The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

I have also reviewed The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gatethe first two books in this trilogy.

31817749Now that I’ve finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the last volume in her Broken Earth trilogy, I wish that I had heeded Jeff O’Neal of Book Riot, who refuses to read series until they are finished. I waited a year between each volume of this book and clearly forgot a lot of important details. Because each book in the series picks up immediately where the last one left off, I would have been better off waiting and then reading them all over a weekend.

At the end of The Obelisk Gate, our heroine Essun had helped save her community from annihilation and her daughter, Nassun, faced down her murderous father. Now, both are on the move. Essun is traveling north to find a new place to live with her community before leaving them to use the power of the Obelisk Gate to put their planet to rights. Nassun is also heading for the Obelisk Gate. Neither of these characters wants things to continue as they are—with deadly Seasons constantly trying to wipe out every living then—but they have very different ideas about how to change the world.

Essun’s plan is to restore the planet’s moon will help stop the earthquakes and volcanos. She hopes that humans and orogenes (humans with the ability to manipulate forces and stone) will be able to live in peace once they’re no longer struggling just to survive. Nassun, however, wants to burn it all down. In her scant ten years of life, she’s seen too much violence and hatred. She hasn’t lived long enough to see how people can change; she just sees the same patterns playing out over and over. The Stone Sky is, then, a race to see who will get to the Gate first and change or end the world.

The Stone Sky also takes us deeper into the past, so that we can see how the war between life and death started—as well as how the prejudice against orogenes developed. I found these sections hugely interesting, mostly because they made it clear just how far humanity had fallen in the centuries since the Obelisk Gate was created. Humans were capable of amazing things but were brought down to their current subsistence levels of living through purest hubris. (As per usual.) I wanted very much to play Cassandra for these characters and it was only by sheer force of will that I wasn’t actually shouting at the book in my living room.

This book is so packed with searing emotional dilemmas and conflict, rich detail of a world in peril, and intriguing history that it was a pity (I thought) that the ending was so rushed. It’s possible that I was fooled into expecting more because the kindle app was telling me that I still had about 9% of the book to go when I reached the actual end of The Stone Sky, but I wanted more—just more—at the end of the book. Events happen so quickly that the conclusion felt too easy to me. It’s also possible that if I had waited to read all the books at once, I would have been more ready for the end after so many hundreds of pages.

And now to wait for whatever Jemisin cooks up next…


Eulogy for Lost Books

In the course of doing something incredibly nerdy*, I discovered that two of my books had gone missing. I know that I didn’t weed them. I think I loaned them to people, but it’s been so long that I have no idea who I lent them to. As far as I know, I’ve only ever lost three books. (This does not include books that I’ve destroyed by reading them too hard or left out in the rain**.) The two books I lost are ones I mourn. Nancy Turner’s These is My Words is one of my absolute favorite books. The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, was full of my margin notes from two semesters of co-teaching an upper division class.

Nicolaas van der Waay

I had my copy of These is My Words for years. I read it over and over, falling in love with the characters as they fell in love with each other. These is My Words is one of my favorite comfort reads, even though the ending still makes me tear up. Now it’s a book that I recommend to a lot of readers because it ticks so many boxes: historical fiction, love story without being romance, strong female protagonist, humor, pathos. I read it with my book group last summer (I think) and I was thrilled when most of the group loved it. (The only holdout listened to it as an audiobook and the narrator bugged her.) Every time someone talks to me about this book after I’ve talked them into reading it, I get a glow from the feeling of sharing a beloved book.

All that said, I can easily replace These is My Words. What I can’t replace is my copy of The Reader. The last two times I read it, cover to cover, I filled the margins with notes about things I wanted to point out to students or prod myself to look deeper with a critical eye. I underlined passages I thought the class should talk about. During class, I would add more notes based on discussion and things that my brilliant colleague would say. When I buy a new copy, I’ll never remember what I scribbled in the margins. The idea of lost knowledge bothers me deeply, especially with my copy of The Reader. I’ve changed my mind twice about what I think the book is about and what I think of the narrator. My copy is probably with a student. I have a vague memory of loaning it to a student; they clearly never brought it back.

I wonder where these books are, but not in the sense of their physical locations. They might be stuffed at the back of someones shelves or shoved under a bed. It might be too much to hope that These is My Words is loved by its new owner or that the student who absconded with my copy of The Reader is adding new notes in the margins, calling me an idiot because they found a new way to interpret some scene or other.

Sometimes there is an upside to losing a book. When I replaced my copy of The Tsar of Love and Techno, I was actually sent a signed hard cover. Anthony Marra is one of my favorite contemporary writers, so I’m thrilled to own a book he signed.

