literary fiction · review

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

36623661Do not be fooled by the cover of Secret Passages in a Hillside Town. Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel, skillfully translated by Lola Rogers, is a lot deeper than the lightness of the cover implies. At the start of the book, Olli Souminen is a middle-aged man with a middle-aged life. He works for a small publisher in Jyväskylä, Finland. His wife is a teacher. His son is a quiet boy. Things only start to change when old friends from his childhood reach out on Facebook—then the memories come slipping back and Olli gets another chance at the life he might have had.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is a complicated book. In one plot, we have Olli navigating his reconnection to his old love Greta Kara and the members of the Tourula Five, a group of friends who solve a case like a Finnish version of the Famous Five. In another, there are Olli’s dreams about a girl in a pear-print dress, who reawakens his libido. In yet another, we see Olli’s memories about his summers with the Tourula Five. My first impressions of all three were as deceptive as the book’s cover. The more I learned about Olli and his past, the more sinister things became.

Throughout the book, there are excerpts from Greta’s books. Both of them advocate a “cinematic life.” Instead of living a life of inertia, of what she calls the “slow continuum,” a cinematic life means being spontaneous, seizing unique moments to make new relationships or trying something out of the ordinary. Greta also believes that there are places where its easier to live a cinematic life. As she and Olli get to know each other again, they seek out these places and start seizing moments—even though Olli is married and he is being pressured to be friendly with Greta. Olli’s memories reveal that his childhood with the Tourula Five were not as idyllic as he’d come to believe. But when forces start to conspire to rewrite Olli’s life, he (and I) has to wonder if it’s possible to have a guilt-free, consequence-free second chance.

I can’t say much more about what happens in Secret Passages without ruining it. What I can say is that I enjoyed the book the more I read. The translation helped. Rogers did brilliant work in keeping the story’s secrets until they needed to be revealed. When the bombs went off, I was left with an astonishing tale of second chances and the possibilities of a cinematic life.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. This book will be released 18 September 2018.

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Autofiction · review

Deviation, by Luce d’Eramo

38122394As I read Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (translated by Anne Milano Appel), I had the image of a moth fluttering around a bug zapper constantly in my head. Lucia, the protagonist of this book—which I can only describe as autofiction—resembles nothing so much as a moth furiously and irrationally trying to kill itself. Lucia volunteers to work as a laborer for the Nazis in Germany to get a better look at the Arbeitslager and konzentrationslager because she believes that they can’t be as bad as the rumors make out. As if this wasn’t enough of a deviation, Lucia makes decision after decision that puts her straight back into harm’s way. In this reflective book, d’Eramo uses fiction to explore her decisions, the consequences of those decisions, and her lost memories. Fiction that hews closely to autobiography (or vice versa) seems the best way for her to try and understand her actions.

D’Eramo’s book is a collection of stories that closely resembles what happened to her in 1944-1945 and 1960. Deviation opens with an escape, when Lucia makes her way from the Arbeitslager at Dachau to a Durchgangslager where deportees and laborers live while they perform impressed work for the Nazis and Germans. (Lucia was never interned with Jewish people or any inmates in the death camps. Also, I’m not sure what the right words are to describe the laborers. Some of them are volunteers, but most of them seem to be drifters who got caught by the Nazis.) Lucia has, by this point, learned the ins and outs of camp life. She also has a knack for making the right friends, friends who will steal food and supplies for her. Futher, Lucia knows that, if things get really bad, she can always pull her rip cord: her parents connections to the well-heeled fascists of Italy. In spite of herself, Lucia lands on her feet in the Durchgangslager.

From the first story, d’Eramo takes us back and forth from the events of 1944. We see her running away from an attempt at repatriation to Italy. We see her helping rescue people in Frankfurt after a bombing—only to be crushed under a collapsing wall, an injury that leaves her legs paralyzed. We also see her striving mightily to escape a pernicious suitor after her injury, fluttering from tenuous situation to tenuous situation, with no though to anything except getting a little further away.

Lucia’s behavior is very confusing, even after d’Eramo spends pages looking back in an attempt to understand her younger self. The last “story” is full of thoughts about how she recovered memories only decades later and why she repressed those memories. D’Eramo/Lucia’s theory is that she suppressed and deliberately hid things in the earlier stories because it took her that long to realize that she wasn’t a hero for volunteering for her fact-finding mission. D’Eramo/Lucia retold a less complicated version of her life so many times that it became real, at least until the real memories started to resurface.

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Luce d’Eramo in 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Deviation puzzles me greatly. If it wasn’t so obviously modeled on the author’s own life, I would have found it a particularly audacious and worrying piece of fiction. Because it is autofiction, it offers a unique look at the Holocaust—even if it leaves me with more questions than it answers. In spite of my continued confusion about the book, I want to complement Appel, the translator, for her very capable job of transforming d’Eramo’s text into coherent English. There are parts of the book that drag, but I chalk that up to d’Eramo’s maundering.

