Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft

35271523There are many bad things that can happen on one’s honeymoon, but probably the worst thing that can happen is to lose one’s spouse within an hour of arriving at one’s destination. Even though he is armed with a guidebook and years of reading, this is precisely what happens to Thomas Senlin when he and his wife arrive at the Tower of Babel in Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin AscendsAfter Marya Senlin goes missing in the market on their way to their accommodations, Thomas vows to find her no matter how long it takes or what he has to do.

Based on the biblical Tower of Babel, the Tower in Senlin’s world never came down. As far as anyone knows, there are still people building new layers. The guidebooks all say that there is no experience like the Tower anywhere else in the world. It’s the perfect place to honeymoon. Unfortunately for the Senlins, their probably begin almost as soon as they arrive. There are so many people at the base of the tower that they have to force their way through a free form mob. Then they get separated at the market. Then Thomas gets robbed by a man he thinks might help him. Then he has to figure out what happened to Marya and follow her trail. Once he works out where she might have gone, Thomas has to make his way through the bizarre customs and governments of the different layers of the Tower to get to her.

Senlin Ascends riffs on Victorian travelogues and adventure stories (Thomas himself is a bit Victorian), with a dash of Pilgrim’s Progress. Because the Tower of Babel is at the heart of this book, it’s hard not to read parts of this book allegorically. Thomas not only travels upward but he becomes a better man. But, unlike Bunyan’s hero, Thomas becomes less naive and more ruthless on his path. As the novel progresses, the adventure takes over. By the end, Senlin Ascends is a rip-roaring yarn with sky pirates, conspiracies, and unstoppable assassins.

The only thing I’ll say about the end of this book is that it ends on a cliffhanger, which I hate. The good news is that the next book in the series, The Arm of the Sphinx, will be published shortly after Senlin Ascends. I just have to know if Thomas will be reunited with Marya—and what happened to her after Thomas lost her trail. Other than the cliffhanger issue, I really enjoyed this book. It’s highly original even with all the riffing, and Thomas’ journey and growth as a character is brilliantly handled. This book is just so damned much fun!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.


Objectively Underrated Books

My fellow bookish types and I frequently talk about books that we wish got more attention from readers, but my sense of how much attention a book is getting can be skewed by the media I read and the people I discuss books with…At least, until a few months ago, when I learned about a feature on Goodreads that could tell you how many other people have a particular book on their shelves in the last year. Now I can actually talk about books that are empirically underrated…at least in the last twelve months.

Here are some books from my Goodreads list that I know need more attention:

Crossing the Lines, by Sulari Gentill

A bunch of people added this book back in July, but not many people have rated or added it to their read list. I really loved the way this book twisted around on itself to tell the story of two authors writing each other into being. I want to give it to my writing friends as well as my reading buddies so that they can have a cerebral experience based on the creative power of writing.

190554Declare, by Tim Powers

This book is one that I kind of keep secret because, the few times I recommended it, the other readers gave up before finishing. Still, I absolutely adore the way this book blends fantasy with actual history. I didn’t know what was going on for most of it the first time I read it, so I can understand. I didn’t mind though. I enjoyed the mystery of it and the way the book refused to spoon feed information to me.

Salamander, by Thomas Wharton

This book has such low numbers on Goodreads that I think I can officially call it an undiscovered gem. This book is hard to find, unfortunately, because I would love to recommend it to readers who enjoy quirky, slightly academic, book-based adventures.

Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas

35099035There are two things that changed the playing field for women in the United States: the pill and Roe v. Wade. These two things made it possible for women to chose when or if we would get pregnant. This is not the case for most of the women in Leni Zumas’ moving, gut-wrenching novel, Red ClocksIn this book, abortion and in-vitro fertilization are banned, the Pink Wall prevents women from getting these procedures in Canada, and only married heterosexuals are allowed to adopt. Red Clocks takes a bold look at what might happen when the choice to get pregnant or adopt or legally end a pregnancy is taken away.

