Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas

35099035There are two things that changed the playing field for women in the United States: the pill and Roe v. Wade. These two things made it possible for women to chose when or if we would get pregnant. This is not the case for most of the women in Leni Zumas’ moving, gut-wrenching novel, Red ClocksIn this book, abortion and in-vitro fertilization are banned, the Pink Wall prevents women from getting these procedures in Canada, and only married heterosexuals are allowed to adopt. Red Clocks takes a bold look at what might happen when the choice to get pregnant or adopt or legally end a pregnancy is taken away.

The novel rotates between four female characters (and another who appears in one character’s manuscript) who all live in the same small Oregon town. Over and over, this book asks us to think about what it means to bear and raise a child—and what it means to make the choice to become a mother in the first place. We see their anger, regret, hopelessness, weariness, and occasional motherly love as their stories progress.The four women’s live intersect here and there, but the contrasts between their varied experiences are more important than these tangential connections.

Our first narrator, Ro Stephens, is a 42 year old history teacher who desperately wants to be a mother. Her age and a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome mean that it is virtually impossible for her to have a biological child. As a single woman, she can’t adopt in this alternate America either. Ro is contrasted with Mathilda, a fifteen year old who accidentally gets pregnant after uninspired sex with her boyfriend. She can’t bear to tell her parents and she’s absolutely terrified of what might happen if anyone finds out. Where Ro very much wants a child, Mathilda wants to be not pregnant now, thank you very much.

We also get to meet Susan, a mother of two who is fed up with her childish husband. Susan had plans to be a lawyer when she got pregnant and married her husband. Now she has two kids and is not coping well with being shanghaied into life as a housewife. Meanwhile, Gin is living a comfortably solitary life on the outskirts of town as a practical witch and unofficial healer. When she was pregnant, years ago, she gave up her child for adoption. Unlike the other women, Gin has no regrets but she’s curious about the child she gave up.

I identified most with Ro, because I am almost her age and I am incapable of having a child. (Unlike Ro, I am thrilled about this.) But I worried about all of the women in this book because they all felt as trapped as an animal in a snare. The tension just keeps ratcheting up as Mathilda comes up against the end of her first trimester, Ro approaches the deadline of a new law that will prevent her from adopting, Gin goes on trial after being accused of trying to help a women have an abortion, and Susan starts to come up with disturbing ways to end her marriage.

I suspect Red Clocks will appeal most to women, not just because women tend to bear the brunt of parenthood in our society. It’s is a very female book, full of references to ovaries, eggs, blood, cramps, pubic hair, and vaginal smells. Because of this, it felt very intimate to me because it contains so many things that most women keep to themselves or only reveal to their closest friends. This intimacy, for me, gave additional weight to the truth at the heart of this book: that being a mother should be a personal choice, not a trap.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.


Little Reunions, by Eileen Chang

36954609Never published during her life time, Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions is a highly autobiographical novel of a woman’s complicated life from the 1920s to the 1950s. The novel feels unfinished, and the nonlinear style doesn’t help. To me, Little Reunions is a dizzying look back at a life full of disappointment, insecurity, unrequited love, and guilt. I realize this might not sound like much of a recommendation, but I did like how this novel touched on so many ideas without feeling overstuffed. I feel that I’ve experienced an entire life while reading this book, which is the most I can really ask from a book.

Julie (clearly a stand-in for the author) grows up as an after thought in her dramatic mother’s life. Julie’s mother, Rachel, left the family repeatedly to travel around the world. Men are in and out of Rachel’s life. Once her parents get divorced, Julie only sees her mother when Rachel decides to stop by Shanghai on her way to somewhere else. In the first parts of the book, until Julie (and I) started to understand Rachel better, Rachel seems like a very selfish person who uses men to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. It’s only later that Julie learns that Rachel was sleeping with these men to also “pay” doctor bills and school fees. Once Julie starts to embark on her own affairs, Rachel starts to make a lot more sense and become, at least as much as Rachel allows, an object of pity.

Eileen Chang in 1954
(Image via Wikicommons)

Julie and Rachel’s relationship forms a spine for the rest of this book to hang from. While that relationship evolves, Julie grows up in the middle of a sprawling family of strivers and moochers. Her talent as a writer develops. Slowly, Julie comes into her own and becomes the protagonist in her own life. But what a sad life it is! The man she first falls in love with cannot give up the other women he wants. Her second love cannot marry her because her bad reputation would ruin his. The complications of family and society seem to conspire to make it impossible for Julie to have simple happiness.

