Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel

I’m glad that I read Vaishnavi Patel’s essay on how the Ramayana and its stories have been retold in Indian culture and politics before I read her own electrifying retelling, Kaikeyi. I had only the vaguest idea of what happens in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, only what I’ve gleaned from some quick skims of the relevant Wikipedia articles. Patel’s essay added some important subtext to this novel and why she wanted the long-maligned Kaikeyi, the woman who exiled Rama to the forest and kicked off one of the greatest epic tragedies ever written, to finally tell her side of the story.

Kaikeyi was (in Patel’s version) a very gifted but isolated girl who was forced to grow up very quickly after her father exiled her mother. At a very young age, Kaikeyi had to take on her mother’s duties of running the palace and host her father’s subjects and other high-ranking visitors when they have business in the northern Indian kingdom of Kekeya. Aside from these roles, her father ignores Kaikeyi so much that she is able to wheedle lessons in charioteering, archery, and swordsmanship out of her twin brother…at least, she is ignored until her father realizes that Kaikeyi is of marriageable age. Before she can figure a way out, Kaikeyi finds herself married to the king of Ayodhya.

It’s in Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finally comes into her own. Her kind husband, Dasharatha, is more than willing to give Kaikeyi power, especially after she saves his life in spectacularly martial fashion during a battle against an upstart warlord. In fact, Dasharatha seems to be one of the few men in Kaikeyi’s life (or in Kekeya or Ayodhya or any of India’s many kingdoms) who is willing to upset the status quo enough to give women more freedom. His advisors—especially his religious advisors—warn him that doing so will not only annoy many of the men in his kingdom; it will also anger the gods. And there they are, the central conflicts of Kaikeyi: the old ways versus the new ways, the secular versus the divine, the men versus the women.

Kaikeyi, Rama, and other figures depicted in a Mughal-era edition of the Ramayana. (Image via Wikicommons)

The events that follow Kaikeyi’s marriage begin to take on the kind of epic weight that I associate with the Greek or Norse or Egyptian legends, when the gods sput their divine noses into the human’s lives. Everything that happens feels inevitable. Because we’re following events from Kaikeyi’s perspective, we understand the decisions she makes. We know why she fights so hard for women’s rights. We know why she tries to avert war at every chance. And we can’t help but feel her frustration and fear when everything around her conspires against everything she wants, especially when her court and her own children start to turn on her. This book does everything those great epics do. It draws us inescapably into a great but very human story, with larger-than-life characters whose actions are still retold today.

I highly recommend this story, whether or not you’re familiar with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Wikipedia and the essay I linked in the first paragraph are more than enough to catch you up. Please read this amazing book and then tell all your reader friends about it.

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

The House of Marvellous Books, by Fiona Vigo Marshall

I can recall describing characters as crafty, heroic, clever, villainous, adorable, cantankerous, snarky, angry, and hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever had to describe a character as clueless. Mortimer, the protagonist of Fiona Vigo Marshall’s The House of Marvellous Books, is one of the most naive characters I’ve come across in fiction. Although he is intelligent enough to talk about theology, Proust, St. Brendan, and the finer points of British cakes, he never picks up on the schemes and machinations swirling around him during the eventful year in which the publishing house where he works teeters on the edge of disaster and corporate takeover. It’s a curious feeling, wanting for everything to turn out well for a character while at the same time wanting to throttle them until they get a bloody clue. It’s even more curious that I rather enjoyed the book, once I settled into the narrative.

Mortimer Blackley is the kind of person who can only function in a specific niche. His skills and knowledge are only useful (sort of) at the House of Marvellous Books. If it weren’t for the fact that the House is located inside an unsellable medieval library, it wouldn’t function either. When you see the titles they publish—by a camper-van traveling nun who has a flexible attitude to her vow of silence, a sailing cleric who accepts advances for books she fails to write, Welsh hermit poets, and various pseudo-academic cranks—you’ll see why the House is on the edge of ruin. Mortimer wiles his workdays away eating cake and tea with his colleagues, attempting to beard the Design Department in their den, and pestering authors to turn in manuscripts. On the weekends he reads À la recherche du temps perdu, visits his uncle south of London, works on his manuscript about the journeys of St. Brendan, and tries (fails) to avoid doing favors for an old friend who is currently serving a sentence for stealing rare manuscripts from libraries across Britain and Europe.

