The Censor’s Notebook, by Liliana Corobca

It isn’t until nearly the end of Liliana Corobca’s semi-experimental novel, The Censor’s Notebook, that we find out what lead to Filofteia Moldovean becoming (as she calls herself) the best and most perfect censor in Romania. Before Filofteia reveals her past to anyone who might be reading her notebook, we are taken on an extended tour inside the mind of a woman who has trained herself to see every phrase, every allusion, every word, as a potential attack against the Socialist Republic of Romania. It’s curious (but perhaps not surprising) that Filofteia is either unwilling or unable to turn that fierce eye on her own shortcomings. The Censor’s Notebook is painstakingly translated by Monica Cure, even down to Filofteia’s invented words.

The bulk of The Censor’s Notebook takes place over half of 1974 in Bucharest. Before we get to Filofteia’s musings, however, two introductory sections explain how Filofteia’s notebook came to be in the hands of a researcher working on the history of censorship in Romania under communism. These notebooks were supposed to be destroyed when they were turned in by their owners because they represented proof that extensive censorship took place in what was supposed to be a worker’s paradise. No one ever seems to have read them, which is a good thing considering the things Filofteia says and admits to. She would have had a lot of explaining to do to the Securitate, Romania’s version of the KGB.

Because Filofteia is reasonably sure that no one will read her notebook, she feels free to gossip about her co-workers. (Her colleague Roza’s cleavage and its hypnotic powers on men and her crush on a man a bit higher up the food chain appear frequently.) She also fulminates over the terrible novels she has to read. She loathes writers (especially the pretentious ones who speak so abstractly that it’s hard to know what they’re actually saying and the ones who mine the dictionary for obscure words to try and get around the censors). Only once, late in this book, is Filofteia moved to tears by a passage of literature. We also learn about the endless directives that arrive from somewhere in the government that either ban new words and ideas or, more rarely, allow writers to use them in their works. (Apparently, “love” was only allowed in the early 1960s.)

As much as Filofteia complains, we know from her thoughts about her brief transfer to another department (where she is horrified to see the full brunt of highly sexual French novels instead of the sedate, coded Romanian fare she’s used to), there is nowhere she would rather be than in her office in the Literature department of the censorship bureau. She doesn’t trust anyone else to make mistakes but, more importantly, it appears that she wants to stay safely under the radar. All of her energy is devoted to staying right where she is.

After some sections in which Filofteia seems to have some kind of censor’s apotheosis (a section that I admit I skimmed because it was really hard to get through), I finally landed on chapters that revealed why Filofteia is such an ardent censor. For most of the book, I was repelled and fascinated by her philosophy of censorship. I could intellectually understand it. A censor was a necessary job, according to the repressive Ceaușescu regime. What I wrestled with was the way that Filofteia turned it into a calling. She’s a true believer in a practice that I consider abhorrent. In the last chapters of The Censor’s Notebook, we finally see the events in Filofteia’s past that she has sublimated into her drive to erase romantic love and liberty and every little scrap of free expression as dictated by the bureau’s directives. I don’t want to give any of this away except to say that all is satisfactorily explained in the end. I had more sympathy for the creature Filofteia had become, even if I can never excuse her censorial zeal.

It’s ironic that I want to take my own red pen to some sections of The Censor’s Notebook to trim some of the repetitive sections. My desire to take a little off the top echoed Filofteia’s argument that her censorship actually improves the texts that come across her desk. But in my defense, my thoughts about cutting a few pages come purely from a motive to tighten up the storytelling and not to ensure that the words conform to official regulations. And really, my annoyance at some of Filofteia’s maundering about the high art of censorship honestly came from my own struggles to get through the text. I quite enjoyed parts of The Censor’s Notebook, particularly the scenes in which Filofteia slips and shows her human side. So although I have some qualms about recommending this book generally, I think it would be a fascinating read for a reader who doesn’t mind a challenging read that pushes them to think about the purpose of literature and the necessity of free expression (and also one who isn’t afraid to skim with things get too heavy).