* Retagging my book collection on LibraryThing.
** I’ve only lost one book this way.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

1618Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was everywhere when it came out in 2003, so much so that I’ve avoided it for nearly fifteen years. What I wrote last week about afterwords and forewords often gets applied to books that are so much in the news that they get overhyped. Now that so much time has passed, I feel like I can give this novel a fair shot.

Fifteen-year-old mathematical genius Christopher Boone is on the autism spectrum. Over the course of the novel, we learn about his aversion to touching, the colors yellow and brown, and changes in routine. We also learn how his mind processes the world around him and how his mind is different from neurotypical minds. (One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was Christopher pointing out how illogical neurotypicals are. After all, neurotypicals can tell what people mean just from hearing exhalations from each other’s noses!) For Christopher there is so much information coming in all the time that avoiding change is one of the best ways for him to cope.

Christopher’s highly observant mind (and his love of Sherlock Holmes) lead him to investigate the disturbing murder of their neighbor’s dog. Despite his brief trouble with the police and his father’s constant warnings to stay away, Christopher is determined to figure out what happened. I would have called The Curious Incident a mystery, but much more of the novel revolves around our narrator’s relationships with his parents. The mystery is really just an entry point into what’s been happening with the small Boone family. But to say more about the plot would ruin the book.

I really enjoyed The Curious Incident and ended up being quite moved by Christopher’s story. He is utterly sympathetic as we watch him find out how much his parents have lied to him and broken his trust. This novel is very much a coming of age story, in which our narrator learns just how fallibly human his parents are while also learning to rely on himself. It’s kind of a shame I waited so long to read it.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for people who don’t understand autism or for readers with autism who’d like to see themselves in fiction.

The Man from the Train, by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

32919543A family was murdered in rural Iowa, in 1912, with an axe. While people were prosecuted (one of them hounded for years by a detective running a con) for the murders, no one was ever definitively convicted. The murder of the Moore family is the starting point for Bill and Rachel McCarthy James, a father and daughter team of amateur detectives, in The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery

The Vilisca murders (which are excellently covered by Holly Frey and Tracey V. Wilson on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast) were organized. Very little evidence was ever recovered. And yet, there are hallmarks of a serial killer in terms of ritualistic behavior with the posing of the bodies and the placement of items the killer touched. These hallmarks and the level of organization led James and James to look for other, similar murders. They found…quite a lot. By the time they wrap up their case, the two had found a string of murders stretching from 1898 to 1912 across half the country.

James and James spend more than 90% of the book (according to the kindle app) linking murders. They combed decades of articles from newspapers, large and mostly small, looking for “The Man from the Train.” The pair also cite books that have been written about one of the murders or another (with frequent criticism about what the authors of those books missed), and the odd police report. Towards the end of the book, they sort dozens of family ax murders into cases they’re certain were the Man, some they’re mostly sure were the Man, some they thing might be the Man, and a few that only have a few of the markers of the Man. Because news coverage is spotty in many of the areas where these murders occurred—sometimes the victims’ names are unknown—I understand the James’ hesitation in ascribing nearly 100 murders in multiple states to one person.

The James also detour into related cases in which people were falsely accused of one or more sets of murders. People who happened to be in the area and/or were of low social status, especially if they were African American, were arrested, forced to confess, and sometimes even convicted. The most heartbreaking stories are the ones in which African American men were lynched by outraged whites. The story of the Vilisca murders, in the James’ version of events, becomes a long story about how Frank Jones was harassed by J.N. Wilkerson, a detective for the Burns Agency, who turned the case into a years’ long con and bilked people out of thousands of dollars.

The James are, I think, quite correct that conditions were probably perfect for the Man from the Train. About half of the murders occurred before journalists made widespread use of wire services to share information. Many of the articles the James cite read like a telephone game—with bonus tidbits that were clearly invented to make the stories more sensational. Because police departments were small and full of untrained officers at the time, agencies like the Burns Agency or the Pinkertons were hired to investigate. Rewards were offered to anyone who could solve the murders, which led to hasty arrests and convictions of innocent people. Fingerprinting and blood-typing were in their infancy. When you throw in people who were either making up stories for attention or were coerced into a confession, the cases are a mess from beginning to end.

The review copy of The Man from the Train I received did not include a bibliography of sources the James’ used. I hope the published edition does. Without that bibliography, I wasn’t able to evaluate the quality of the James’ information on my own. I was bothered by the lack of references (barring one) to police reports or academic sources (again, with one exception). I do agree with their premise that the Man from the Train probably existed and, if he did commit the Vilisca murders, it is likely that the murderer was active for a number of years before that murder. When they accuse the Man of committing the 1922 Hinterkaifeck murders (also covered by Stuff You Missed in History Class*), however, I think that’s several bridges too far.

