiration, etc. when I’ve finished the book. I don’t even have to worry about accidentally learning things by skimming through the foreword. This worked beautifully when I read Swallowing Mercury, I suppose because I knew just enough about 1980s Poland to catch references. The afterword did deepen my understanding of the stories but in an “Oh, that’s interesting” kind of way rather than a “You completely read this wrong” way.

Judgment comes with a foreword that discussed the author’s biography, his experiments with Yiddish writing, and some explicated scenes from the novel. I skipped it and read the book…And I got lost. The book was dense with subtext that I mostly missed the first time around. The experimental style threw me off repeatedly. After I read the foreword, a lot more made sense.

All of this leads me to the gamble a reader has to make when they run into a book with additional material. Do you take the risk of not knowing what’s really going on in an attempt to make your own reading of a novel? Or do you read the supplemental material and have things spelled out for you? Even with my general bewilderment in reading Judgment, I think I still prefer to keep the blinders on until I finish. The few times I read the additions, I remember waiting for scenes like I wait for the twist in novels. It really did feel like someone told me the whole story in advance and I got bored. All the tension was gone. I would rather be a bit lost than bored.

Judgment, by David Bergelson

33931727Originally published in Yiddish by David Bergelson in 1929, this newly translated (by Harriet Murov and Sasha Senderovich) version of Judgment is a chilling set of connected stories about the inhabitants of a shtetl in western Ukraine who live very close to an outpost of the Chekathe Bolshevik secret police. The novel jumps from character to character, creating a fitting sense of chaos as revolutionaries, rebels, and reactionaries fight over every scrap of territory.

According to the foreword, Bergelson was a cutting edge Yiddish writer, keen to incorporate Modernism into a literature that mostthen and nowassociate mostly with folklore. Bergelson’s experimentalism is in full view in Judgment. Time is hard to keep track of. Tales slide into on another just like the characters do; one minute, you’ll be reading about a socialist revolutionary who got caught by the Bolsheviks and the next you’ll be reading about his cellmates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are characters who appear throughouta blonde who travels with a child and two mysterious cases, the injured but harshly committed captain of the Cheka, the aforementioned socialist revolutionarybut I couldn’t say that Judgment is any of their stories, really. Rather, Judgment is about a tangle of people who lived near the border between Ukraine and Poland at a particularly bloody moment in history.

The Modernist elements make for difficult reading. It’s hard to know what or who to focus on. It’s impossible to predict where the narration is going to go next and Judgment reads like a much grimmer (and fictional) history-in-moments than Teffi’s MemoriesIn a sense, this very much captures the destruction and turmoil of the post-Revolution Civil War. At the beginning of the novel, most characters are either trying to flee or make money off of the people fleeing. Things aren’t all that bad yet, but then the local Cheka start to round up anyone even associated with anti-Bolshevik activity and a group of violent rebels swing through. By the end of Judgment, it seems like all of the members of the shtetl are now in prison, dead, or missing.

Having read Judgment and, a very long time, The Zelmenyaners, I feel like I have another piece of the Russian literature puzzle. I’ve read the heavy classic work of Tolstoy, the surreal Gogol, the light and fluffy Teffi, the surreal Bulgakov, the blunt and sometimes vulgar Babel, and the deeply affecting Pasternak and Vasily Grossman. Judgment comes from a blend of the avant-garde and the traditional. I’m not sure what to make of it yet. What I know now is that Russian literature is a lot more diverse than many literature teachers would have us think.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 September 2017.

Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

34146925The stories in Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak into crisp British English) offer glimpses into the life of a girl coming of age in the last decade of communist Poland. In the small Silesian village of Herkaty, the larger world barely intrudes into the narrator’s world. There are only the slightest allusions to the Solidarity movement or shortages. The narrator’s family’s Catholic faith and folk medicine, as well as World War II, loom larger than anything that might be happening in the big cities.

Over the course of the stories in this collection, we see our narrator—also named Wioletta—transition from a blissfully clueless child who captures may flies and cries over a lost cat to a tough young woman who has learned to turn her hand to any occupation that might earn the family money and get out of situations with overly amorous neighbors. (The stories in which Wioletta dodges sexual abuse may be triggering for some readers.) By the end of the collection, there is little joy or whimsy left in Wioletta.