The novel rotates between four female characters (and another who appears in one character’s manuscript) who all live in the same small Oregon town. Over and over, this book asks us to think about what it means to bear and raise a child—and what it means to make the choice to become a mother in the first place. We see their anger, regret, hopelessness, weariness, and occasional motherly love as their stories progress.The four women’s live intersect here and there, but the contrasts between their varied experiences are more important than these tangential connections.

Our first narrator, Ro Stephens, is a 42 year old history teacher who desperately wants to be a mother. Her age and a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome mean that it is virtually impossible for her to have a biological child. As a single woman, she can’t adopt in this alternate America either. Ro is contrasted with Mathilda, a fifteen year old who accidentally gets pregnant after uninspired sex with her boyfriend. She can’t bear to tell her parents and she’s absolutely terrified of what might happen if anyone finds out. Where Ro very much wants a child, Mathilda wants to be not pregnant now, thank you very much.

We also get to meet Susan, a mother of two who is fed up with her childish husband. Susan had plans to be a lawyer when she got pregnant and married her husband. Now she has two kids and is not coping well with being shanghaied into life as a housewife. Meanwhile, Gin is living a comfortably solitary life on the outskirts of town as a practical witch and unofficial healer. When she was pregnant, years ago, she gave up her child for adoption. Unlike the other women, Gin has no regrets but she’s curious about the child she gave up.

I identified most with Ro, because I am almost her age and I am incapable of having a child. (Unlike Ro, I am thrilled about this.) But I worried about all of the women in this book because they all felt as trapped as an animal in a snare. The tension just keeps ratcheting up as Mathilda comes up against the end of her first trimester, Ro approaches the deadline of a new law that will prevent her from adopting, Gin goes on trial after being accused of trying to help a women have an abortion, and Susan starts to come up with disturbing ways to end her marriage.

I suspect Red Clocks will appeal most to women, not just because women tend to bear the brunt of parenthood in our society. It’s is a very female book, full of references to ovaries, eggs, blood, cramps, pubic hair, and vaginal smells. Because of this, it felt very intimate to me because it contains so many things that most women keep to themselves or only reveal to their closest friends. This intimacy, for me, gave additional weight to the truth at the heart of this book: that being a mother should be a personal choice, not a trap.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.

Little Reunions, by Eileen Chang

36954609Never published during her life time, Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions is a highly autobiographical novel of a woman’s complicated life from the 1920s to the 1950s. The novel feels unfinished, and the nonlinear style doesn’t help. To me, Little Reunions is a dizzying look back at a life full of disappointment, insecurity, unrequited love, and guilt. I realize this might not sound like much of a recommendation, but I did like how this novel touched on so many ideas without feeling overstuffed. I feel that I’ve experienced an entire life while reading this book, which is the most I can really ask from a book.

Julie (clearly a stand-in for the author) grows up as an after thought in her dramatic mother’s life. Julie’s mother, Rachel, left the family repeatedly to travel around the world. Men are in and out of Rachel’s life. Once her parents get divorced, Julie only sees her mother when Rachel decides to stop by Shanghai on her way to somewhere else. In the first parts of the book, until Julie (and I) started to understand Rachel better, Rachel seems like a very selfish person who uses men to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. It’s only later that Julie learns that Rachel was sleeping with these men to also “pay” doctor bills and school fees. Once Julie starts to embark on her own affairs, Rachel starts to make a lot more sense and become, at least as much as Rachel allows, an object of pity.

Eileen Chang in 1954
(Image via Wikicommons)

Julie and Rachel’s relationship forms a spine for the rest of this book to hang from. While that relationship evolves, Julie grows up in the middle of a sprawling family of strivers and moochers. Her talent as a writer develops. Slowly, Julie comes into her own and becomes the protagonist in her own life. But what a sad life it is! The man she first falls in love with cannot give up the other women he wants. Her second love cannot marry her because her bad reputation would ruin his. The complications of family and society seem to conspire to make it impossible for Julie to have simple happiness.

