Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

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Salt to the Sea

Based around the real sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, Ruta Sepetys’s novel, Salt to the Sea, is a quick-paced tale of strangers pushed together in straitened circumstances. All of them have secrets and agendas. All of them just want to get somewhere safe and wait for the war to end. The tension builds with every strafing from the Russian air force and every demand for papers from Wehrmacht soldiers. Sepetys makes the situation so dire for her protagonists that I honestly wondered if anyone would survive.

Salt to the Sea is told from four perspectives. One of the first narrators we meet is Florian, a man with a very dangerous secret and a gift for forgery. On his way from the Baltic states back to Germany (just before the beginning of Operation Hannibal, a staged evacuation from the eastern front), he meets Joana—a Lithuanian nurse—and Emilia—a pregnant Polish refugee—and their group. Joana does her best to keep everyone in their group healthy, but she’s up against near impossible odds. Emilia is a traumatized mess (justifiably, we learn), who has managed to put one foot in front of the other for longer than most people could have done. I was rooting so hard for all three of these characters.

The fourth voice comes from Alfred Frick, an officious coward who has wrangled a position in the Kriegsmarine in a low level and hopefully safe corner of the war. Unlike the other narrators, who tell their stories and experiences directly, Alfred is a very unreliable narrator due to his self-aggrandizing delusions. Most of his chapters take the form of letters he composes for a girl in Heidelberg. Even though I found the little twerp despicable, his chapters turned into a fascinating psychological portrait.

Salt to the Sea is a race. The chapters are often only a few paragraphs long. Some of them show the same events from the perspectives of the different narrators. I could easily see this book turned into a film. In fact, it almost played that way in my head. Sepetys also has a knack for slowly revealing the characters’ secrets in such a way that I felt like a detective piecing together little clues to get see the whole picture. Even though there’s death at almost every turn, I really enjoyed this book.

The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan

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The Kitchen God’s Wife

Originally published in 1991, Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife gives us (well, at least me) more of what we loved from The Joy Luck Club: a story in which a mother reveals a hidden life of hardship in China to her daughter. While the book opens on Winnie Louie’s daughter and the misunderstandings that are souring the mother-daughter relationship, the majority of the book is Winnie’s story.

Jiang Weili (later Winnie) has always been worried about luck and chance. Considering the first third of her life, this isn’t surprising. Her mother ran away when Weili was young, leaving her to the less-than-kind care of her relatives. Weili makes the best of things. She learns to be polite. She learns to make do with what she can get from her aunts. As Weili tells her own daughter her story, she frequently hints that even though her life was lonely, things got much worse when she married her first husband, Wen Fu.

Life would have been hard for Weili even without her changeable, violent, and rapacious husband. Shortly after her marriage, the Japanese Army begins to invade the rest of China. Wen Fu joins the nascent Kuomintang air force (which ends up being a disaster) and the young couple spend a lot of time fleeing the Japanese advance. Weili and her friend, Hulan, barely escape Nanking in time. So, just when you think things are as bad as they’re going to get, they get even worse. Wen Fu is injured in a car accident (that he caused) and any inhibitions he had that were controlling his impulses are gone. Because the novel opens with Winnie and her second family in California, we know that she will somehow escape Wen Fu. We just don’t know how. Even with the frame, there were times when I wondered just how she would manage it; Wen Fu is so tenacious that it seems impossible to get away.

What interested me most about Weili/Winnie’s character was how these experiences shaped her as a woman. She often thinks back along a chain of decisions and events from a death or disaster or illness back to a time when she might have been able to avert the bad luck. If she had been able to control her cousin better, she wouldn’t have met Wen Fu. If she hadn’t agreed to be a go-between for Wen Fu and her husband, Wen Fu wouldn’t have gotten involved with her family. If she had spoken up when Wen Fu’s mother actually proposed to have her son marry Weili, she would have avoided a lot of misery. I’ve seen this thinking before from the other side, where people find the silver lining from an initial bad decision. Weili just has bad luck and more bad luck. Now that she’s older, Weili is quietly fixated on improving her family’s luck by adhering to old superstitions and a mix of Chinese religious practices.

