A Castle in Romagna, by Igor Štiks

36643798There are some stories we tell over and over because people always think that, this time, it will go differently. A Castle in Romagna, by Igor Štiks (translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović and Russell Scott Valentino), features two such tales. In the present, a friar at Mardi Castle tells a Bosnian tourist the story of Enzo Strecci and his own story of grand-passion-gone-wrong in post-war Yugoslavia.

The unnamed Bosnia tourist has come to Mardi Castle because he is a fan of the work of a sixteenth century Italian poet, Enzo Strecci, who was executed for falling in love with the wrong woman. After an awkward encounter with a friar who leads tours, the tourist is promised a more detailed story about Strecci. The friar then adds his own, eerily similar story of love and exile.

It’s impossible not to see the parallels between the two. I think the only reason the friar lived to tell his stories is a matter of luck and the fact that he happened to know one decent person in his village. The similarities and the spare way Štiks writes make the narratives almost like fairy tales, archetypes that keep inescapably popping up. The sense of inevitability in both tales made me want to shout into the book at the friar and Enzo to warn them that they’re being idiots.

A Castle in Romagna dials up every emotion to eleven. If you are not a fan of grand passions, this is not the book for you. If you do like watching characters falling in love with the wrong people and throwing all caution to the wind, pick this one up. Based on my post last week and my tone in this post, you can probably tell which camp I’m in. This isn’t the fault of A Castle in Romagna. This is a very well written book. I’m just too pragmatic personally for grand passions.

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


The Last Watchman of Cairo, by Michael David Lukas

35791972Joseph, like many other literary sons, only really learns who his father is after his death. A few weeks after his father dies, Joseph receives a package with a letter written in an archaic form of Arabic that turns out to document his family’s long history of serving as watchmen for the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas, moves back and forth in time from the first watchman, to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, to Joseph’s attempts to find out about his father’s life.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo starts in the eleventh century, when Ali becomes the first watchman for the synagogue. Through his eyes, we see a thriving Jewish community in the middle of Muslim Cairo. We also learn about the synagogue’s greatest treasure, the Ezra Scroll, believed to be a perfect torah scroll created by the scribe Ezra. We then jump to the present, to Joseph, who is currently the last in the al-Raqb family. Joseph is the son of a Jewish woman and a Muslim father. Technically, this makes him both Jewish and Muslim. In a way, Joseph is the culmination of the tangled history of the al-Raqb family and the Cairene Jews.

Meanwhile, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo gives us chapters from the perspective of Agnes and Margaret Smith. The Smith twins were linguists and Biblical scholars who played an important role in the recovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 1800s, though credit mostly goes to Solomon Schechter. Ali and Joseph’s chapters are interesting, but the Smith sisters’ parts were my favorite. I wanted to know more than the book gave me about the contents of the genizah. I also wanted more wrangling about who really owns the genizah materials, which are now scattered across several different university collections. I felt squicky at the way the Smiths and Schechter essentially snatched the genizah from the Cairene Jews.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a fast read about a small community and the people who get drawn into it. While I wish it had devoted more time to character development and ethics, I was hooked. This book will be great for readers who like their historical fiction with a heavy dose of academia.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 March 2018.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir writes about why literature is a threat to the intolerant. (LitHub)
    • Chaser: A delightful post by William Savage about Samuel Johnson and Jeremy Bentham’s cats, among other feline companions from the eighteenth century. (Pen and Pension)
  • These Citizen Science projects are perfect for us bookish types. (Book Riot)
  • Katy Waldman wrote a fascinating article about reading Ovid at a time when sexual harassment is everywhere in the media. (The New Yorker)
  • Sara Wood describes creating the cover for The House of Impossible Beauties. (LitHub)
  • If literature’s famous men were on Tindr. (McSweeney’s)
  • I love this post about being a bookish child by Lucy Mangan, if only for paragraphs like this:
    • “But for children, rereading is absolutely necessary. The act of reading is itself still new. A lot of energy is still going into (not so) simple decoding of words and the assimilation of meaning. Only then do you get to enjoy the plot – to begin to get lost in the story. The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.

      “There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s sonnets,” CS Lewis once wrote. “But what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once and thinks that this settles the matter?” The more you read, the more locks and keys you have. Rereading keeps you oiled and working smoothly, the better to let you access yourself and others for the rest of your life.” (The Guardian)


Memento Park, by Mark Sarvas

35259562Matt Santos has had the misfortune of completely misunderstanding his father. He thought he knew enough about Gabor Szántós’ life in Hungary during the war and after to explain his gruffness, his obsession with toy cars, and his reluctance to talk about the past. But after Matt learns that a rare painting might have been stolen from the family in 1944 at the beginning of Mark Sarvas’ Memento Park, he finally starts to see how little he really knew.