One of the stories, “Masters of Scrap,” can be read as the collection in miniature. In this story, Wioletta and her classmates are given the task of collecting scrap metal from all over the town for their school. They start with the easy pickings before escalating to stealing useful bits from people’s houses and properties. In the end, they lose it all in a mishap with a cart, a quarry, and a friend in jeopardy. The story swiftly moves from good dutifulness to apathetic resignation.

“Unripe” affected me the most of all the stories. This story captures the sorrow Wioletta and her family feel after Wioletta’s father, Rysiu, dies of a heart attack. His death leaves a large emotional hole in the extended family. After returning from camp, our narrator reaches out to hold her father’s hand one more time and sees his life in flashes. These flashes show Wioletta how a life of hardship, physical labor, and war shaped Rysiu.

A reader might have expected “Neon Over Jupiter,” the last story, to include a sense of hopefulness. After all, coming of age narratives usually end with a sense of leaving the past behind to move into the bright future. This story has none of that. Instead, Wioletta is tempted to run away with her glue-huffing sort-of boyfriend before changing her mind when she sees him passed out at the bus stop. She ends up slouching home, back into the past.

By the end of this collection of short stories, I was left with an impression of a young girl who has learned to shift for herself in a little town without resources. I’ve been left with a melancholy impression of a dead end life for our narrator. We have no clue what Wioletta will do in her adult life. There are certainly few opportunities for anything other than a life of the hardscrabble poverty she, her parents, and her grandparents grew up with. Wioletta’s life can almost be read as a rebuke to the narrative of hope after decades of communist rule. Far away, things are happening that might make life better for Poles—but very little of those changes have touched our narrator’s life or the lives of the rural poor.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen

32895284Thomas Mullen’s sequel to DarktownLightning Men, made for uncomfortable but illuminating reading on the day of and day after the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this novel, Atlanta, Georgia’s first African American police officers get caught in the literal and figurative crossfire of blockbusting, white flight, the Ku Klux Klan, moonshine and marijuana smuggling, police corruption, and their own doubts about their ability to do their jobs in the face of persistent racism. Lightning Men gives readers a close up view of the ugliness of white racism in 1950—while the news gave me a look at the 2017 version.

Lightning Men centers on a trio of officers. Officer Lucius Boggs and Officer Thomas Smith are two of the new African American officers hired two years previously when city hall caved to popular pressure. Officer Denny Rakestraw is a white officer who tries to be progressive, but has faced a lot of social and familial pressure to toe the line in terms of race relations. The narrative bounces back and forth between the three men as a series of violent incidents—a drug drop off gone wrong, two beatings attributed to the Klan, etc.—erupt in rapid succession. At first, it looks like they’re all pursuing separate crimes but, as we learn more from various informants, the crimes start to look more like ripples from one big crime or overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.

I was a little frustrated at first, because I wasn’t sure how everything was going to fit together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together and I was deeply irritated at the way all three seemed to be barreling on individually, instead of working together once things started to coalesce. But once Lightning Men hit its stride, I started to appreciate the realism of this messy mystery. This novel is not a traditionally structured mystery. Rather, it’s a book that shows readers the deep divisions in mid-century Atlanta and the forces that worked to keep those divisions in place.

Once the players in the various conspiracies are all introduced (which doesn’t happen in full until a third of the way through the book), Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are all privately digging into what happened on nights when both black and white men were attacked and beaten or killed. Boggs and Smith are trying to work out what’s going on with two rival smuggling operations in the black parts of town. Smith is also trying to help his brother-in-law and sister, who just moved into a previously all-white neighborhood, after his brother-in-law is almost beaten to death. Rakestraw, meanwhile, is trying to help his own brother-in-law, who gets into serious trouble trying to do favors for a man who says he’s a Klansman. I’m being deliberately vague, because the truth is a lot more devious.

As the novel rolled on, I wanted to yell at all three of the men for not working together. It never occurs to them to share information because the black officers and the white officer are mistrustful of each other. Much of this distrust comes from previous experience but, the longer things go on, the distrust also comes from the way the officers start to take the law into their own hands to either cover up family involvement or because there won’t be consequences for the criminals otherwise.