Having read The Joy Luck Club, with its remarkable balance of mothers and daughters and all their stories, The Kitchen God’s Wife does feel like an extra dose of the same. I enjoyed the novel anyway, mostly because I admired how Weili was able to endure everything her family and husband threw at her before finding the courage to escape.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Dashka Slate reflects on a heretofore unexamined wrinkle in the push for diverse children’s literature: how should diversity be portrayed? (Mother Jones)
  • When people ask me what I read for fun I have a hard time giving a concise answer. Tracy Shipley’s not-concise answer is more eloquent than mine. (Book Riot)
  • Steven Price reflects on having Ellen Seligman as his editor. (Hazlitt)
    • I was particularly moved by this passage:
      • “[Ellen] believed the nature of words mattered because a work of literature, to her, was folded seamlessly out of the language itself. One needed to get it right and the only true obstacle to that was giving up, giving in, too soon..I believe a great part of her gift lay in an endlessly elastic ability to adapt and re-examine how a novel moved and came to life. It was a kind of alchemy, a fluid gesture.”

Babayaga, by Toby Barlow

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Babayaga

Will van Wyck is an ordinary advertising man, working in France around 1960. On the side, he provides reports on various companies to a man who works for the CIA. This is about as much excitement as he can safely handle. When he gets involved with the mysterious Zoya, a woman who will hex you as soon as look at you, and with the chatty, Oliver, who drags Will much farther into the world of espionage than he really wanted. Toby Barlow’s imaginative Babayaga begins with separate plot threads narrated by Will, Zoya, and several other characters, slowly pulling them all together in a climactic and heart-wrenching ending.

The first chapters of Babayaga clue readers into the fact that this is no ordinary tale of the Cold War. Within pages, we learn that Zoya is much older than she appears to be and that she is planning to kill her lover in a particularly gruesome way. He’s not a bad man; it’s just that this is the end of one story and time for Zoya to move on. In comparison, Will’s narrative is dull and takes much longer to kick into gear. Will’s trouble with the law begins when Oliver and his associates blackmail him into sharing his company’s research with them. They never say who they’re working for, but Will almost drops dead of shock when one of his reports turns up at the Soviet Embassy.

Some readers may be frustrated with how long it takes for Zoya and Will’s plots to come together. We have to trust that what Barlow wrote into the book will eventually reveal its purpose. So, it’s a bit of a wait while the detective trying to track Zoya is turned into a flea by the witch’s nemesis, an even older sorceress, various affairs are revealed, and Will trails around after Oliver on one unexplained errand after another. Weirdly, this book felt longer than its almost 400 pages.

Perhaps this is because nostalgia is a prominent theme in this book. Many of the characters—except for Will, who is a youngster compared to everyone else in this book—reflect on life during World War II, between the wars, the Russian Revolution, and earlier. Apart from Will, they’ve lost their innocence and their ability to trust others. There is a lot of history packed into this book, wrapped up in a lot of world-weariness.

All that said, I’m glad I stuck with Babayaga. My quick summary doesn’t do justice to how interesting all the characters in this book are. In each chapter, there are flashbacks or clues that explain backstories and motivations. And, given, Zoya and her nemesis’s powers and all the spies running around, this version of Paris felt deliciously dangerous. Plus, there’s the ending where everything comes together. It’s beautiful how all the loose ends get tied up.

I was also fascinated to see what Barlow was up to with gender in this novel. Power flips constantly between the men and women in Babayaga, so that the upper hand keeps changing from one to the other. For most of the book, I had no idea who would win. There are occasional zings in the text as a character of a different gender will have a thought similar to another but with an important reversal. For example, one male character believes that women have cold hands because their biology routes blood to their ovaries and uteruses. Later, a female character thinks that women have cold hands because the blood is need for their brains. Ultimately, the women in this book kick some serious ass and I whole-heartedly approve of books in which women kick patriarchal ass. Even if they are witches who kill people.