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

Union Boulevard and the Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, 1986 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore

We like to think that we would be heroes, the kind of people who would save others or stand up for our principles. History and literature are full of examples of folks who become heroes when the opportunity arose. For my part, I’ve always had a soft spot for people who make different decisions because I think these stories are more honest, even if they’re more ignoble. I know enough about myself to realize that I’m no hero. If given the choice between dying to save someone else and living, I’ll probably choose to live. So when I met Rebecca West, the protagonist of A.K. Blakemore’s outstanding novel The Manningtree Witches, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in this regard.

The Manningtree Witches is based on historical events that took place during the English Civil War. It even features real people like the notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Rebecca West and her mother also appear in the historical record. We meet the prickly and peculiar Rebecca on an ordinary day in the town of Manningtree, Essex in 1643. It’s an ordinary day for her. She gets up, grabs a bit, bickers with her mother, and goes to work. She lives a hard life near the bottom of the social pecking order. Shortly after this introduction, Matthew Hopkins arrives and purchases one of the town’s taverns. His quiet but menacing presence makes his real business—seeking out witches—readily apparent. It’s not long before cold, hunger, and misfortune start to bring out the worst in people. Egged on by Hopkins’s talk of witches and demons, folk start to point fingers at Rebecca’s mother and her friends. Rebecca gets swept along with them because it is a lot easier to tar someone with the brush of witchcraft than it is to exonerate them.

Frontispiece from The Discovery of Witches, by Matthew Hopkins, 1647 (Image via Wikicommons)

We follow Rebecca as tensions rise in Manningtree. Through her eyes, we see the mundane spats between West’s mother and the other accused witches that later become the evidence used to convict these women. A sharp word to an annoying child is transformed by the townspeople into a witch’s curse. A fatal illness or a miscarriage are seen as proof that there are agents of the devil walking around. Rebecca is much more rational than Hopkins and the rest of the accusers. She knows that there are reasonable explanations for everything. But, because she is so shy and of such low status, no one listens to her when she manages to get a word out.

Rebecca’s inability to speak up for herself also provides ample room for her to think about the catch-22 she’s in. When Hopkins gives Rebecca a way out—if she lies about her co-accused and confesses to being caught up in witchcraft—she’s faced with a stark choice. On the one hand, is there any honor in telling the truth and being hanged as a witch? On the other, could she live with herself for lying and condemning her mother and her mother’s friends? Rebecca grew up in a Puritan town. Lying is a sin, let alone betraying her mother. But then, committing the sin of a lie might be a small price to pay for one’s life and the chance to get far, far away from Manningtree.

The Manningtree Witches is written in lively and authentically old-fashioned language that made me feel like I was sitting on Rebecca’s shoulder while she worked and pondered and debated. I relished the vocabulary of this book and utterly adored the vivid descriptions of the poor, backward town of Manningtree. The fantastic writing, paired with the rich character development of Rebecca and Hopkins, made this a knockout work of historical fiction. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read about a witch trial. It’s never sentimental but honest and gritty.

Into the Riverlands, by Nghi Vo

Into the Riverlands, the third volume of Nghi Vo’s delightful series of novellas (see my reviews for The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain), continues the adventures of Chih and Almost Brilliant as they collect whatever stories the people they meet care to share. Chih also seems to be a magnet for trouble, too, although they never cause it. They are modest enough that they probably wouldn’t consider their (mis)adventures worth saving, so it’s definitely a good thing that their avian companion Almost Brilliant has perfect recall and can share all the thrilling and comical details of what befalls the pair.