In addition to my questions about the James’ sources, I did not like Bill James’ voice in the book. He is often sarcastic when he “talks back” to the contemporary people or other amateur detectives who’ve taken on one or more of the murders. Reading the book feels like sitting down with Bill James (rather than both authors) and having him make his case to the reader directly, with plenty of second-person pronouns, colloquialisms, and flourishes of oral speech. (I lost track of the number of times James would end a sentence with, “Okay?” or something similar.) The voice of the book bothered me, but I have a strong preference for more a more academic, serious tone when it comes to nonfiction about history.

I am equivocal about The Man from the Train. On the one hand, I do think the James’ are probably right that there was one murderer who killed people over a long period of time. I’m not sure I trust their sources—mostly because I couldn’t evaluate a lot of them. The tone rubbed me the wrong way and I was occasionally confused by the way the many, many cases were presented. I think this book should be read alongside other accounts of the murder. Basically, I think readers should do their own additional research. (I tend to argue that anyway, being a librarian.) The jury, to use the cliché, is still very much out for me on the Man from the Train.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 19 September 2017.

* I tend to trust Frey and Wilson of SYMIHC because they use a wider variety of sources, not just newspaper accounts, and often talk about the problematic issues with those sources.

This week on the bookish internet

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

34390247There is a pair of old Latin phrases that have been found inscribed on graves that I thought about constantly as I read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (translated by Susan Bernofsky). The phrases hodie mihi cras tibi (today me, tomorrow you) and sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world) are strangely appropriate for a book that follows recent classicist retiree Richard as he remembers what his life used to be like. Later, as Richard becomes fascinated by the plight of African refugees in Berlin, we are left to ponder how how Germany resists and is changed by an influx of people from very different cultures and histories.

Richard is in his seventies as the novel begins and has just retired from decades of work at Humboldt University. He spends his time reflecting on how very little of his life in the former East Germany remains in modern Berlin. He no longer has his job to keep his brain occupied and knows that other bright young things in the Classics Department will replace him. After he sees a large camp of refugees in Berlin—some of the refugees are on a hunger strike to force the government to take action on their cases and help them find work—Richard becomes a little obsessed with the situation. He arms himself with a battery of questions and heads off to one of the shelters for the refugees. His questions, presumably part of a research project, help him get to know men from Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, and other countries. And, suddenly, Richard’s life has meaning again as he tries to help get the men money, work, and shelter.

The plot speeds up as Richard gets more and more involved, but it retains a mournful tone. The novel is nostalgic for the past and Richard misses some of his old life and haunts, but there was—to me at least—a sense of acceptance to the fact that nothing stays the same forever. Richard hears from friends and reads about how the government deals with the refugees that make it clear that not every one is as accepting of the fact that times change and we must change with them. (More Latin: tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.)

Go, Went, Gone is a very levelheaded look at what I think of as the manufactured dilemma of the refugee crisis. Many of the countries taking in refugees create miles of red tape to trip up people who are fleeing for their homes to, presumably, make sure the people coming in are safe to enter. The laws, as Richard finds, make it a lot easier for a country to deport someone that it is for that someone to make a new home in a new country. The red tape smacks of racism and Go, Went, Gone is full of examples of what people say about refugees: Why don’t they solve their own problems? Why doesn’t someone else take them in? Richard’s investigations put unignorably human faces on the refugees so that, while it might be easy to deport almost 500 refugees from various countries, it’s a lot harder to send Rashid, Osarobo, Yaya, Khalil, and the others back to places where they might be killed.

 I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 September 2017. 

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who need to be more empathetic to the plight of others.

Lazaretto, by Diane McKinney-Whitestone

18090010Even though they are nothing alike in terms of characters or plot, Lazaretto, by Diane McKinney-Whitestone, strongly reminded me of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale structurally. I realize this is an odd thing to lead with in a book review, but understanding the structure is important for understanding this book. In the first half of Lazaretto, plot elements are tossed into the pot and allowed to marinate for a very long time. The second half takes place twenty some-odd years later when everything comes to a boil*. The novel tells the stories of Meda and Sylvia and their unofficially adopted children in Philadelphia between 1865 and the 1880s. There are lies, kidnappings, tangled lineages, colorism, and lots of racial tension.