At Twilight They Return, by Zyranna Zateli

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At Twilight They Return

Zyranna Zateli’s meandering collection of tales, At Twilight They Return (translated by David Connolly), reminds me of sitting down with an elderly relative. Bits are fascinating. Others seem like tangents until the storyteller gets back to their original point. Yet more parts are shocking, tragic, or both. At Twilight They Return tells ten stories about various members of the Christoforos clan at the end of the nineteenth century.

The sprawling family lives in a smallish town (unnamed) in northern Greece. We learn that they’re well-off, own numerous commercial enterprises and have tenant farmers and shepherds. Their chief characteristic, however, is marrying, having children, and, if their spouses die, repeatedly remarrying to have yet more children. Christoforos, the patriarch, has three wives over the course of his life. I lost count entirely of his children, step-children, and adopted children. One of his sons manages to have six children by six different women before his siblings browbeat him into getting married so that someone else has to take care of all those kids.

There is simply too much plot in At Twilight They Return to adequately summarize in a review like this. The best I can do is to say that this book draws a rough arc from the height of the family’s fortunes to a slow decline after an earthquake destroys their inn. The earthquake, as near as I can tell, takes place around 1899. After that, sickness, accidents, and mental illness start to prune the outrageously complex family tree.

I could tell from the very first tale that At Twilight They Return is not going to be for everyone. I’ll admit that I started skimming once I hit the two-thirds point. I was genuinely entertained by parts of this book, but there was so much plot and so many characters to slog through. Readers who enjoy wandering tales that slowly circle around major events and eventually get back to their original plot will adore this book. Readers who want things laid out more linearly will be frustrated.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 25 October 2016.

Where my critics at?

While reading Amy Hungerford’s article “On Refusing to Read,” which described how curiously blind literary scholars can be of anything happening in the wider world of books outside of their own interests, I was struck by the author’s assertion:

Articles beget other articles; the rising generation of scholars making their way as assistant professors knows that writing about a relatively well-known author or work will make it much easier to get their scholarship published. And so the cycle begins.

Hungerford makes frequent mention of how popular fiction and contemporary fiction are ignored by scholars, either for the cynical reason she described above or because of the sheer volume of new books coming out.

One might think that young scholars would be eager to carve out new territory. After all, it’s getting mighty hard to say something new about Hamlet. But I can see the general timidity of literary scholars (young and old) and critics every year. One of the professors of an advanced English course likes to use a new work of contemporary fiction every fall and spring. Newer fiction feels like less of a slog than canonical literature and students like it—until it comes time to do their research paper. Every time I teach a workshop on library research for this class, without fall, we run up against a resounding lack of literature.

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Geraldine Sy

Oh I can find a few articles here and there if a book or its author have won awards. Mid-twentieth century science fiction is growing a respectable body of research. That said, it frustrates me no end that critics and scholars mostly refuse to touch popular fiction. There’s no reason for it other than academic laziness (as Hungerford says, albeit more politely) or snobbery. After all, Dickens, Shakespeare, the Brontës, and the vast majority of authors in the canon were the popular fiction of their day. There’s no reason for snobbery as long as a book is original, interesting, and well-written.

Hungerford’s advice to scholars who play it safe with their reading and scholarship by sticking to what the mandarins of criticism and publishing say they should read is to:

In the face of a multitude of books curated most often by the profit motive, it is incumbent upon those somewhat protected from market imperatives — that is, scholars paid by universities to spend their time reading and thinking and teaching and writing — to stuff the omelet deliberately. To do that, we will all need to scour the shelves for the most delicious ingredients, and also set some loudly touted ones aside.