St. Brendan and his compatriots in a spot of trouble on their journeys, from a 15th-century German manuscript. (Image via Wikicommons)

In the background of all of this pretentious silliness, we get hints about what’s really going on behind the scenes at the House. There’s the editor in chief, who has the misfortune of contracting brain fever in this day and age. Gerard pops in and out of the narrative as he attempts to keep the House afloat, even at the cost of selling to a mysterious group of Russians. He’s a sweet man but, like Mortimer, is in over his head when it comes to everything except poetry and leading the life of a country gentleman. The senior commissioning editor, Drusilla, meanwhile, has enlisted their disaster of a secretary to try and find the lost Daybreak Manuscript and sell it to the Pope (a plan to keep the House going a little loner). Other characters wage their own battles against poor punctuation, the House’s intractable and incompetent warehouse, scam artists, and rival publishers.

Mortimer, as I’ve said, is oblivious to most of this. At first, I was a little annoyed at him. How could anyone be so sheltered as to not see that the House is mere millimeters from collapse? But I was eventually won over by his helpfulness and kindness towards others. The fact that he can’t see what’s going on means that he will never betray anyone (no matter how annoying he finds them or how put upon he feels in returning books stolen by his friend to various libraries). It would never occur to him to step on someone else to try and get up the ladder ahead of them. I might describe him as the most clueless character in fiction but his naivete just means that he’s also one of the good-est characters I’ve ever seen (if only by default). I was also won over by his love of creature comforts, his contentment with his life as it is, and his silliness. This weird little book had me laughing more than once.

The House of Marvellous Books might not grab you from the first page. It resists a lot of the tropes and conventions of fiction by meandering on its multi-layered way through Mortimer’s year. If you give this book a chance, I think you might come to appreciate its quirks because, underneath them, is a very warm heart (possibly covered in crumbs from a lemon drizzle cake).

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

I’m Alive; Or, On the Mend

I apologize for my radio silence, dear readers. Last week, I was sicker than I’ve been in a very long time. I had to call out sick for the entire week and spent pretty much the entire time asleep. When I wasn’t asleep, I was sneezing, coughing, topping up the humidifier, and Doordashing cherry limeade slushies to keep myself hydrated while my sinuses did their best to kill me. Suffice to say, it’s only in the last two days that I’ve felt well enough to do any reading.

Reviews and weekly bookish link round-ups will resume today. Thank you for your patience, readers!

The Evening Hero, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

After the rural Minnesotan hospital where Youngman Kwak works closes, he no longer has work to keep his mind occupied. This means that memories of his life in Korea during and after the Korean War start to creep back into his conscious mind. It also means that Youngman has time to reflect on his relationship with his wife, how they raised their son, the medical profession, and the casual racism he and his family have always faced. There’s a lot going on in Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero. Unfortunately, it’s a little too much and the tone veers from beautifully thoughtful to absurdly satirical. To me, it read like two novels spliced together.

Youngman Kwak is a dedicated OB-GYN at Horse’s Breath Hospital when we first meet him—more so because the new director of the hospital is squeezing every scrap of profit out of the hospital before ingnominiously closing the whole thing down. Youngman feels very much for his patients, all of whom are now just that much further away from good medical care. Youngman’s diligence and humane care of his patients is a sharp contrast to his son, Einstein, and the employees at SANUS (the very company that bought and closed Youngman’s hospital). After an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner that further highlights the differences between Youngman and his wife and their son and daughter-in-law, Einstein talks his father into taking a job at SANUS. Unfortunately, the promised job delivering vaccines turns out to be a humiliating gig operating a depilation machine. SANUS is mall medicine. It’s far from Youngman’s work delivering babies and caring for women.

Meanwhile, Youngman starts to receive letters from an unknown woman in Seoul. He knows that the letters have someting to do with the brother he abandoned in Korea, to start his new life with his wife and unborn child in the United States. He’s been running from his brother—and his regrets—for decades. At this point, the narrative takes us back to just before the Korean War. Youngman and his mother, younger brother, and grandfather, are eking out a living in Water Project Village. When the war comes, their situation becomes even more fraught. Not only are they facing starvation, the small Kwak family and the rest of the non-combatants walk up and down the Korean peninsula, avoiding violence from soldiers on all sides, and hoping to find a safe place to stay until they can go home. This part of the novel is utterly harrowing.

Over the course of the rest of the novel, the narrative switches back and forth from Trump-era America to post-war South Korea. The contrast between the escalating weirdness of Youngman’s life in America and Youngman’s nostalgic memories of Korea grows bigger and bigger—and harder and harder to reconcile into a cohesive whole. For me, the parts of the book in Korea and South Korea were the most interesting and enjoyable. The narrative is much better when Lee leaves behind the satire and the absurdity. Although I appreciated the points Lee made about the greed of the America healthcare industry, I preferred the emotional honesty of the other half of the novel, the parts in which Youngman looks back across his long life and wonders if he made the right choices.