I’ll leave it to other readers to think about d’Eramo/Lucia’s epiphanies and revelations. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by d’Eramo/Lucia. I don’t think the narrator is either. The last story of the book, I think, betrays the narrator’s own bewilderment towards her own actions. Lucia’s behavior is so irrational that calm reflection decade’s later doesn’t seem capable of answering the central question of why Lucia volunteered for an Arbeitslager.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be received 18 September 2018.

humor · literary fiction · review · satire

The Shakespeare Requirement, by Julie Schumacher

38885815For a while, we got a lot of students at our library who wanted to write about why a liberal education was or was not worth the cost. So I frequently found myself defending the humanities on the fly by talking about critical thinking, empathy, and other, more intangible benefits. I’m rather proud of myself for being able to do this, because it’s a lot more than the faculty of the beleaguered Payne University can do in The Shakespeare RequirementJulie Schumacher’s sequel to her uproarious novel Dear Committee Members. (It’s not necessary for readers to read Dear Committee Members to understand The Shakespeare Requirement. Both books are hilariously on-point satires, so I recommend them both.)

Jason Fitger survived a year under siege in the English department at Willard Hall while the upstairs is extensively remodeled by the swimming-in-donations Economics Department. Now, Fitger has to survive being the chair of a notoriously fractious department at a time when they have to justify every penny the Payne University (there are a lot of jokes about the name) spends on them. Being academics, they believe that it’s blindingly obvious why students ought to learn Shakespeare, medieval literature, feminist and postcolonial literature, and celebrate all the Brontë birthdays. To them, the question is not why should anyone study Shakespeare. Their question for everyone else is, why wouldn’t students want to study Shakespeare?

The Shakespeare Requirement bounces from character to character to give us an inside look at a university that houses every academic stereotype we’ve ever heard of. The rapacious Econ chair is attempting to build an empire that resembles a for-profit institution. The administration is bloated with vice and assistant something or others and completely useless when it comes to the in-fighting of the faculty. Most of those faculty are oblivious to anything else but defending their intellectual territory. In fact, most of the book involves Fitger chasing down his English faculty to horse-trade so that they will pass the department’s statement of vision. Plus, there’s the bureaucracy, which could be described as a Kafkaesque nightmare or an unfixable snarl of catch-22s.

I found The Shakespeare Requirement sharply funny. I snorted and chuckled at the jokes and jibes. I loved the tangled plots and the perfect ending. But what really makes this book is the heart that underlies the jokes. The faculty, in spite of their eccentricities and pettiness (and excluding the Econ chair), love their subjects. They want to teach their students the joys of literature and to look at the world with an critical eye. They don’t just want to churn out workers. I find that admirable; I’m in an adjacent line of work and have the same goals. The jokes and satire just help the medicine—the bitter truths about American academia as it exists now—go down.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

opinions · reading life

So Many Books, So Little Time; Or, Why I Need Bad Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking about something Evelyn Goldman posted to her book blog weeks ago. In her post, “A Review of Reviews,” she writes that posting negative reviews about books makes her feel guilty. I can understand the feeling. Like Goldman, I too recognize the work that went into a book. Authors can labor for years and face countless rejections before their work is published. It seems like we book reviewers are taking potshots at their children from the safety of our position as readers. But…I like seeing negative reviews. I actually need them.

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Beatrix Whistler

Being a librarian and a voracious reader besides, I need to know as much as possible about what’s being published. But because I don’t have an infinite budget (either at work or personally), I can’t afford to take a chance on duds or offensively bad books. I want books that will challenge readers (like Dream Country), entertain readers (like The Nutmeg Tree), or help them escape the mundane world (like The Night Circus).

So, I read negative book reviews. That said, I ignore reviews on Amazon, for two reasons. A lot of them are purchased, for one. For another, a lot of readers don’t know how to write a useful negative review. What I want most in a negative book review is a reader giving a clear reason why they didn’t like the book. Goldman, in her post, gave a clear reason why she didn’t like a book. The book in question triggered her. Other readers might take issue with racism, sexism, or homophobia in a book. Yet others might be bothered by poor writing, uneven pacing, lack of character development, or other writing problems. I completely ignore reviews that don’t explain why they didn’t a book—if they just say a book sucks. I also ignore negative reviews that were given purely to bully an author.

If a reviewer gives a clear reason for why they didn’t like a book, then I can make my own decision about whether or not to take up a book. I can compare the reviewers tastes to my own. As Ranganathan says, “Every book its reader.” Not every book is going to be a hit with every reader. So, if a reviewer says they are triggered by a book’s content, but I’m not, I might take a chance. I might also skip books with racism, sexism, or homophobia unless it serves a purpose in the book. If a reviewer points out multiple flaws with the writing, I want to know so that I can look for something better.

The point of all this is, I want to know if a book is not good before I waste my time. I’d much rather read books that I have a good chance of enjoying. There are too many books out there to waste my time on a bad one.

historical fiction · review

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

37946436If Gavrilo Princip had not fired the shot that started World War I, Lucius Krzelewski would have had to slowly make his way through the ranks of the endless Austro-Hungarian medical bureaucracy to become a doctor. Instead, he enlists as a medical lieutenant and is shipped to a field hospital somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, follows him from his days as a student to the hospital to the end of the war, as he grows from the textbook definition of a callow youth into an emotionally battered field surgeon.