My biggest frustration with this book is Julie’s opaqueness as a character. Although she is the center of this book, Julie develops an impenetrable reserve to protect herself from disappointment, guilt, and the other negative emotions her mother and lovers elicit in her. This opacity could read as selfishness, akin to Rachel’s when we first met her, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw a character who found a way to emotionally protect herself as a child only to build up such thick armor that she couldn’t break out of it when she was an adult. Still, I wish I had been able to see beneath that armor. I feel like I understand everyone in this book except Julie; with her, I’m just guessing.

Little Reunions is my first experience reading Eileen Chang, one of the giants of twentieth century Chinese literature. Although this book wasn’t officially done and had to be published from a draft, I think it gives a good sense of the author’s daring when it comes to talking about sex and love. I marvel at her sharp observations of her characters (Julie excepted). I also enjoyed the subtlety of how this book was built. Like Julie’s, my judgment of characters changed from the beginning to the end almost without my realizing it. The more I knew about them, the easier it was to see why they behaved as they did. The realizations sneak up on you and I love books that can teach me something without my being aware of it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.

The Power, by Naomi Alderman

29751398There are few things that are always true, but I’ve always thought that the old proverb about how power corrupts everything it touches comes closest to the mark. It’s definitely true in Naomi Alderman’s angry novel, The PowerIn this novel, women gain the upper hand over men for the first time in centuries when they suddenly develop the ability to deliver lethal electric shocks at will. The Power is rewritten as a retelling of the ten years after the first girl shocked someone, a work of historical fiction written by a male author centuries in the future.

The Power is a satirical thought experiment rather than a straight work of science fiction. Thus, character development and logic take a back seat to exploring gender power dynamics. We bounce between three female narrators who use their newly developed powers to amass even more power in religion, politics, and crime. They face fierce resistance from men who are unwilling to cede their places. They’re not entirely helpless in the face of the women’s power, so it isn’t long before the two sexes are on the brink of all out war.

They’re balanced by the perspective of a male journalist who documents the changes he sees as women around the world start to get revenge on men for years of violence and suffering. The Power is one of the angriest books I think I’ve ever read. Over and over in this book, we see the perpetrators of abuse, sexual harassment, and rape flip from male to female.The lesson that sexual discrimination is really a matter of power is reinforced at every turn. I say male and female because this book is very clear about the divide between the biological sexes. I wondered about trans women and men, but they don’t make an appearance here at all and I was disturbed by their absence.

The Power is more a talking piece than anything else, I think. Considered apart from the violence, the idea that women might gain a power that puts them on equal or better footing to male physical strength is tempting to contemplate. Would this equalization make it possible for males and females to leave behind centuries of domination of one over the other? This violence in The Power argues against it. This cynical book shows us many scenes in which power is only used for revenge or to take advantage of male bodies in the same way that sexually rapacious men take advantage of female bodies. Women like me might think that we could do better if we had more power, but human nature to act selfishly and be tempted will always get in the way. Power will always corrupt, no matter how much we fight against its corroding touch.

This week on the bookish internet

  • I wasn’t the only person thinking about translation this week. Tim Parks has a report on an event that delights me right to my bookish, word nerd core: competitive translation. (The New York Review of Books)
  • Laura Sackton makes me want to revise my reading spreadsheet. (Book Riot)
  • Sarah Seltzer points out what happens when successful women writers are targeted for scandal. (Jezebel)
  • Some predictions on what next year’s book covers will look like. (The Digital Reader)
  • This one is for my library and academic readers out there: Daniela Blei writes in praise of taxonomy. (The Atlantic)
  • Jennifer Gonzalez argues that we need to change how reading is taught so that it doesn’t kill the joy of reading. (The Cult of Pedagogy)

The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith

34962936Shakespeare said it first: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” This is certainly true in Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere. In fact, the course of love (or something sinister masquerading as love) runs in such crooked paths that at first it’s hard to tell if the characters are even on the same one. This novel is more like a series of linked stories that share a setting (Newport, Rhode Island) and themes of unrequited love, deceit, dependence, dissociation, and observation. As the narratives draw to their finales, coincidences and motifs pile up to highlight the similarities and differences in the choices the characters make in their attempts to get love or something like it.