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

Metropolis, by B.A. Shapiro

Trigger warning for brief depiction of domestic violence.

B.A. Shapiro’s Metropolis is the kind of book that reminds us that there are so many spaces and people we just brush past. Most of us don’t need to store (or hide) possessions in storage facilities. They’re usually temporary spaces. Certainly, most of us don’t need to live in storage facilities. As we travel from home to work to our third spaces and back, few of us see the homeless or the jobless or the stateless. Metropolis focuses all our attention on a Boston storage building and straight onto people who, all for their own reasons, find refuge in a place most of us wouldn’t look twice at.

Metropolis is told from the perspective of several characters and from two different time periods before and after an accident involving the Metropolis building’s elevator. It jumps straight into the aftermath by first showing us an auction attended by Zach, the former owner of the Metropolis. He is raising money for legal fees and other expenses by auctioning off the unclaimed property in the building. As the auctioneer directs the procedings, we see each unit through his eyes. We see rooms full of dog houses, the contents of a teenagers’ bedroom, a darkroom filled with undeveloped film, a lawyer’s office, and rooms that have clearly been lived in, even though the building’s not rated for that.

The story’s perspective then shifts to refocus on our other narrators months before the auction. There’s Rose, the building’s former manager, who takes extra money to rent out two (later three) of the units for people to live in. We meet Jason, previously a high flying lawyer now reduced to working any case he can get from a room in the storage facility. There’s Laurent, a gifted photographer suffering from PTSD and undiagnosed illnesses. Laurent and Marta, a Venezuelan refugee and gifted sociology graduate student, both live in the Metropolis because it offers safety and anonymity. The last narrator we meet is Liddy. Initially, she rented a unit at the facility to store her children’s belongings after their awful father shipped them off to boarding school in Switzerland. It’s Liddy’s efforts to escape her husband that bring trouble down on everyone’s head.

Readers, I was engrossed from the minute the auctioneer started opening doors to let the punters have a peek. This book scratches that itch we feel when we sense a story behind an abandoned object by telling us how they came to be there, and how they were abandoned. I don’t want to say too much because a big part of the pleasure of reading this book is learning everyone’s secrets. But I will say that each character is a marvelous study in how the pressures of money and jobs and fear and desire can push people into places they never imagined they might end up.

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

The Rabbit Factor, by Antti Tuomainen

All Henri Koskinen wants is for things to be logical, sensible, and optimal. He is—as he constantly tells people—an actuary, which means that he’s very good at figuring out the most likely outcomes for events or working out the most efficient way to do a thing. This does not impress people. In fact, his inability to do anything other than math makes it very hard to get along with other people who don’t want to be logical, sensible, or optimal. You know, the rest of us. Shortly after the opening of Antti Tuomainen’s latest off-kilter thriller The Rabbit Factor (perfectly translated by David Hackston), Henri’s manager sacks him from an insurance firm because Henri refuses to take part in the firm’s ultra feely trainings and initiatives. Then he gets the news that his brother has died and left Henri his adventure park, YouMeFun. Things could not get worse.

Except, this is Tuomainen. So of course things get worse for Henri, in the form of two reptilian and menacing men who curtly (and painfully) inform Henri that his late brother was hugely in debt to the Reptiles’ boss. They give him an ultimatum: his euros or his life. And because this is Tuomainen, this is where things start to get really entertaining. Henri is forced to live two lives. He has a public one as a reluctant owner of the park and manager of its strange collection of employees. In his private life, Henri has to think faster than he’s ever had to in order to find a way to save his life and the park that he comes to think of as his to protect. And then things get even more complicated, in the form of a woman who Henri—for the first time in his life—clicks with.

The Rabbit Factor is a wildly entertaining ride into shadowy finances, baking mafiosos, artistic cons, managers who get way too into feelings, revenge, self-defense, and—above all—learning to shed all the limitations we’ve learned to live with so that we can become new, more optimal selves. I really enjoyed this weird little thriller. I would definitely recommend it to readers who like stories that get their hearts pounding but who are tired of the same old thriller fare. Tuomainen is doing stellar work reinventing mysteries and thrillers by demolishing tropes and creating original characters.