Matt has done his best to distance himself from his father. Gabor was a tough man to live with. He would get angry for the smallest reasons. His toy cars were sacred and not to be touched. Any talk about the past was ruthlessly suppressed. When news of a lost painting by Ernst Kálman (fictional as far as I can tell) arrives, Gabor refuses to say anything and tells Matt that they “have nothing to with them.” But the painting gives Matt a perfect opportunity to investigate his origins himself.

With only hints about his Hungarian Jewish heritage, Matt has no idea who he is. He’s felt the lack of an understanding about his family history. Every time he gets close to Judaism—mezuzahs, the cantor’s songs, shabbes dinner—he feels a frisson of belonging. It’s more than he got from his father and it baffles him why Gabor cut himself off from their collective past. It’s only when Matt has a brush with violent anti-Semitism himself that he starts to understand what it means, even now, to be a Jew.

Matt tells his story (silently) to an unlistening security guard in the gallery where the recovered painting hangs. The framing feels a little gimmicky at times, but it allows Matt to move back and forth through time. He lets us reflect on his growing awareness of misunderstanding his father, how Judaism fills the gaps in his existence, and his tangled relationships with two women with missions that he falls in love with. It’s an affecting story and, even though I got a little exasperated by Matt’s neediness, I enjoyed his discoveries.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 March 2018.

The Natashas, by Yelena Moskovich

27241057Yelena Moskovich’s grueling novel, The Natashas, is, I’m afraid, a story that will only be read by people who already agree with its message. The people who probably need to hear about what this book has to say are unlikely to pick it up. This book tells the story of two people who learn to detach themselves and perform their “roles” according to what others want. Béatrice and César’s stories are attended by a Greek chorus of “Natashas,” women who have lost their original identities as they’ve been trafficked across Europe.

Béatrice is a doomed girl, right from the moment she starts to blossom into a beauty. As soon as she starts to develop breasts, boys and men begin to pay very uncomfortable attention to her. The day she is groped the school hallway by a group of boys singing “La Marseilles” is the day she starts to slide away from herself. Béatrice does not appear to have enough of a sense of self-preservation to stand up for herself. No one around her notices what’s happening; there’s no one to catch her when she slips away.

César, a Mexican actor who relocates to France, has a little more volition when it comes to his detachment. His inner self is a gay man with a talent for imitation. But that self is not accepted by his family or even, it turns out, César himself. He learns to take on personas to help with daily life. His stereotypical Latin hothead character seems to be the most successful. César slips into the role more and more easily, until he lets “Juan Miguel” pilot for him more often than not.

It’s utterly depressing to watch Béatrice and César lose themselves. The Natashas provide some leavening anger to the story. There’s a tiny dose of hope, but this really is a relentlessly depressing book. Because this book is about the submission and erasure of independent women and gay men, as I said before, I doubt this book will be picked up by readers who should see what it’s like for people to struggle with their appearance or sexuality in the face of rampant misogyny, objectification, and homophobia. Readers who do find this message interesting may be battered by its unsparing brutality.

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

Oh My God With the Feelings; Or, I Never Got Romeo and Juliet

I don’t have a hard time with unlikeable characters. I can understand curmudgeons. The characters I have hard time with are lovers who are so self-involved that they destroy lives around them. Romeo and JulietWuthering Heights. A book that I just recently finished called A Castle in Romagna (review pending). These characters baffle me.

220px-Romeoandjuliet1597For some reason, Romeo and Juliet is taught to junior high students here in the States. I used to joke that it was supposed to turn teenagers off of dramatic and idiotic grand gestures. The problem is that teenagers will always do dramatic and idiotic things because that’s what teenagers do. Years later, it seems like people can only remember the beautiful words and completely forget the ending. Romeo and Juliet is invariably used by people as shorthand for romance—unless they say it around English majors, in which case, they’re corrected faster than the people who call the monster Frankenstein.

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t like these characters. Perhaps it’s the sudden, overwhelming feelings that the characters profess to. Wuthering Heights has lines that I found hilarious when I read them. (“I am Heathcliff!”) While authors usually do sterling work explaining curmudgeons’ backstories, avengers’ righteous anger, depressed characters’ woes, but I’ve yet to find an author who can adequately explain great passion. I thought that both Heathcliff and Cathy could both have done better.

Just as well authors don’t try to write these stories very often. I much prefer novels where characters fall in love more organically, when they don’t respond to setbacks with plans involving poisons, and where I’m much more likely to believe they’ll stay together beyond the last page. I am fairly convinced that Juliet and Romeo and Cathy and Heathcliff would’ve broken up if they’d actually gotten together. Give me the characters with flaws, insecurities, and unperfect looks. Those books go to my heart faster than anything else.

Since it’s Valentine’s and I’ve been slagging off the great romances for most of this post, here’s a list of believable love stories I actually, well, loved:


Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine

35569734I’ve only read a few of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. For some reason, I’ve been more interested in the character’s afterlife in other authors’ hands. In Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine, we have a fresh take on the immortal detective. The novel begins with a discovery by writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges. Borges takes a manuscript he found to an unnamed PI that Borges dreamed of but who inexplicably exists. The manuscript appears to be written by Sherlock Holmes and covers what might be his real last case.