Chih and Almost Brilliant walk into a tea shop for food and refreshment in the notoriously dangerous Riverlands (home of the fearsome Hollow Hand bandits, warlords, and other people who like to murder and rob) and, before their order arrives, a fight breaks out. The waitress carrying Chih’s tea collides with a belligerent man. The man starts to throw his weight around and, like a good (if less than pious) cleric, Chih attempts to defuse the situation. Chih’s efforts are in vain. Thankfully, a martial artist sitting nearby decides to throw her weight around with the bully. Fists and furniture fly in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a wuxia movie. The next thing we know, Chih is traveling deeper into the Riverlands with the martial artist, her sworn sister, and an older couple who take charge of the scene in the tavern before turning into something like camp counselors for the younger members of the party.

The Riverlands road the quintet travel is not entirely safe and everyone except Chih keeps a weather eye out for trouble. In between episodes of “trouble,” they tell stories to Chih and Almost Brilliant about warrior women and legendary heroes. These stories provide an extra couple of layers to Into the Riverlands, which is one of the things I love about this series; you get many more stories than you pay for here. The tellers don’t intend it but, through our vantage point at Chih’s shoulders, we can see connections in the form of women who break out of their expected roles to make their own destinies with their fists, determination, and the help of good friends. By the time Chih separates from her road companions, it’s easy to see that there might be another pair of sworn companions who might someday become legends.

These vibrant novellas are the perfect way to be transported for an afternoon; I had a wonderful time with Chih, Almost Brilliant, and their protectors in the Riverlands. I adore the way that Nghi Vo borrows from Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cultures for worldbuilding and story inspiration and I hope this series continues for many more books.

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

This week on the bookish internet

The Seed Detective, by Adam Alexander

Have you ever wondered, when you visit the produce section of a grocery store or encountered an unusual dish at a new restaurant, how our ancestors ever worked out how to take the wild things growing around them and turned them into giant pumpkins, lethally hot chillis, or the stunning variety of Brassicas? I certainly have, but not to the extent that Adam Alexandar has. In The Seed Detective, Alexander discusses the wide variety of heirloom and heritage varieties of vegetables he’s collected on his travels around the world and now grows in his garden. By the end of the book, Alexandar will have taken you on a global tour of peas, beans, tomatoes, nearly all the Brassica species and varieties, lettuces, alliums, corn, and chillis—and will probably have you wanting to make a quick trip to the store to stock up.

Bookended with an introduction about one of the first plants Alexander collected the seeds of and a conclusion about the dangers of monoculture agriculture, The Seed Detective is divided into two major parts. The first covers plants of the Old World (Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa, and Asia). The second goes over plants from the New World (North and South America). The distinction has to do with place of origin but, as Alexander shows us over and over again, a tasty plant will grow legs. The story of chillis is proof enough of this. Plants in the Capsicum genus are native to southern Mexico and Central America. They proved so popular (partly as a replacement for expensive black pepper and partly because a lot of people really like challenging the fortitude of their tastebuds) that folks started growing them everywhere. What would Indian, southeast Asian, Chinese, and Korean food be like without the system-clearing fire of chillis? North American tomatoes, too, are so popular in Italy that it’s almost impossible to imagine Italian food without them.

Alexander is not just a seed collector and gardener; he’s also a student of botany and the etymology of plant names. All of the chapters about the plants Alexander has collected over the years include histories of how the plants came to get their names, botanical and common. To be honest, these were some of my favorite parts of The Seed Detective. I was delighted to learn how many indigenous names are partially preserved in their English common names. For example, the Nahautl name tomatl is where we got “tomato” and the name for squashes can be traced back to a Narragansett word (entirely separate from the etymology of the verb “squash”). Garlic, it turns out, has been with English speakers so long that its name is an Old English word that hasn’t changed much in over a thousand years.

