review · historical fiction

The Letter Bearer, by Robert Allison

Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to the protagonist of Robert Allison’s Homeric novel, The Letter Bearer, is that he wasn’t killed outright when he rode over a mine somewhere in the Libyan desert. Death is everywhere in this tale. The rider’s wounds might kill him. If they don’t, then the Afrika Korps, the Italians, or the Senussi might get him. If he manages to evade the Axis or the locals, the desert has a good chance of killing him through heat and dehydration.

In hypnotic prose, things go from bad to worse to abysmal for our protagonist. As soon as he regains consciousness, the rider (so-called because he was riding a motorcycle when it hit that mine) is discovered by a couple of Afrika Korps soldiers. One of them steals his dog tags as a good luck charm and the other takes his watch. We only learn later how our protagonist lost the insignia on his uniform. The rider lost his memory in the explosion and now he has no chance of learning who he is unless he has the extraordinary luck of being found by someone who knows who he is.

After being left for dead by the Germans, the rider is found again—this time by a small group of British deserters. One of them who has a bit of medical knowledge patches him up, removing the shrapnel buried in his ribs. But all is not well. The deserters are not about to take the rider back to the British Army. These guys are on the run from everyone. All they want is to find somewhere relatively safe and well enough supplied to see out the war.

The rider faces physical challenges as he heals, mental challenges as he struggles to recover his memory, and emotional as he works his way through the sack of mail he had with him since the mine explosion. He has a vague hope that he might be the author of one of the letters and that reading them might trigger his memory. He reads these letters so often while trying to force his memory that he begins to imagine himself meeting the wife of one of the letter writers.

The Letter Bearer follows the rider through his long Odyssey. He faces hardship after hardship, dreadful bad lucky, language barriers, and more as he tries to find his way back. It’s hard to pin down details of when and where this book takes place other than it’s somewhere in the middle of the North African Campaign in Libya. Some readers may be annoyed at the vagueness, but I think it was incredibly effective at creating the experience of a man who finds himself defenseless in the middle of a war zone. It also helps capture the chaos of war from a soldier’s point of view, who only wants to survive and doesn’t know the big picture. This is an intriguing, original war novel.

British light tanks in the Western Desert Campaign, 1940. (Image via Wikicommons)
historical fiction · literary fiction · review

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World reminded me just how much I love unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they have deliberately disconnected themselves from the world around them. Others can see the disconnection, but they can’t. These kinds of characters allow me to do two of my favorite things. First, I get two stories the for the price of one between what the narrator is telling me and what’s actually happening. Second, I get to psychoanalyze the narrator. They’re not lying to the reader because they’re a criminal. They’re lying to themselves for a reason I get to discover for myself. It’s an English major’s delight.

By 1948, Masuji Ono has retired from his work as a successful painter. He lives in a wonderful house. His oldest daughter is married with a child and his younger daughter is in the middle of marriage negotiations. He lost his son in the war but, on the whole, Ono is satisfied with his life. It’s only over the course of the book that we learn just how much Ono is ignoring and distorting about his own history—especially his role in creating propaganda for the Imperial Japanese government before and during World War II.

An Artist of the Floating World unspools over the course of about eighteen months. We join Ono as he and his younger daughter, Noriko, are in the early stages of marriage negotiations with the Saito family. As part of these negotiations, the Onos are investigated to learn more about the finances, background, and so on. Ono is not worried. His older daughter, Setsuko, however, has some worries about what the investigation might turn up. Her comments about what the Saitos might find out about him bother Ono enough that he starts to look up people he knew before the war. He meets with the man who helped him sell propagandistic paintings. He tries but fails to meet with the student he wronged, the one who ended up imprisoned for years for anti-Imperial activities.