I like the idea of scholars bucking the norms and seeking out good literature in whatever genre it might be found. If the discipline can get critical mass (sorry about the pun) for contemporary fiction, I imagine that scholars could uncover a wealth of information about how our culture copes with identity, displacement, gender fluidity, sexuality, and a whole host of other topics that older literature could often only discuss with subtext.

In refusing to read, we’re all missing out.

The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville

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The Last Days of New Paris

I’m often drawn to books simply because the premise amuses or intrigues me, only to be disappointed when an author doesn’t have the imagination to pull it off. I never worry about China Miéville’s ability to take a weird idea and run with it to an off-kilter but thoughtful conclusion. It only took a sentence in the reviews to get me to pick up his latest creation, The Last Days of New Paris. Once I learned that this book would feature a Paris at war with the Nazis after a Surrealist bomb had transformed the city, I just had to read it. I was not disappointed.

Our protagonist, Thibaut, has lived in the heart of Paris since the “S-bomb” went off in 1941 and brought manifs (manifestations, though the word means demo in French) from the great works of Surrealist art and poetry to life. When we meet him, it is 1950. Everyday, he encounters creatures made of random animal, human, and inanimate parts. Giant plants rise up out of the Seine to devour planes. Demons haunt the metro. Thibaut is relatively safe, as he has the knack for telling when something is surreal and when it’s just a pile of junk. Nazis, on the other hand, are attacked on sight.

As we follow Thibaut through Paris in the company of an American woman who is cataloging the manifs, flashbacks to 1941 reveal how the S-bomb came to be. The flashbacks are full of actual historical figures (Varian Fry, André Breton, etc.) but center on Jack Parsons. In our reality, Parsons was a rocket scientist and follower of Aleister Crowley. That’s still true in this reality. What’s different this time is that Parsons creates a semi-mystical battery that captures the creativity of the Surrealists. It was never meant to be a weapon, mostly because no one really knew what they had on their hands.

The Last Days of New Paris is the most demented art lesson I’ve ever had. Thibault does his best to describe what he sees (many of the manifs defy physics). It’s more useful when he name drops the greats of Surrealism when he recognizes something like Celebes the Elephant. This book sent me to Google Images and Wikipedia more than once. Weirdly enough, reading about the manifs in action and eavesdropping on Thibault’s brain helped me understand Surrealism in a way my art history professors couldn’t. This school of art is very much about seeing things in a completely different way, with irreverence and a determined effort to embrace the random.

I would lament the fact that The Last Days of New Paris is only a novella, but it’s the perfect length. Any more chapters and there might have been too much weirdness for the plot to support. Any fewer and characters wouldn’t have had a chance to develop. Even though the book races to its action-packed conclusion, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. This book is amazing.

The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith

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The Girl from Venice

Cenzo Vianello has been sitting out the war, fishing his family’s waters in the lagoons off of Venice and avoiding Germans, Italian fascists, partisans, and the war on the mainland. He served in Mussolini’s Abyssinian War and that was enough for him. He might have managed to get through the entire Second World War without getting involved if he hadn’t found Giulia in the lagoon one night. After that night, Cenzo abruptly finds himself right in the middle of everything. Though Martin Cruz Smith called this novel The Girl from Venice, Giulia is only a catalyst for Cenzo to become the hero he refused to be.

The Girl from Venice is very different from Smith’s novels featuring Arkady Renko, the melancholy Russian policeman. This novel is much lighter (even though it’s set during the last days of World War II) and there’s not as much psychological development. Instead, it’s a thriller almost from the get-go, leavened by snappy banter.

The night Cenzo find Giulia, he is almost immediately detained by a German gunboat that’s been lurking around the marshes and lagoons outside of Venice. They’re looking for Giulia, the daughter of rich and connected Jews who had almost managed to escape. Instead, Giulia was the only one to get away. It’s touch and go for most of the night until Cenzo managed to get rid of the Germans. He takes her back to his fishing shack, for lack of any other ideas.