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

An Unlasting Home, by Mai al-Nakib

It’s strange to me—but also not so strange—that for a species hardwired to spot patterns, we can be very dumb when it comes to not repeating bad patterns of behavior. In Mai al-Nakib’s deeply affecting and engrossing family saga, An Unlasting Home, we see three generations of women who are given choices that lead them into emotional traps. They are also given choices to get out of those traps but, for one reason or another, they walk into personal martyrdom in the form of bad husbands, needy family members, economics, and religion. As each generation grows old and has children, we’re left to wonder about the costs of sacrificing oneself for others against personal happiness.

We have several narrators in An Unlasting Home. In chronological order, we meet Yasmine and Lulwa, whose marriages and choices land them in neighboring houses in Kuwait City in the 1950s. Then we meet Maria, an Indian woman who comes to work for Lulwa’s daughter, Noura (another narrator). As these women recount their stories—and woven in between them—there is Sara, daughter of Noura, granddaughter of Yasmine and Lulwa, cared for by Maria. Before they all ended up in Kuwait, various members of the family lived in Lebanon, India, Iraq, and the United States. Kuwait is where everything converges.

Sara grew up in St. Louis and Kuwait City. Although she and her mother Noura felt like the United States was the best place for them to live freely, as individuals, family obligations bring Sara back after her mother’s death. Someone has to take care of Yasmine and Lulwa, Sara argues whenever anyone tells her she should go back to the States. This same family obligation is what pulled Lulwa away from her family for seven long years between the 1940s and 1950s, after her mentally ill mother tricked Lulwa into coming back to Kuwait from India. A different family obligation brought Yasmine from Basra to Kuwait when her moody husband failed to claim his father’s political position. Sara’s decision to stay turns into a crisis unlike what her mother and grandmothers went through. Unlike them, Sara might be pushed to break free of Kuwait and her family’s history when she is accused of blasphemy after teaching Nietzsche in her philosophy course at Kuwait University.

I can imagine readers’ responses to the choices made by the narrators in An Unlasting Home go in two very different directions. On the one hand, readers might rail against the decisions these characters make. They might holler at the pages for Yasmine, Lulwa, Maria, Noura, and Sara to cut loose and run. Their happiness is more important than living in misery to make others happy. Other readers might applaud the self-sacrifice of these characters. Without their choices, the family would’ve crumbled. And although I’ve probably painted a pretty bleak picture of these characters’ lives, there is a lot of happiness and joy in their lives. Yasmine and Lulwa and Maria delight in their children. Noura is able to express her opinions through her foreign language bookstore in Kuwait City. And Sara is a philosopher, through and through, and believes in her educational mission of teaching at Kuwait University. Where some readers would see a clear choice, others will see situations where it’s impossible to decide on the right course of action. After all, who can predict what will happen in the future?

This beautifully written book, with its wonderfully developed characters, is a fantastic read for book groups, or for readers who want to wrestle with the question of obligation versus self-actualization.

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

The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon

Sometimes, you just need to read something silly, something that puts a smile on your face and lets your brain relax. The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon, is exactly that kind of book. This book has one of the most ludicrous plots I’ve ever read and I enjoyed every page of it. I wasn’t worried about what would happen in the end—because like so many of the characters—I had faith that it would all work out. I don’t consider myself nearly as religious as protagonist Nino Speranza (whose surname means hope in Italian), who searches out saints to help him with his various problems, but I do believe that there’s someone looking out for fools trying to do good deeds.

Speranza is the mayor of the declining Italian village of Prometto (“I promise,” in Italian), although the villagers come to him with problems about their dogs more often than they do about real problems. As The Patron Saint of Second Chances opens, Speranza is dealing with an actual problem. An official has just found serious problems with the village’s plumbing. If Prometto can’t pay the 60,000 Euro repair bill, its water supply will be cut off and the villagers relocated elsewhere. Prometto would be no more. Speranza breaks into a desperate, furtive panic that lasts nearly the entire course of the novel. He decides not to tell anyone as he works out a way to save Prometto. This turns out to be a good thing as Speranza’s plan is, essentially, lying his ass off to everyone in the village.

The big lie Speranza tells is that Dante Rinaldi, the current hunk-du-jour of Italian cinema, is coming to Prometto to make a film. (This lie is based on a story a sketchy friend tells him about a neighboring town that experienced a surprise boom when it was rumored that George Clooney was going to buy a house there.) Like all big lies, Speranza’s story quickly spirals out of control. His assistant at his vacuum repair business transforms himself into a screenwriter and director and actor (standing in until Dante arrives). His daughter offers to do make-up. The richest man in town is conned out of most of the cost of the repair for the promise that Speranza will put his most handsome son in the movie. The first person to start asking questions is the village priest, but Speranza becomes very adept at dodging his old friend.