Flowers of Edo, by Utamaro, an artist who is referenced in this novel. (Image via Wikicommons)

Ono strongly reminds me of Stevens, the protagonist of The Remains of the Day. Both characters have a firm vision of who they are and what they want to be. Stevens wanted to be the epitome of a butler and that’s what he turned himself into, at the cost of living an ordinary life. Ono wants to be a respected artist, looked up to by younger generations of artists. He is also deeply nostalgic for the way life and society used to be before the war. Several times during An Artist of the Floating World, Ono remarks on how a couple of the younger characters have condemned the actions of some Japanese leaders and business men during the war. Even though some of these men were convicted of war crimes, Ono always says that things were complicated “back then” or that what happened wasn’t all that bad. Ono has either turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Imperial soldiers or has kept himself deliberately ignorant. When he does come close to thinking that maybe his own propaganda work was wrong, Ono rationalizes away any culpability. He’s so smooth about it it’s breathtaking.

An Artist of the Floating World itself also reminds me of The Remains of the Day. Even though they are both set on opposite sides of the world, they are set in very hierarchical and reserved societies. The characters in An Artist of the Floating World are highly deferential and oblique in their criticisms. It took me a few dozen pages to learn how to read this book. Once I got a handle on the dialogue, I realized that this book seems to have more subtext than actual text. It is very much a joy to read for those of us who like to take books apart to see how they work, like me. I strongly recommend this book for English majors and anyone who loved The Remains of the Day and are looking for something similar.

I take issue · opinions

I Take Issue…With Bad Copycat Publishing

I understand. I really do. Publishers want to make money and, traditionally, the best way to do that is to keep producing something like a guaranteed winner. After The Da Vinci Code became a hit, the bookish world was treated to a flood of books about historical mysteries that would change everything we ever knew about the world. Publishers are still trying to find books like the Harry Potter series, Gone Girl, and others. I don’t have a problem with any of that.

Getting lightning to strike twice, as it were, is hard work. One has to learn about the exact conditions that caused the lightning and how to reproduce those conditions. What was it about Harry Potter that made readers fall in love? Why on earth was Twilight so popular? It’s like having to psychoanalyze without being able to actually talk to anyone. One can only make decisions based on impressions and it’s no wonder that publishers sometimes get it wrong and produce books based on incorrect deductions.

Alexei Harlamoff

So far, I’m good. What I do have a problem with, is when publishers try to copy the wrong parts of the books people liked and go too far, only to produce one note books that are just not what we wanted. For example: The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag. I don’t blame Natt och Dag for what that book ended up becoming. I blame whoever edited and published it. Reading it felt like someone told an author, people like really dark, awful things set in Scandinavia. Nothing about the society. Nothing about the detectives, really—just violence on top of violence. I can’t believe that almost the entire population of Stockholm circa 1793 were sadists.

Scandinavian noir has been big in the English language market since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo broke out in 2008. Since that book made it big, we’ve seen dozens of books set in the freezing north: the Inspector Erlendur novels, the Kurt Wallander books, the Harry Hole series, and so on. They tend to feature moody, troubled detectives uncovering awful secrets hidden behind the seemingly egalitarian and calm façades of Nordic life. The grumpy detectives are nothing new. We’ve had those since Sherlock Holmes. The setting is new and who doesn’t love lifting up rocks to see what’s hiding underneath? The best books in this sub genre are deeply appealing for their psychological depth. Unfortunately for me, The Wolf and the Watchman had none of the good things about Scandinoir.

Pity the poor readers who end up on the receiving end of terrible books like the Fifty Shades series (which began as fan fiction of Twilight) or all the books about teenagers required to kill each other after The Hunger Games came out. I might be more inclined to forgive if I hadn’t just finished a copycat book that got it wrong. What about you, gentle readers? Have you ever read a terrible book that seemed like to come straight from a focus group?

literary fiction · review

The Temptation to Be Happy, by Lorenzo Marone

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Lorenzo Marone’s The Temptation to Be Happy (excellently translated by Shaun Whiteside) is masquerading as grump lit*. The book opens with an old widower who doesn’t get along with just about anyone. Cesare Annuziato’s life turns around when he decides to start helping people out—in his own off-kilter fashion. Even though this book gets darker than most of that genre, it still ends on an uplifting note. I needed a book like this after reading The Wolf and the Watchman.