Botanical illustration of Capsicum annuum, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897 (Image via Wikicommons)

The only place that Alexandar’s book falls flat is when he talks about how any of these plants that he gushes over actually tastes. He has a strangely limited vocabulary when it comes to flavor. Alexander mostly talks about plants as being either tasty or bland. We can get a bit more detail when he compares varieties, although he mostly just declares one variety as tastier than another. Some types of corn are described as nutty or sweet, but that’s about as detailed as it gets. This flaw is very noticeable given that Alexander can vividly describe the appearance of seeds or growing plants. I understand that flavor is a difficult thing to describe as it’s such a subjective sense and Alexander is not a chef. Still, I was annoyed that Alexander would sort plants into the tasty or bland categories after waxing lyrical about verdant foliage, the length of the seed pods, or the vibrant colors of tomatoes and chillis.

In spite of Alexander’s apparent inability to talk about flavor, I think gardeners and self-taught botanists will enjoy The Seed Detective. There’s a lot to learn here about not just the origins of plants and how they came to be cultivated over the centuries but also small bits of advice about growing a global array of plants on a couple of acres in Monmouthshire, England. I might suggest that, if you don’t have access to a garden full of dewy fresh vegetables at hand, you might want to make up a batch of your favorite bean casserole or some ratatouille before you open up The Seed Detective.

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

Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s magnificent, devasting novel, Our Missing Hearts, is the perfect book for our times, in the best possible way. It’s like Ng took all of my worries about the world and validated them without offering false hope (change is going to take work). This book is one I’m going to be pushing into readers’ hands for months (if not years) to come.

Bird Gardner lives in New England, sometime in the not-too-distant future. He once had a mother but now only lives with his dad, who constantly repeats rules meant to keep the shrunken family together: don’t talk about his poet mother to anyone, avoid trouble at all costs, and don’t question the PACT (Protect American Culture and Traditions Act). These rules are troubling, of course, but what’s even more troubling are PACT’s ripple effects throughout American society. Bird isn’t the only one trying to avoid trouble because the powers that be have figured out how to control all dissent. To keep people quiet, take away their children.

In her afterword, Ng points to historical precedents for governments taking children away from parents who are, somehow, a challenge to the majority’s status quo. Governments in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other places took indigenous children from their parents to “civilize” them. The Trump administration separated children from immigrant parents. It is a terrifyingly effective tactic. In Our Missing Hearts, Bird slowly learns why his friend, Sadie (who was taken from her activist parents), burns with fury at the adults around her who keep her from going home, why everyone seems so afraid to voice their thoughts, why so many books have been removed from the libraries and schools, and, above all, why his mother had to leave.

Our Missing Hearts is narrated by Bird except for a middle section in which Bird’s mother, Margaret, gets to tell her story. She takes us back to an economic collapse so awful that it eclipsed the Great Depression. The collapse—called the Crisis—was blamed on China, where Margaret’s parents emigrated from. People of Asian descent (Chinese or otherwise) were attacked or shunned by white Americans. (Ng references the racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin in the afterword.) Margaret tells us how she survived the Crisis and found Bird’s father. Their love story is beautifully told and had my heart aching long before Margaret gets to the part where she explains how one of her poems became a flashpoint in the anti-Asian/anti-PACT movement.

One thing that really jumped out at me about Our Missing Hearts was the use of art to protest PACT and the complacency of white Americans. Because the fear of losing one’s children is so strong, activists have gone underground instead of staging mass protests or more forceful responses to oppression, people will create guerilla works of art that can’t be traced to anyone but that remind anyone who sees them that children are being stolen. Margaret’s eponymous poem is often quoted. Librarians also get a shoutout as part of the resistance, which pleased me greatly.

This book was an incredible read. Ng plays the emotions like a virtuoso and I was close to tears more than once because of the beauty Ng invoked for the power of art, Margaret’s love for her family, and Bird’s awakening to the world around him. It also had my clenching my hands in fists at the way that PACT stole so many freedoms in the name of a little security against future economic and social turmoil. Ng does all of this without making anything too easy and without preaching. It works as fiction unlike a lot of books I’ve read that have sᴏᴍᴇᴛʜɪɴɢ ɪᴍᴘᴏʀᴛᴀɴᴛ ᴛᴏ sᴀʏ. This book is phenomenal.