I know that there’s no way that Speranza will get away with his mad scheme, of course, but I hoped that he would be able to get along with it long enough to be able to save Prometto for at least a few more years. He tap-dances just as fast as he can and he, along with his assistant Smilzo, seem to have just enough daft luck to make it possible that they might be able to pull it off. I won’t ruin the ending and tell you all whether or not that happens. Instead, I’ll just say that the ending is the cherry on top of this confection of a novel.

If your brain needs a little getaway to small-town Italy, I recommend The Patron Saint of Second Chances.

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

How to Be Eaten, by Maria Adelmann

Trigger warnings for references to trauma and child abuse.

I have a fascination with books that look at what happens after—after the Big Bad has been taken down and the lovers have gotten together and all that. I especially love it when authors take the metafictional route and put characters into group therapy to talk through their issues (as in The Final Girls Support Group and Lost in a Good Book). When I saw reviews for Maria Adelmann’s How to Be Eaten I jumped at the chance to read it. I just couldn’t resist a book in which five women who lived through traumatic events that strangely resemble fairy tales are invited to participate in group therapy. Readers, I inhaled this book.

Five women receive a series of emails that invite them to private group therapy. It takes several emails to get them to attend since, for the most part, these women don’t want to talk about what happened and prefer to keep the lowest of profiles. The emails eventually wear them down and, in short order, we meet Bernice, who went into the one room her rich boyfriend told her not to; Ruby, who wears a wolfskin coat almost as heavy as her attitude; brittle-bright Ashlee, who won a Bachelor-style reality show called The One; Gretel, whose brother has very different memories of what happened when their impoverished parents abandoned them; and the mysterious Raina, a motherly woman nursing secret regrets in spite of her apparently perfect life. All of these women are barely maintaining the appearance of normalcy. It doesn’t take much to crack their facades.

Group therapy is a chance for all of these women to finally get their stories heard, if only by their therapist Will (who we learn has his own secrets). They are all heartily sick (or constantly retraumatized) by having the public at large telling simplified—and mostly wrong—versions of events. Like so many real women who appear in the news, the public question their choices, blame victims, or speculate about ulterior motives. The fact that their sometimes very traumatic pasts have been turned into entertainment just adds insult to injury. That these women’s stories have elements of the fantastic, it’s little wonder that they either hide from or rail against the injustice of it all.

Adelmann has crafted a brilliant narrative that explored how women are portrayed in the media and gossiped about by society in a way that stays grounded in a cast of fascinating characters. I was completely engaged with those characters, even as I tried to match them with fairy tales and wondered about what Will was really up to. Everything about this book was incredible.

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

Judas, by Amos Oz

Shmuel Ash is the kind of person who either irritates or arouses parental feelings in just about everyone he meets. He’s an obsessive academic fascinated by betrayers and the stories society tells about them and woefully underprepared for living independently. When we first meet him in Amos Oz’s slow-moving novel, Judas, his former girlfriend has married someone else and his parents’ bankruptcy cuts his university studies short. Only a chance sighting of a job offer on a college notice board saves him from homelessness. This job turns out to be just the kind of opportunity that pushes Shmuel out of the nest of complacency and, just maybe, into adult flight.

The job is a strange one. Shmuel is paid in room, board, and a little stipend to take care of an elderly, argumentative pedant for several hours every evening. He has few actual duties—make sure the old man eats, feed the fish, close the blinds—and is mostly there just to keep Gershom Wald while Wald’s daughter-in-law works. In his free time, he nurses a growing attraction to Atalia, the daughter-in-law (who everyone warns him about) and thinks about two betrayers: Judas Iscariot and Shealtiel Abravanel (Atalia’s father).

There is a slight plot to Judas, but the novel is more about the dialogues between Shmuel and the other characters about the centuries-old conflict between Christians and Jews, the roles of Judas and Shealtiel, Jewish views of Jesus and Judas, futility, and grief. Shmuel fascination with historic betrayers seems to come from his ideas that they were dreamers. He argues that Judas’ betrayal was necessary—and born out of genuine belief in Jesus’s divinity—because, without it, there wouldn’t have been a crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, there couldn’t have been a resurrection. And without a resurrection, Christianity might have withered on the vine. As for Shealtiel Abravanel, this fictional character argued against David Ben-Gurion and other Zionists against the creation of a Jewish State. Abravanel favored co-existence between Jews and Muslims. Unlike Judas, however, Abravanel failed. We’ll never know what his betrayal of Zionism might have wrought.

Because this book is primarily dialogue in the form of long speeches, this book is slow going. It took me a full week to get to the end. Readers who like more philosophical books might like this one.