Racist sign posted in Detroit, 1942
(Via Wikimedia)

Once I started to understand the sprawling plot of Lightning Men and its characters, I started to appreciate the novel a lot more. Unlike most mysteries, which have a fairly simple arc of detectives tracking down a single criminal or small group of conspirators, Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are taking on large, established groups of criminals. Rakestraw also has to deal with the fearful fragility of his white neighbors because, the longer African American families live in their part of the city, the more likely those neighbors are to do something tragically violent.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Lightning Men as such, but I can say that I was very interested in the way the novel builds on itself as the plot expands and the backstory deepens. Perhaps the book resonated with me so much because I was reading it while Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists fought with counter protesters this weekend. At any rate, Lightning Men serves as a keen reminder that American racism has a long, ugly, hateful tradition and that we still have a lot of work to do rooting it out and destroying it.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

Hame, by Annalena McAfee

American cover

A house is a building. An address is a geographic location. But a home is something more than these. In Hame, by Annalena McAfee, is a blend of literary academic novel and long meditation on home and belonging to a place. Hame looks at two people who come to the remote (fictional) Hebridean island of Fascaray. One is a fiercely Scottish poet who champions the Scots language* and all things Scottish, especially his beloved Fascaray. The other is a Scottish Canadian scholar who is responsible for setting up a museum to the poet’s memory. The poet is very clear about who he is and what he stands for. The academic…not so much. Over the course of this novel, we see how a house can become or fail to become a hame.

Hame is a book for academics. Brief chapters relate the day-to-day work of Mhairi McPhail, who has returned to her ancestral island of Fascaray to set up a museum for the “Bard of Fascaray,” the crotchety poet Grigor McWatt. Other chapters come from McWatt’s The Fascaray Compendium, a journal of flora, fauna, history, language, and gossip from the island. There are also chapters from McPhail’s book about McWatt and McWatt’s “poetry”—which are almost all translations of English poems into Scots. (These are fun to read, at least the little bits I can understand. Mostly, though, they’re incomprehensible unless you understand Scots.) Readers who feel at home (ha!) with both fiction and nonfiction will be comfortable with Hame. Readers who want a more traditional novel might get a bit bored with the more academic sections. Readers who wanted a more truthful tale might be frustrated by the fake citations.

What fascinated me most about Hame—apart from all the Scots words**—was the tension between the poet and the scholar. McWatt is absolutely himself. He will fight anyone who besmirches the reputation of his chosen language and country. He’s a nationalist. He wants nothing about his island to change and will write up a storm to keep developers and politicians and billionaires from despoiling it. McPhail, on the other hand, is coming out of a bad break up. She has doubts that she’s the right person for her job. She has questions about the gaps in McWatt’s life. She also has a young daughter that she worries she has uprooted. Her accent is posh British because a teacher worked very hard to rid her of her Scottish one. She sounds and feels very much like an outsider in the very small community of Fascaray. The two are almost polar opposites and their juxtaposition raises all kinds of questions about who we are. Are we who our parents and childhoods made us? Or is it possible to reinvent oneself?

British cover, which I like better.

Unsurprising for a book about homes and identity, Hame has a strong sense of place. McWatt’s Compendium (which several characters cite as evidence of hypergraphia) is so full of detail that I could clearly picture the towns, moors, and forests of Fascaray and its smaller twin, Calasay. I also got to know a fair few of the islands inhabitants, as they appear in both McPhail’s chapters as she interviews people for memories of McWatt, and McWatt’s chapters about the history of the island.

I had two problems with Hame, however. First, the way that Mhairi treats her daughter really bothered me. Second, I feel that the ending is too fast and unearned. There is a great twist near the end of the book that I don’t think was fully explored—which I found curious considering that almost every other topic in the book is explored in great detail.

Apart from my two issues with the novel, I quite enjoyed it. I loved the languages of the book, both English and Scots. McWatt’s vocabulary is incredibly rich and his translations are fun to try and puzzle out. (I am an unabashed word nerd.) I also enjoyed the idea at the heart of this novel that one might be able to completely transform oneself with enough confidence and enough self-knowledge. In Hame, completely transforming oneself means becoming one’s true self, the person we might be in our heart of hearts.