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

This fortnight on the bookish internet

Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran

Xuan would be first in line to argue back with Cassius of Julius Caesar, who declared that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Act I, scene III). This survivor of the Vietnam War fervently believes in the Vietnamese zodiac and its authority over everything from the events of the lunar year to everyone’s personality. Every year at Tết, Xuan purchases a new alamanc so that she can find out what is in store for her family. As Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran, opens, Xuan is hurriedly trying to send messages to her three daughters with urgent advice about how they can ward off bad luck for the coming year.

Daughters of the New Year moves backward in time from that frantic early 2015 Tết to show us what really shaped Xuan and her daughters. Where Xuan interprets everything through the lens of everyone’s zodiac signs (she is a Metal Tiger who should never have married a Metal Dragon, because they will always fight, for example), we instead see the long shadow of the Vietnam War in how Xuan hordes food and belongings and how she and her explosive husband relentlessly work to earn as much money as possible against future calamity. Their daughters—Trac, Nghi, and Trieu—however, are thoroughly American. They grew up in New Orleans and don’t understand why their parents don’t act like other parents in their community. They don’t get why their parents don’t buy them the cool new thing so that they can’t fit in. And because neither Xuan nor her husband will talk about their past, the three girls are left bewildered and frustrated. That much parental trauma pushed them all out of the nest, in directions that Xuan and her husband are baffled by in their turn.

After establishing the characters, Daughters of the New Year starts jumping further and further into the past. We see Trac and Nghi as young girls, then Xuan as a young mother and a younger bride, before sending us back to Vietnam. Before the war and right up until the end, Xuan and her single mother were a member of the privileged class. They might not have been rich but they were very comfortable. Xuan’s shining moment—and her moment of greatest disillusion—is when she competes in a beauty pageant to be Miss Saigon in 1973. Xuan’s mother, Quynh, is not a nurturing, motherly figure. Although she provides almost everything Xuan could want, she, too, is also constantly working to earn as much as possible. Briefer jumps take us further back into the family’s past and that of Vietnam.

The Chinese zodiac, the basis for the Vietnamese zodiac (Image via Wikicommons)

It’s hard not to read Daughters of the New Year without bringing out a Western psychoanalytic lens to examine the repeating trauma in the family. None of the characters, except for perhaps the Americanized trio of daughters, seems capable of reflecting on their feelings or behavior. They can recognize the bad things that happened to them—Hurricane Katrina, the fall of Saigon, a rape—but they all barrel ahead with their lives without ever stopping to realize that they are now harming others with their afloofness, lack of empathy, and rigidity. That said, I was fascinated by the use of the Vietnamese zodiac as Xuan’s way of understanding people and conflict around her. It’s funny how, sometimes, someone’s zodiac sign seems to fit their personality perfectly. (I don’t believe in astrology but I am a textbook Virgo a lot of the time.) On the one hand, Xuan is a product of extreme loss and deprivation. On the other, her metal nature is what makes her stubborn, and being a Tiger leads her to be independent, anxious, argumentative, and entrepreneurial. She sees herself as unchangeable and she’s not wrong (not without a lot of therapy). If someone can’t or won’t change, why not just learn the best way to work with a Metal Tiger?

Daughters of the New Year is a fascinating look at a dysfunctional family who are much more likely to claim that the fault is in their stars rather than themselves.

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

Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty

My family still cracks jokes about why on earth anyone would want to invite Jessica Fletcher or Hercule Poirot or any of those other detectives anywhere. People die almost as soon as they arrive! That’s certainly the problem for talented but reluctant detective Mallory Viridian in Mur Lafferty’s highly entertaining novel, Station Eternity. From a young age, murders just seem to happen wherever Mallory goes. It’s so bad that Mallory actually moves onto an alien space station to get away from the chaos. Life is good there, until she gets word that a delegation of humans are on their way to the station.