Lucius, when we first meet him, is the privileged youngest son of an aristocratic family living in Vienna. He doesn’t know how to make small talk. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk to women (including his mother). He stutters under pressure. The only thing that brings him pleasure is scientific observation. Medical school is pure joy for him, once he finally convinces his parents to send him and pay his tuition. Study does start to wear a bit thin when he realizes that the extremely stratified bureaucracy above him means that he will barely be allowed in the same room as patients for ages. It doesn’t take much wheedling from his closest friend to encourage him to enlist when war breaks out.

Because the Austro-Hungarian Army is desperate for anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, Lucius is readily accepted and sent to a field hospital near the Eastern Front. On arrival, Lucius learns that all of the previous doctors and medical personnel are dead or fled. The only one who knows anything about medicine is a nursing sister called Margarete. Without her, it’s a wonder anyone would have survived either in Lucius’ hands or during the doctor interregnum. There are scenes in the first half of the book that reminded me strongly of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov who found himself in a similar situation as an untested doctor in a remote part of the Soviet Union. Lucius slowly becomes a competent surgeon and field doctor under Margarete’s roughly diplomatic tutelage.

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Patients and personnel at an Austro-Hungarian field hospital on the Austrian-Italian front.
(Image via Wikicommons)

In addition to Lucius’ growth, a major theme of The Winter Soldier is the growing problem of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier, named Horvath, is the first case Lucius has a chance to observe in his field hospital. We never learn what Horvath saw, but his condition is so extremely debilitating that Lucius fights to keep him from being re-conscripted by a sadistic Austrian officer. At the time, “shell shock” was viewed as cowardice or malingering. Men with this condition were subject to horrific punishments and “treatments,” in order to get them back into the fight. Lucius’ intervention has awful consequences, deepening The Winter Soldier from bildungsroman to a more complicated portrait of a naïve man caught in the middle of a collapsing empire at war. His intervention also means that his romance with Margarete takes a sharp turn towards tragedy.

The Winter Soldier is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read about World War I. Characterization is fully-realized, which I appreciated. What I loved about this book, however, was the way Mason recreated the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its catastrophic end. The book highlights the divisions between the empire’s ethnic groups which became fracture lines by the end of the war. Many of the recruits did not speak German (the empire’s official language) well enough to follow officer’s orders. There are shortages of everything. Transportation is a mess. All of that comes through sharply through Lucius peripatetic attempts to find Margarete in the later half of the book.

I would strongly recommend this book to readers looking for a good read about World War I.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Dream Country, by Shannon Gibney

37683438Who is to blame for the conditions that are turning Kollie Flomo into someone consumed by violent anger? The proximate cause is the tension between Black Americans and African immigrants who are forced into close quarters at Kollie’s Minneapolis high school. But what caused that tension? To answer that question, Shannon Gibney takes us back in series of connected stories about Kollie’s ancestors in Dream Country. In Kollie’s story, every terrible thing that happens is the result of another terrible thing that came before. The chain of blame stretches across an ocean and two centuries.

Kollie is the child of Liberian immigrants who came to the United States after the first Librarian civil war. He has memories of being in Liberia, but he has spent most of his life in Minneapolis, though mostly with other Liberian immigrants. The other Black students at their school—African Americans—enforce a sharp division between themselves and the African immigrants. The Americans mock the Africans’ food, dialect, and attitudes. The Americans call them primitive and every action and comment makes Kollie’s blood boil. After Kollie starts a fight at school and puts another student in the hospital, his parents ship him back to Liberia. They believe it’s the only way to save him.

Kollie’s story takes the first third of Dream Country. Once he arrives at the airport, the perspective shifts to a Liberian man on the run in 1926. Togbar has just run away from his village in an attempt to escape a forced labor crew. After Togbar’s narrative, we go back further in time, to 1820, as freedwoman Yasmine pushes her family to Norfolk, Virginia. In Norfolk, the family can get a boat to the new colony of Liberia. There are hints in these narratives and the shorter ones that follow to let us know that Kollie is descended from Togbar and Yasmine.

Over and over, these characters try to start over, to find a place where they can build a life out from under anyone’s thumb, only to fail. Anger builds over the generations until it seems to explode in Kollie. What causes these characters to fail so many times is racism, classicism, colorism, and other prejudices the hold them down. In Yasmine’s time, we see two varieties of this. White Americans firmly believe that Black people are inferior. The Black Americans believe that the indigenous people are inferior, that they are bringing these “savage” people the “blessings” of civilization. Prejudice rolls down hill; it’s little wonder that Kollie feels so stuck and angry.

Dream Country is a powerful novel. The characters never get lost in its profound statements about historical injustice. The setting and the structure bring a fresh perspective to questions about why there is tension between Black Americans and Africans and between Whites and people of African descent. It’s hard to read like many novels about important ideas, but I say that in the best way possible. The book’s ideas are challenging; they’re supposed to make us uncomfortable. I hope a lot of readers discover it. It needs and deserves to be read widely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

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Notes for bibliotherapuetic use: Recommended for readers who need to see the historical injustices of racism because they don’t understand why people of color can’t just get over it.