Meda and Sylvia meet at the beginning of Lazaretto in very unusual circumstances. Sylvia is assisting one of the rare African American midwives in Philadelphia on an April day in 1865 when Meda arrives with her white employer. The employer is dismayed to learn that not only is Meda too far along for an abortion, but she is also about to give birth to their child. Sylvia delivers the baby, who is promptly stolen by Meda’s employer. Shortly thereafter, Meda starts to work part time at an orphanage, where she nurses and helps raise two boys who were infants in April 1965. Meanwhile, Sylvia advances her medical education and career while also keeping an eye on her niece, Vergie.

The first half of Lazaretto slows after the excitement of its opening. Years pass as Meda and her boys, Bram and Linc, age and while Sylvia and Vergie keep bumping into barriers. Sylvia is constantly prevented from taking high paying jobs in hospitals because she’s black. Vergie, who is very light-skinned but proud of her African American heritage, is frequently mistaken for white and is exposed to all kinds of racist talk. At times, Bram, Linc, and Meda’s stories diverge widely from Sylvia and Vergie’s. I wasn’t sure how everything was going to come together.

The plots all come together with a bang in part two, where Bram, Linc, Sylvia, and Vergie all end up at a wedding party at the quarantine hospital, the Philadelphia Lazaretto. From that point on the plot races. If it were funnier, I would say that the second half is a farce as characters chase, threaten, and fight each other for hours on end. Everything comes out into the open in the second half and I found it much more satisfying than the first.

After finishing Lazaretto, I’m left with a lot of thoughts about bloodlines. Not knowing who one’s parents are or having dark-skinned people in one’s family are marks of shame to many of the characters in this novel. Racism from whites is a given, but this novel presents something new in how some African Americans in the north at that time looked down on people with more melanin than they had. Skin color mattered because lighter skinned people had a better chance of passing or at least avoiding the epithets and violence hurled at darker skinned members of the community. It’s appalling to see this effect of racism, which psychologically twisted African Americans who wanted to get ahead economically and socially.

On the one hand, McKinney-Whitestone was deft in her portrayals of Media, Sylvia, and the cast of Lazaretto. On the other, I don’t like the structure. I completely understand why the book is written the way it is. Part two wouldn’t have worked near as well without all the background of part one. And yet, the first half is so slow compared to the frenetic second part and there are such long periods of time that are glossed over, that I wondered if perhaps the entire plot needed to be taken apart and replanned. Lazaretto is a curious, but interesting, piece of fiction.

The Lazaretto, 2009 (Via Wikicommons)

* How’s that for a metaphor?

The Gamble; Or, Thoughts on Afterwords and Forewords

In the past two days, I’ve read two challenging novels in translation. I say challenging because, first, their style made it hard to get into a reading groove and, second, they come from very different places and times from my own. Because of the second challenge, the publishers and translators included an afterword (Swallowing Mercury) and a foreword (Judgment). These two approaches to helping a reader understand the contexts of these books got me to thinking about what an ideal supplement would look like—at least for me.

James Charles

Most of the time, I prefer to go into a book knowing just a few specifics about the plot and nothing more. Occasionally, I might seek out a longer review or look a classic up on Wikipedia if I can’t figure the book out on my own. I like going in mostly blind because I want to be able to make my own impressions. Once I read a convincing argument for how a book should be read, I have a hard time shaking it.

With an afterword, I learn about the author’s context, inspiration, etc. when I’ve finished the book. I don’t even have to worry about accidentally learning things by skimming through the foreword. This worked beautifully when I read Swallowing Mercury, I suppose because I knew just enough about 1980s Poland to catch references. The afterword did deepen my understanding of the stories but in an “Oh, that’s interesting” kind of way rather than a “You completely read this wrong” way.

Judgment comes with a foreword that discussed the author’s biography, his experiments with Yiddish writing, and some explicated scenes from the novel. I skipped it and read the book…And I got lost. The book was dense with subtext that I mostly missed the first time around. The experimental style threw me off repeatedly. After I read the foreword, a lot more made sense.

All of this leads me to the gamble a reader has to make when they run into a book with additional material. Do you take the risk of not knowing what’s really going on in an attempt to make your own reading of a novel? Or do you read the supplemental material and have things spelled out for you? Even with my general bewilderment in reading Judgment, I think I still prefer to keep the blinders on until I finish. The few times I read the additions, I remember waiting for scenes like I wait for the twist in novels. It really did feel like someone told me the whole story in advance and I got bored. All the tension was gone. I would rather be a bit lost than bored.