The manuscript begins with Holmes’ retirement. Instead of becoming a beekeeper in Sussex, Holmes began disguising himself as academics, studying up on various subjects, and lecturing at Oxford and Cambridge. The game seems to help keep his brain occupied, but it’s clear that it’s not a thrilling existence. Then, out of the blue, Holmes gets a visit from Arthur Conan Doyle, who tells him a very strange story about a séance, a ghostly prime minister who is still alive, and someone taking a shot at the author. Holmes leaps back into action, only to find a case that is weirder than he could have anticipated.

Image via Wikicommons

Because Holmes (or, this version of Holmes) is writing his own story, we learn a lot more about his beliefs, insecurities, values, and the like. He reflects on what it was like having John Watson tell his story for him, for creating the great Sherlock Holmes out of his cases. He also laments his fame. I think he likes having to outsmart people but, at 73, he’s getting a bit tired of dodging fans and going around in disguises.

What Holmes turns up in his investigation is truly incredible. I won’t reveal exactly what Holmes finds; that would ruin it. I can say that I love this take on Holmes and on the nature of fiction and authorship. Holmes Entangled is a great book for readers who like to think of characters as having a real life of their own.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs

35297219Being the child of a legendary genius is difficult, especially when one has no talent for mathematics like one’s grandfather. After Isaac Severy commits suicide, it seems like everyone’s weaknesses and insecurities come out into the open. This might have been enough for any adopted granddaughter to cope with. But in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs, Hazel Severy is sent on a quest for her famous grandfather’s work. She has to dodge mysterious pseudo-governmental organizations as well as grieving family members.

During the reception after her grandfather’s funeral, Hazel finds a letter from him, asking her to find and destroy his most recent work. She’s not supposed to tell anyone about it. But how is a failing bookstore owner ever to follow the clues laid out by a mathematical genius? Hazel’s not a blood relative. She doesn’t have the family spark. And yet, she seems to be the only person that Isaac Severy trusted with his secrets.

While we follow Hazel’s sometimes hapless attempts at solving Isaac’s puzzles, we also get to look into the lives of Philip, Isaac’s son, and Gregory, Hazel’s brother. Philip is a capable mathematician, but not brilliant like his father. It eats at him, as does his wife’s grief after their daughter dies in an accident shortly after Isaac’s death. He’s flailing. It’s not the best time for vaguely threatening government consultants to come sniffing around. They’re after his father’s work, but Philip is vulnerable to a bit of flattery. Meanwhile, Gregory is also falling apart. He’s been following his abusive former foster father (another of Isaac’s sons) and pining after his lover.

There’s a lot going on in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy. Every chapter reveals another layer to this complicated family. Most fascinating of all is what Isaac was working on before his death. I won’t reveal the secret here, but I can say that it brings up questions about free well and determinism. This book is full of chaos that the characters are desperate to make sense of. They want to find meaning in their recent tragedies and I can’t blame them. This book shows us how Hazel, Philip, and Gregory seek answers in very different ways that bring up even more questions to ponder after the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell

35458733It’s not a delusion if someone else sees something strange, right? This is what I told myself as I read Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions. This is also what the protagonist, widow Elsie Bainbridge, tells herself when she hears unexplained noises, sees doors lock and unlock, and finds the “silent companion” statues all over the house she inherited from her husband after his sudden death. Even at the end of the book, I had questions about what was real and what wasn’t.

The Silent Companions takes place in three different times at The Bridge, the ancestral home of the Bainbridge family. In 1866, a badly burned woman is treated by a new doctor. This doctor thinks the woman might be innocent of arson and murder, as everyone else thinks. This woman, a year before, is the widowed Mrs. Elsie Bainbridge. She’s pregnant and suddenly in charge of running a country home. And in 1635, Anne Bainbridge grows increasingly worried about her daughter—a child she believes she conceived through magic.

The Bridge is an unsettling place, especially once Elsie orders the garret reopened. She and her companion find a painted statue of a girl that they decide to place in the house’s entrance hall. After that, nothing goes right. More and more of the statues, called the companions, appear all over the house. Elsie would worry more about her sanity if her hired companion, Sarah, didn’t also see and hear the same things she does. Like Anne’s increasing alarm about her uncanny child, everything that happens to Elsie seems believable because they’re not the only one having those thoughts or experiencing the weirdness. At the end of The Silent Companions, we’re asked to weigh in on what really happened to Elsie. Is she insane? Is The Bridge actually haunted?

I was a little disappointed in how the 1635 plot and the 1860s plots were integrated in The Silent Companions. The 1635 plot is used in the 1860s plots, but not as much as I would have liked. The timelines don’t really hang together most of the time. This was really my only problem with the book. I enjoyed the rest of it. It was fascinating to follow two women down the road to what might (or might not) be insanity.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

This week on the bookish internet