The first chapters of The Maze at Windermere almost made me give up. The first character we meet is a tennis pro in the resort town of Newport who finds himself somewhat dependent on the indulgence of a very wealthy family. (I don’t know why I’m so turned off by tennis pros, but I’m going to just chalk it up as a personal eccentricity.) When Henry James showed up, I was very tempted to give up on the book altogether. I loathe Henry James because the one time I tried to read one of his books, The Turn of the Screw, I found the prose impenetrably dense and I hate it when someone makes me feel like an idiot.

I think it was the lure of the puzzle that kept me going. I wasn’t going to let the ghost of Henry James hold me back. So I kept reading. I met characters who didn’t quite know what they wanted until it was snatched away from them or who thought they knew what they wanted until something sent them haring down left turns. Over and over, I saw characters wrestle with what it was they wanted from life, whether it was love, security, or knowledge of others. Only one of the narratives, the one set in 1692, is fairly straightforward and the other narrative circle around it as if to show us all the ways things can go wrong when one refuses to be honest.

There’s a lot to unpack, as we English majors say, in The Maze at Windermere. I’m sure I didn’t understand everything lurking under the surface of these connected stories—mostly because everything I know about Henry James and his work comes from Wikipedia. In particular, the moments in which several of the characters have mystical experiences (a nod to the work of James’ brother, William) require a lot more thought, since I was too busy trying to spot all the links between characters and plots.

The Maze at Windermere is definitely not a light read, so I would only recommend it to readers looking for a challenge. It’s very clever, requires patience, and ready access to the internet if, like me, you feel the temptation to run down hunches and look up names. I’ve never read anything like this book. It tackles topics—unrequited love and dissociation in particular—that I can’t recall ever seeing explored in depth in fiction. Those who take up the challenge will be amply rewarded. I feel quite a lot smarter now because I’m pretty sure I understood part of what the book contained.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

King Zeno, by Nathaniel Rich

35259559Nathaniel Rich’s King Zeno is the second novel I’ve read recently that takes on the Axeman Murders of New Orleans—which is fitting since it’s been a century since the still-unsolved murders were committed. (Read my review of The Axeman, by Ray Celestin.) This fictional take on the murders rotates between a police officer with PTSD, a widow who heads a major construction project in the city, and a jazz cornet player. King Zeno is stuffed with the sights and sounds of New Orleans in the winter of 1917-1918. At times, the Axeman Murders get a lost as the characters witness the evolution of hot jazz, weather the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the construction of the city’s industrial canal.

New Orleans police officer Billy Bastrup, one of our three narrators, is having a hard time doing his job. Being a cop in New Orleans has never been easy, but Billy is haunted by an incident that happened while he was a soldier in France during the Great War. He’s not always sure he’s not hallucinating. Meanwhile, his marriage is falling apart, two Black men are committing armed robbery on the city streets, and the Axeman Murders are immanent.

Beatrice Vizzini has all the makings of a criminal mastermind. She inherited her husband’s “shadow business” after his death, but now she wants to go legitimate by having her company build a canal connecting the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Unfortunately, her disturbing son is reluctant to let go of the shadow business because it gives him such an excellent outlet for his violent urges.

Kid Ory, seen here with Louis Armstrong in 1918, appears as a character in King Zeno.

Our last narrator is Slim Izzy Zeno, a jazz musician who has a gift for making his trumpet talk and shout and howl. While Billy and Beatrice are interesting, fully realized characters, I really enjoyed reading about Izzy because he provides an entrée to the world of hot jazz, one of my favorite music genres. Whenever I read an Izzy chapter, I wanted more and was kind of reluctant to go back to reading about the other narrators’ woes.

King Zeno is a bit of a mishmash. If you’re not familiar with the Axeman Murders, it might be hard to see how things are going to link up. Because I read Celestin’s The Axeman, I knew about some of the intersections in advance. I’m actually glad about this. Knowing ahead of time about some of the book’s twists kept me from getting frustrated with Rich as more and more things happened to his characters that weren’t about what I would’ve thought was a major point in any story set in 1917-1918 New Orleans.