We meet Mallory when she’s in a bit of a tizzy. As soon as she hears the gossip about the humans on their way, Mallory starts beating down doors to argue against letting more humans aboard the Eternity. Told no, she starts asking friends for rides off the station. As Mallory races hither and thither on the Eternity, we not only find out why she is so very terrified of having any more humans aboard (really, just about everywhere she goes, someone dies) but also about the fantastical galaxy of aliens who live and work on Eternity.

The mystery in Station Eternity is of the kind I particularly like. Seemingly unconnected events slowly coalesce over the course of the novel into an ending that ties up every loose end. Everything that happens in this book happens for a reason, to the extent that re-reading it would be a treat. Since you’d know the ending, you can slow down to savor all of those important events and details, like a great in-joke. What I loved most about Station Eternity, however, was the thought that Lafferty must have put into creating a space station that initially wasn’t designed for humans and inhabited by species who think that humans are volatile and primitive (we are). For example, Mallory had to spend some time when she first came aboard Eternity to find out which of the foods served at the various cafes wouldn’t kill her or make her sick. She had to make do with furniture that wasn’t built to her scale. Most of all, Mallory constantly has to answer questions about why humans do the things we do. We are a weird species, biologically, socially, and psychologically, when you start to think about it.

Station Eternity isn’t a perfect book. Mallory’s fretting got on my nerves more than once and some plot threads were dropped a little too long before being picked up to wrap into the conclusion. (Why is no one concerned when the ambassador disappears near the beginning of the book?) But these quibbles are minor when considered against the elaborate mystery and Lafferty’s imagination. Lafferty also brings a lot of humor to this book, causing me to chuckle more than once as I read about Mallory and her friends misadventures on Eternity.

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

Outlawed, by Anna North

Although biology and societal convention push Ada into it, she is really not cut out for an outlaw’s life in Outlawed, Anna North’s thought-provoking alternate history of late-nineteenth-century America. A few decades before Ada was even born, devastating influenza ripped across the country (and presumably, the rest of the world). The world left behind seems obsessed with growing the population. Women are expected to immediately start gestating as soon as the ink is dry on their marriage certificates and keep going until they die or their body gives out. Women who can’t get pregnant are viewed askance and heaven help them if anything bad happens to anyone or anything in their village. Ada’s path to outlawry begins when she fails to get pregnant and is blamed for everything.

That first chapter or so of Outlawed is very uncomfortable to read, as North throws in just about every anti-feminist trope into the narrative. Women have limited roles: mother, wife, pre-wife, post-mother. Women like Ada and her mother, who are midwives, are tolerated but barely. Ada’s first port after fleeing accusations of witchcraft is a convent of barren women. The convent is relatively safe but Ada finds it just as confining as her village, even if she’s not expected to procreate.

Outlawed starts to get good—even funny—when Ada runs away again, to Hole in the Wall. Hole in the Wall is a remote camp run by the Kid and their gang of gender non-conformists. There are some misadventures that had me smirking at Ada’s terrible luck when she tries to break the law, although that rotten luck puts her on the gang’s bad side more than once. (Ada is a lot more successful when she keeps to doctoring.) When the Kid comes up with a scheme that could set them all up for life, Ada agrees to play a part in the hopes that she might finally be able to follow her dream of studying medicine and finding out the real reason why some women can’t get pregnant. The last third or so of Outlawed follows Ada from one disaster to another as she and the gang try to pull off the Kid’s plan.

While I enjoyed a lot of the plot, there were some things that bothered me about the book as a whole. Gender weighs heavily on this book and I appreciated the community reviewers on Goodreads who pointed out where North had her finger on the scale. For example, readers noted that all of the members of the gang seemed to be assigned female at birth, which means that transwomen are erased from this version of history. The only “safe” male character is a bisexual man who was castrated before he met Ada and the rest of the gang. The more I look back at the book, the more I wish North had had a lighter touch with her handling of gender and race (Ada has some issues with White Saviorhood) and let the characters be characters, instead of mouthpieces.