As a fun bonus, Annalena McAfee partnered with Callum Rae to record a version of McWatt’s song, “Hame tae Fascaray,” and make a music video.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

* There is no clear definition of what is a language and what is a dialect. I usually go by mutual intelligibility. Since I can’t understand most of the Scots words in Hame, I’m calling it a language.
** Thankfully, there is an extensive glossary at the end of the book.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb

32620367The Unquiet Grave is another entry in Sharyn McCrumb’s long bibliography in which the author takes an Appalachian folk tale and turns the story into a novel. Here, she shows the depth and breadth of her research in telling the story of Zona Heaster Shue, the Greenbriar Ghost. This book has some very good characterization, but I feel there were missed opportunities, as well as a lot of repetitive text that needed to be edited out.

While The Unquiet Grave opens with James Gardner, an African American lawyer who defended Zona’s husband during his murder trial, the heart of this book is Mary Jane Heaster, Zona’s mother. The way she tells it, Mary Jane always knew Edward Shue was no-good. Unfortunately for her daughter, Zona was so stubborn and in love that she wouldn’t listen to a word of caution. It breaks Mary Jane’s heart when she learns that, only a few months after her wedding, Zona is dead.

Then Zona’s ghost shows up to tell Mary Jane the Edward killed her.

The novel shifts back between James and Mary Jane. From Mary Jane, we get the more emotional side of the story, one of a mother who will not rest until her daughter has justice. From James, we get the more rational side of the story, with dueling lawyers and a stack of circumstantial evidence. We also get a lot of local history from James, so much that I started to get exasperated at the way one anecdote would back into another so that we get a whole capsule biography of one of the lawyers and learn what happened in Greenbriar County, West Virginia, during the Civil War. It’s only towards the end of the novel that we get back to Edward’s trial and (maybe) find out what really happened.

McCrumb did a lot of research for The Unquiet Grave, but there are many sections where I feel she gave into the temptation to show off everything she knew whether it advanced the central story or not. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys listening to older relatives tell stories about the old days and folks they knew, perhaps you will enjoy The Unquiet Grave more than I did.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

My Imaginary Life as a Book Hermit

Yesterday, the QI Elves (who work for the BBC’s QI trivia show) tweeted a fact that sent me on a wonderful little daydream:

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 10.12.52
Tweeted 8 August 2017

What would it be like if I was paid to do nothing but read and no one would ever be around to interrupt? I know book reviewers for major publications have a similar gig, but they’re expected to comment intelligently on what they’ve read. Hermits don’t have to do anything except hang around in a cave or shed or something and can please themselves. If food or money was thrown in along with shelter, I would do very little except read.

Of course, my hermitage would be cozy and tastefully decorated.

The wonderful part of the daydream ended when I realized that part of what I love about the bookish life so much is talking to other bookish people about what they’ve been reading and to recommend books. I’m sure it wouldn’t be long before I came bursting out of the hermitage in order to run someone down and talk them into reading a particularly good book—which defeats the whole purpose of being a professional recluse. Not only that, but I’m not sure how I would a) find out about books I’d like to read and b) get those books.

My daydreams never last very long because some practical question always pops into my head and ruins the whole thing.

On reflection, I have the best job I think I could ever have. As an academic librarian who buys all the fiction for my library, I get to scour the trade magazines and comb the bookish internet for new books. I spend a lot of time answering tricky questions and running down sources for people (which is also a lot of fun), but I also get opportunities to just talk books with people. On a really good day, I can send people home with a stack of books. Then, at the end of every work day, I get to go home and spend a few hours reading my latest pick. I might not be a hermit, but I have a lot of the perks—like not having to live in a cave.