Cesare is seventy-seven years old when we meet him, living alone in his apartment in Naples. His children have moved on with their lives. His son, Dante, is gay and everyone knows, except he hasn’t officially come out to Cesare. Sveva is a clearly unhappy lawyer, mother, and wife. His neighbors include the cat hoarder, Eleonora; his old co-worker, Marino; and the newly arrived Emma and her abusive husband. As The Temptation to Be Happy rolls on, we learn more about each and watch as Cesare is finally drawn into their problems as he comes out of his asocial shell—more out of irritation than altruism, because he can’t stand to see people keep screwing up their lives anymore.

This book is very much about happiness, but in ways that belie Tolstoy’s truism about happy and unhappy families. For a long time, Cesare chased happiness. He believes that a new job or a new lover would do the trick. It never did, so he fell back into his old job as an accountant and his family life. Nothing, he finally learned, could really make him happy so much as the little pleasures of life. The pages in which Cesare lists the things he likes at the end of the book are incredibly moving after the turmoil and sadness of the book up to that point. Nothing makes everyone happy. Everyone has their own individual joys in life; we just have to find them.

In addition to its lessons about the individual, occasionally selfish nature of the pursuit of happiness, The Temptation to Be Happy also has a lot to say about not wasting time on white lies, not speaking up for yourself, not tolerating rudeness, and accepting that we can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. This was a wise book, wrapped up in stories that feel emotionally honest to stop the whole thing from being mawkish or facile. I enjoyed it so much I just devoured the thing.

* Think of A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman, and books like the ones on this list from Get Literary.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag

Trigger warning for extreme violence and sexual sadism.

About two years ago, I heard someone say that they didn’t like a book because it put thoughts in her head that she didn’t want polluting hear brain. After reading The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag, I now know exactly what she felt like. This novel is almost relentlessly vile, as character after character is shown to be violent, duplicitous, or sadistic. There are almost no good people in this book and lots of very bad things happen to just about everyone. It is as if someone took the author aside and said, look, people like dark books, so go and write the darkest, grimmest, nastiest things your brain can come up with. That’s what reading The Wolf and the Watchman is like.

The novel begins with two children hauling Stockholm watchman, Mikel Cardell (violent), out of his drunk and take him to a body found in an open sewer. Cardell retrieves the body, only to find that it is entirely limbless, with its eyes, tongue, and teeth removed. When dying former lawyer-turned-detective Cecil Winge (manipulative) finds out about the case, he wants to solve it and asks Cardell to be his partner. Once Cardell is beaten up in a sure sign that the pair are on to something and they both discover the incredibly awful fate of their murder victim, we are taking on a long side trip to learn about the last months of Kristopher Blix (a naive coward who really will do anything to save his skin) and learn how Anna Stina Knapp became a woman willing to do shockingly awful things to stay out of the workhouse.

The side trips are relevant, but it takes a while to understand how they’re related to the overall plot—especially Anna Stina’s story. It’s only in the last quarter of the book that we rejoin Cardell and Winge for a series of hairpin plot twists and even more appalling revelations as they finally discover who their victim was and how he came to be floating in sewage.

I was drawn to The Wolf and the Watchman because of its setting. I clearly am a sucker for places and times I haven’t yet visited in fiction. This book was also described as The Alienist in Sweden and I just couldn’t resist. I wish I had. This book is not among the best of the Scandinoir tradition; it’s not even among the second best. The characters give unnatural speeches. The motive behind the main crime is implausible and convoluted. And all of this is on top of almost 400 pages of relentless inhumanity. I don’t recommend it at all.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