Perhaps a better way of selling this book is to say that it’s a story about a time and place, not about any particular event. King Zeno is a book to slide into and is one of the best representations of the idea of what New Orleans is (at least to people who don’t actually live there). This book is full of sin and music and I enjoyed those parts immensely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

Returning to the Well; Or, Why do we keep translating the classics?

Peter Ilsted

When I walked into my office this morning, I was greeted by the sight of a cartful of gorgeously bound classics. My library already has copies of all of the donated titles, but I want to add them to the collection because they’d be great replacements for our most beat up copies. This donation included a bunch of titles in translation that I will have to consider carefully before they’re added. I hesitate to add just any old translation because I’ve read critical (in the ordinary sense) reviews of translations that took liberties with the text or were unreadably dull. Not all translations are created equally.

Thinking about this particular batch of donations along with the news that there is a new critically acclaimed translation of The Odyssey got me to thinking about why publishers keep producing new translations of old titles. The cynical answer to my question is that public domain works are almost pure profit for publishers because there’s no author to pay royalties to. I have some theories as to less cynical answers.

My first theory is that the translator wanted to create a definitive translation that’s better than anything that’s come before. Past translations of a work may have been deeply flawed in terms of accuracy or deathly dry. In those circumstances, it’s absolutely necessary to make a new translation. Some Victorian era translations of books are so awful they’re crying out for a decent translation into English. The problem is that, no matter how good one’s translation is, it will only be definitive until the next definitive edition.

My second theory is that some translators have the gumption to play around with original to tell the old story in a new way. Some languages are extremely hard to translate due to nuances, cultural context, and linguistic drift. I love it with translators throw strict fidelity out the window to capture the essence of a story and bring it back to life.

I’m sure all of these explanations—the cynical one, the definitive one, and the playful one—are all true. But none really explains why translators keep returning to the same titles over and over; translations of old works that haven’t been published in English before are still rare. In the end, I suppose, some texts are truly immortal. The Iliad, The Odyssey, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and all the rest of the giants are so packed with meaning and so full of lively drama that we’ll never be done with them.

The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

35133064Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill rings a lot of my bells: tough, original female protagonist; intriguing mystery; and a richly described setting that teaches me about a time and place I’ve never read about before. In this book, we are whisked away to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921 to tag along with the first female lawyer. Perveen Mistry, a Parsi woman, usually works on contracts, wills, and other legal paperwork (since she’s not allowed to appear in court) when she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

Perveen has a protective streak when it comes to women who have been wronged by the legal system. (We find out why in increasingly heartbreaking flashbacks to Perveen’s marriage.) When she sees some suspicious things in paperwork asking for three widows’ dowries to be transferred to a wakf (Muslim charity). The signatures are wrong and the whole thing seems strange. So, Perveen takes her briefcase and heads over to their home to start asking questions. The widows live in purdah, which means that Perveen’s gender is a virtue for once. She can enter the zenana, the secluded part of their home. Unfortunately, Perveen’s questions stir up trouble. When she has to return to pick up her misplaced briefcase, she discovers that the man who runs the household for the women has been murdered.

Even though the practice of purdah is meant to keep women hidden away from the rest of the world, these widows’ zenana is full of secret scandals. Each chapter takes us deeper into the three widows’ lives and their worldly concerns about money, security, and their children’s futures. Perveen is a sensitive advocate for the widows. Because of her upbringing as the daughter of a renowned Bombay lawyer, she’s grown up knowing that lawyers have to weave between secular, traditional, colonial, and religious legal systems. Where another woman might have tried to push the women out of purdah, Perveen understands the widows’ boundaries and acts as a fierce advocate for them as the police blunder their way through the murder investigation.

The mystery and Perveen are wonderful, but what I liked most about The Widows of Malabar Hill was the way it took me back to the Bombay of 1921. This book brings a world back to life, full of sights and smells (there are a lot of meals in this book that made me want to rush to the nearest Indian restaurant). This book will be a great read for people who want to be transported while they try to out-investigate a mystery novel’s protagonist.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.