The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti

30556459Parent are mysterious creatures, at least from the perspective of their children. I doubt any parent is as mysterious as Samuel Hawley. Though he is a devoted father to Loo, Hawley carries around a platoon’s worth of guns and ammunition, knows how to hot wire cars, and is always looking for an escape route. Loo doesn’t think this is strange, nor does she think it’s strange that her father has so many scars from bullet wounds. As Hannah Tinti’s novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, unspools, we start to learn the mysteries behind the scars and find a wonderfully criminal story of a mostly functional family.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is told in two, intertwining halves. In the present, we have Loo as she finally settles down after years of roving in her deceased mother’s former hometown. In the other, we have a series of episodes in which Hawley received yet another bullet wound as he performs jobs for a violent, watch-collecting ex-boxer. Loo is a chip off the old block. When she first arrives in town, she’s more apt to settle things with her fists—or a rock in a sock. The town soon learns that father and daughter are best left alone.

Like all parents, Samuel Hawley had a very full life before he fell in love with Loo’s mother and became a father. But unlike most parents, Hawley’s past is starting to catch up with him almost eighteen years later. Meanwhile, Loo is starting to have serious questions about what happened to her mother and why she has memories of her grandmother’s house when she thought she had never been there before.

I enjoyed Loo’s stubbornness and disinclination to conform with what her grandmother and the locals want her to be. But I loved Hawley’s devotion to his wife and to Loo. He’s far from perfect, but he is fiercely protective when real danger threatens his family. In a way, he reminded me of my own dad, a former Navy senior chief who isn’t always great with emotional stuff but who I always knew would fight like a bear for me if necessary. (Of course, Dad never taught me how to shoot or hot wire cars. An oversight, I think.)

Tales suburban families usually bore the life out of me—unless it turns out that at least some of the family members have particular skills they’ve acquired over a very long career. I sank into this book like a warm bath because it had so many of the things I love in a good book. The characterization is deep and off-beat. The structure is perfect. The plot is brilliant. I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

Roses and Rot

Sisters are tricky. For every pair that get along, it seems that there is another pair that have terminal sibling rivalry. (Although, I might have an exaggerated view of this because I read so much fiction.) But I tend to stay away from stories like this because they just don’t interest me all that much. There has to be something else to get my attention. So Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot slowly pulled me into its story of rivalrous* sisters with hints of magic before it really grabbed hold of me with a gripping tale about sacrifice.

Melete is a legendary artists’ retreat in the world of this novel. Artists, musicians, poets, novelists, etc. would give up a lot to be selected for Melete’s program because so many of its alumni have gone on to have huge success. In spite of this, Imogen is reluctant to apply. Her sister, Marin, twists her arm until they both apply and are accepted. Writer Imogen and dancer Marin haven’t seen each other for years (and we are given a lot of backstory to explain why), though they have a happy reunion when they meet up again at Melete. Together, they get make friends among the other accepted artists—as well as tolerate some of the odder residents.

Imogen hasn’t been at Melete long before she starts to see and hear strange things. She’s not the only one and the mentors at the retreat eventually reveal to the young artists what’s really going on. Without giving too much away, I can say that the artists are offered the chance at a Faustian bargain in return for guaranteed artistic success. In exchange for seven years’ service in Faerie, they will have all their artistic dreams come true. The price is terrible, but many of the mentees are more than willing to pay.

The artistic bargain, while interesting, is not what spurs the last third or so of the book. The relationship between Imogen and Marin is tested when they become frontrunners for the bargain. Even though the two are trying to repair their relationship with each other, the competition threatens to tear them apart again—perhaps forever. At the beginning of the novel, when the artists found out about the bargain, all but one** said they would take it without thinking twice. By the time the competition really heats up, Imogen finds a line she’s not willing to cross. But for Marin, the bargain is her only chance at the kind of life she wants.

I realize this summary leaves out a lot of the magic and mystery of the book, as well as Imogen’s haunting take on fairy tales, but I think these are best experienced by reading Roses and Rot oneself. Even though I had other things I really had to do this weekend, I could not put it down. I was hooked and enchanted by this novel. If you love retellings of fairy tales, sibling rivalries, or stories about artists, I would definitely suggest Roses and Rot for a great day’s reading.

*  This is a real word. I looked it up and everything.
** One of my favorite secondary characters, a singer, is the lone holdout against the bargain. It may be because I’ve read too many Faustian tales where the bargainer regrets their decision, but I totally understand the singer’s point that taking the deal would be a kind of cheating. They will never know if they might have been able to be successful on their own—which I would find intolerable because this question opens the door to crippling doubt.