Even though Giulia is educated and a bit snobbish and Cenzo is deeply cynical, they click. I loved reading their dialogue as they alternately sniped at each other and bonded over fishing lore. It was a wrench when Cenzo sends her away with a friend with partisan connections so that she can finish her escape. Still, he believed it was the right thing to do—at least until his brother and a friendly German tell him the friend was killed and Giulia has gone missing in Salò, one of the Italian fascists’ last holdouts.

The rest of the book is chaotic. Cenzo is not a natural detective. His efforts to find Giulia are not so much laughable and just hopeless. Even if he weren’t trying to find one Jewish woman in the middle of a war, Cenzo quickly learns that his brother and the German had their own reasons for bringing him to the mainland. He lands right in the middle of a welter of conspiracies and plots.

The Girl from Venice is an entertaining read (mostly because of the banter), even if it doesn’t have quite the depth and pathos of the Arkady Renko series. I had an excellent time reading it.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 18 October 2016.

She Probably Meant Well; Or, Writing Other Cultures

It turned out to be an odd bit of serendipity that I read The Good Earth the same week that Lionel Shriver caused a controversy in the literary world with her speech to the Brisbane Writers Festival. (A sombrero was notoriously involved. Yasmin Abdel-Magied wrote about why she walked out.) The main point of Shriver’s speech was to argue that if one takes the extreme point of view that only people of a certain gender, ethnicity, or culture can write about that gender, ethnicity, or culture, what is a white writer to do if they want diverse characters?

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The 1937 film version of The Good Earth is notorious because nearly all of the speaking parts went to white actors. Here are O-lan and Wang Lung, as depicted by an actor born in Germany (Luise Rainer) and one born in Poland (Paul Muni).

Reading The Good Earth had me thinking deeply about whether it’s possible for people of one culture to write about people accurately. While Buck did a lot of reading about China’s history, culture, language, and so on and spent a lot of time in the country, I have serious questions about her representations of Chinese people. Setting aside the issue of whether or not Chinese men behaved like Wang Lung, I’m left wondering if Buck missed the nuances of why Wang Lung did and thought what he did. Is her harsh depiction of the farmer racist because he has few, if any, redeeming features and we don’t know his motivations most of the time.

I have similar questions when white writers have black or brown major characters in their novels. Are their characters accurate? Are there details missing that would help readers fully understand those characters? These questions and the fears they raise might lead writers down Shriver’s ad absurdum logic. At one point in her speech, Shriver said that if writers can only write characters they have firsthand knowledge of, “all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina” (New York Times).

Ad absurdum arguments should never be taken seriously, though I do think that authors should do a lot of research before attempting to write about people from other walks of life. Research isn’t enough, however. In a recent essay for LitHub, Brandon Taylor argues that the trick to writing diversely is empathy. Taylor writes:

Writing requires you to enter into the lives of other people, to imagine circumstances as varied, as mundane, as painful, as beautiful, and as alive as your own. It means graciously and generously allowing for the existence of other minds as bright as quiet as loud as sullen as vivacious as your own might be, or more so. It means seeing the humanity of your characters. If you’re having a difficult time accessing the lives of people who are unlike you, then your work is not yet done.

Taylor gives me hope that all authors can write diversely if they want to. They just have to put in the work to make sure that all of their characters are fully realized—which, to be frank, they should be doing anyway.

I suppose, in this light, one of my problems with The Good Earth (one of many, many problems I have with the book) is that I didn’t feel a lot of empathy. Instead, The Good Earth felt like a tragedy dressed up to look like turn of the twentieth century China. Without the setting, the plot and a lot of characters could have been something Thomas Hardy cooked up in his depressed, overly nostalgic brain.

In the end, I have no answers to these big questions. All I have are questions leading to more questions…and a few rants.