Judgment, by David Bergelson

33931727Originally published in Yiddish by David Bergelson in 1929, this newly translated (by Harriet Murov and Sasha Senderovich) version of Judgment is a chilling set of connected stories about the inhabitants of a shtetl in western Ukraine who live very close to an outpost of the Chekathe Bolshevik secret police. The novel jumps from character to character, creating a fitting sense of chaos as revolutionaries, rebels, and reactionaries fight over every scrap of territory.

According to the foreword, Bergelson was a cutting edge Yiddish writer, keen to incorporate Modernism into a literature that mostthen and nowassociate mostly with folklore. Bergelson’s experimentalism is in full view in Judgment. Time is hard to keep track of. Tales slide into on another just like the characters do; one minute, you’ll be reading about a socialist revolutionary who got caught by the Bolsheviks and the next you’ll be reading about his cellmates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are characters who appear throughouta blonde who travels with a child and two mysterious cases, the injured but harshly committed captain of the Cheka, the aforementioned socialist revolutionarybut I couldn’t say that Judgment is any of their stories, really. Rather, Judgment is about a tangle of people who lived near the border between Ukraine and Poland at a particularly bloody moment in history.

The Modernist elements make for difficult reading. It’s hard to know what or who to focus on. It’s impossible to predict where the narration is going to go next and Judgment reads like a much grimmer (and fictional) history-in-moments than Teffi’s MemoriesIn a sense, this very much captures the destruction and turmoil of the post-Revolution Civil War. At the beginning of the novel, most characters are either trying to flee or make money off of the people fleeing. Things aren’t all that bad yet, but then the local Cheka start to round up anyone even associated with anti-Bolshevik activity and a group of violent rebels swing through. By the end of Judgment, it seems like all of the members of the shtetl are now in prison, dead, or missing.

Having read Judgment and, a very long time, The Zelmenyaners, I feel like I have another piece of the Russian literature puzzle. I’ve read the heavy classic work of Tolstoy, the surreal Gogol, the light and fluffy Teffi, the surreal Bulgakov, the blunt and sometimes vulgar Babel, and the deeply affecting Pasternak and Vasily Grossman. Judgment comes from a blend of the avant-garde and the traditional. I’m not sure what to make of it yet. What I know now is that Russian literature is a lot more diverse than many literature teachers would have us think.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 September 2017.

Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

34146925The stories in Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak into crisp British English) offer glimpses into the life of a girl coming of age in the last decade of communist Poland. In the small Silesian village of Herkaty, the larger world barely intrudes into the narrator’s world. There are only the slightest allusions to the Solidarity movement or shortages. The narrator’s family’s Catholic faith and folk medicine, as well as World War II, loom larger than anything that might be happening in the big cities.

Over the course of the stories in this collection, we see our narrator—also named Wioletta—transition from a blissfully clueless child who captures may flies and cries over a lost cat to a tough young woman who has learned to turn her hand to any occupation that might earn the family money and get out of situations with overly amorous neighbors. (The stories in which Wioletta dodges sexual abuse may be triggering for some readers.) By the end of the collection, there is little joy or whimsy left in Wioletta.

One of the stories, “Masters of Scrap,” can be read as the collection in miniature. In this story, Wioletta and her classmates are given the task of collecting scrap metal from all over the town for their school. They start with the easy pickings before escalating to stealing useful bits from people’s houses and properties. In the end, they lose it all in a mishap with a cart, a quarry, and a friend in jeopardy. The story swiftly moves from good dutifulness to apathetic resignation.

“Unripe” affected me the most of all the stories. This story captures the sorrow Wioletta and her family feel after Wioletta’s father, Rysiu, dies of a heart attack. His death leaves a large emotional hole in the extended family. After returning from camp, our narrator reaches out to hold her father’s hand one more time and sees his life in flashes. These flashes show Wioletta how a life of hardship, physical labor, and war shaped Rysiu.

A reader might have expected “Neon Over Jupiter,” the last story, to include a sense of hopefulness. After all, coming of age narratives usually end with a sense of leaving the past behind to move into the bright future. This story has none of that. Instead, Wioletta is tempted to run away with her glue-huffing sort-of boyfriend before changing her mind when she sees him passed out at the bus stop. She ends up slouching home, back into the past.

By the end of this collection of short stories, I was left with an impression of a young girl who has learned to shift for herself in a little town without resources. I’ve been left with a melancholy impression of a dead end life for our narrator. We have no clue what Wioletta will do in her adult life. There are certainly few opportunities for anything other than a life of the hardscrabble poverty she, her parents, and her grandparents grew up with. Wioletta’s life can almost be read as a rebuke to the narrative of hope after decades of communist rule. Far away, things are happening that might make life better for Poles—but very little of those changes have touched our narrator’s life or the lives of the rural poor.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.