nonfiction · review

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee

When I was a library school student, I recall learning about faceted classification and the complexities of organizing large amounts of information. The more information in the pile, the harder is to organize them in a way that makes it easier for others to find information. For example, if you have a group of novels, do you organize them by subject, mood, alphabetically, chronologically, by size? We learned about librarians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who tackled these problems and gave us the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System. But, as I read Edward Wilson-Lee’s deeply erudite book The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, I learned that none other than the son of Christopher Columbus wrestled with these very questions in his quest to create a universal library in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Hernando Colón (better known in English, if not in Wilson-Lee’s book, as Ferdinand Columbus) was the illegitimate younger son of Columbus and, among other achievements, is the author of a lost biography of his father that did a lot to shape his father’s image and legacy for centuries—at least until historians and indigenous advocates reminded us of the terrible, genocidal toll* of Columbus’ actions. The beginning and the end of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books focus on Colón’s efforts to build his father’s reputation as a hero of exploration and secure the riches and titles that were promised to himself and his older, legitimate brother as a result of Columbus’ discoveries. Though Colón helped his father with the bizarre Book of Prophecies—a collection of quotations from religious and literary works that somehow proved Columbus’ divine destiny but mostly reveals Columbus’ loosening grasp on reality—he later worked to create a rigorously documented biography.

Undated portrait of Hernando Colón (Image via Wikicommons)

This may sound dry and only possessing a niche appeal for librarians, especially cataloguers. But I found it fascinating as a history of ideas. During Colón’s time, book collectors and researchers are highly selective. They tended to only collect works of theology in Latin and Greek, possibly Hebrew. Others might collect books about medicine or the natural sciences but, again, usually only books deemed canonical and orthodox. These libraries were easy to organize. Colón’s library, however, was a blizzard of paper. Because he couldn’t classify it using traditional schemas, Colón had to think of something new. Edward-Lee describes Colón’s thought process in detail as the collector wrestled with issues that we librarians are only just now starting to solve using algorithm-based search engines. Colón’s big problem was how to find a piece of information when the reader is not sure where it is or even if it exists—a question that is very familiar to librarians.

The middle part of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books was the most interesting to me. It deals with Colón’s efforts to build a massive library that would contain as much printed matter as possible and then organize it into a system that would allow researchers to find any useful piece of information in that library. By the end of his life, Colón had acquired more than fifteen thousand books, printed images, and pamphlets. Because there were more books than anyone could remember, Colón himself and his assistants worked on summarizes and a classification system that strongly reminded me of the efforts to create a faceted classification system that I had read about in library school. Colón, we learn, was an iconoclast because he wanted to collect everything he could get his hands on. He didn’t want just the books prescribed by the great collectors and thinkers of his time. He didn’t want just want the big booksellers included. He really did want everything, especially texts printed by smaller publishers.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books—named for a shipment of over 1,000 printed texts bought by Colón that was lost at sea—is great tour of the intellectual world of the late 1400s and early 1500s. Edward-Lee makes a few odd choices, such as constantly calling Colón Hernando instead of Ferdinand Columbus, and once calls Christopher Columbus the first European to lay eyes on the Americas**. But aside from these quibbles, I learned a great deal from this book and have so much food for thought that I know I am already going to recommend this to my cataloguing friends.

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

*New research has shown that so many indigenous people died as a result of European contact that it changed the climate.
**Vikings got to Canada centuries before Columbus hit the West Indies.

bookish links

This week on the bookish internet

  • Joycita Rose Malrey Lucas is a bookish hero for asking Scholastic to send copies of a book to her classmates, who couldn’t always afford books. (Moby Lives)
  • The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets is fascinating and sad at the same time. (Open Culture)
  • Marie Myong-Ok Lee has thoughts about how autism is portrayed and used in fiction. (New York Times)
  • Reddit readers have advice for reading more. The usual advice is there, but also some new tips. (Lifehacker)
  • Emily MacGuire reminds readers that even if we’re not classically “well read,” we can be differently well read. (The Guardian)
  • Part of the joy of reading Dickens is the incredible (in both senses of the word) names in the novels. (Biblioklept)
  • Nick Rapitrazone writes in praise of line editors. (LitHub)
  • Keira Drake and Jonah Winter describe their experiences with the vicious call out culture online that led to their book cancelations or failures. (New York Times)