My biggest frustration with this book is Julie’s opaqueness as a character. Although she is the center of this book, Julie develops an impenetrable reserve to protect herself from disappointment, guilt, and the other negative emotions her mother and lovers elicit in her. This opacity could read as selfishness, akin to Rachel’s when we first met her, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw a character who found a way to emotionally protect herself as a child only to build up such thick armor that she couldn’t break out of it when she was an adult. Still, I wish I had been able to see beneath that armor. I feel like I understand everyone in this book except Julie; with her, I’m just guessing.

Little Reunions is my first experience reading Eileen Chang, one of the giants of twentieth century Chinese literature. Although this book wasn’t officially done and had to be published from a draft, I think it gives a good sense of the author’s daring when it comes to talking about sex and love. I marvel at her sharp observations of her characters (Julie excepted). I also enjoyed the subtlety of how this book was built. Like Julie’s, my judgment of characters changed from the beginning to the end almost without my realizing it. The more I knew about them, the easier it was to see why they behaved as they did. The realizations sneak up on you and I love books that can teach me something without my being aware of it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.

The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith

34962936Shakespeare said it first: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” This is certainly true in Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere. In fact, the course of love (or something sinister masquerading as love) runs in such crooked paths that at first it’s hard to tell if the characters are even on the same one. This novel is more like a series of linked stories that share a setting (Newport, Rhode Island) and themes of unrequited love, deceit, dependence, dissociation, and observation. As the narratives draw to their finales, coincidences and motifs pile up to highlight the similarities and differences in the choices the characters make in their attempts to get love or something like it.

The first chapters of The Maze at Windermere almost made me give up. The first character we meet is a tennis pro in the resort town of Newport who finds himself somewhat dependent on the indulgence of a very wealthy family. (I don’t know why I’m so turned off by tennis pros, but I’m going to just chalk it up as a personal eccentricity.) When Henry James showed up, I was very tempted to give up on the book altogether. I loathe Henry James because the one time I tried to read one of his books, The Turn of the Screw, I found the prose impenetrably dense and I hate it when someone makes me feel like an idiot.

I think it was the lure of the puzzle that kept me going. I wasn’t going to let the ghost of Henry James hold me back. So I kept reading. I met characters who didn’t quite know what they wanted until it was snatched away from them or who thought they knew what they wanted until something sent them haring down left turns. Over and over, I saw characters wrestle with what it was they wanted from life, whether it was love, security, or knowledge of others. Only one of the narratives, the one set in 1692, is fairly straightforward and the other narrative circle around it as if to show us all the ways things can go wrong when one refuses to be honest.

There’s a lot to unpack, as we English majors say, in The Maze at Windermere. I’m sure I didn’t understand everything lurking under the surface of these connected stories—mostly because everything I know about Henry James and his work comes from Wikipedia. In particular, the moments in which several of the characters have mystical experiences (a nod to the work of James’ brother, William) require a lot more thought, since I was too busy trying to spot all the links between characters and plots.

The Maze at Windermere is definitely not a light read, so I would only recommend it to readers looking for a challenge. It’s very clever, requires patience, and ready access to the internet if, like me, you feel the temptation to run down hunches and look up names. I’ve never read anything like this book. It tackles topics—unrequited love and dissociation in particular—that I can’t recall ever seeing explored in depth in fiction. Those who take up the challenge will be amply rewarded. I feel quite a lot smarter now because I’m pretty sure I understood part of what the book contained.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

25810398Whenever there is a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, after the victims are counted, the media invariably devote gallons of ink or hours of airtime to the perpetrators. I can understand why. We want to know why the killers did this. Why are there people so full of anger and hatred that they go out and kill so many people? What do they hope to achieve? How do we prevent these attacks in the first place? Will the War on Terror ever end? Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs is a gutsy look at the cycle of terror and how violence begets violence. It begins and ends with a bomb in a Dehli open air market. We meet terrorists, victims, the families of victims, and activists over the course of the book. And, as we read, we see the characters ask the same questions we do when we see the news: Why?

After a bomb goes off in Lajpat Nagar, an open market in Dehli, the damage has a literal and more figurative shockwave. Not only does it kill several people, wound others, and destroy shops, but there are emotional impacts to the parents and family of victims and the possibly innocent men who are arrested for the bombing in the rush to pin the attack on someone. My heart immediately went out to the victims and their parents, the Ahmeds and the Khuranas. No only does the bomb take away their children, it also breaks the unity and confidence of their families. They never truly recover.

When the book’s attention shifts to the perpetrators, I steeled myself against any empathy—at least at first. It turned out that the book is highly critical of the use of violence as means of change. Characters frequently mention Gandhi’s non-violence. But the characters who eventually become terrorists or accomplices don’t have the inner strength to stick to the non-violent path. This group of characters face discrimination and violence because they’re Muslim. Because they’re a minority in India and because everyone in India (Hindu or Muslim) has their own problems, the Muslim characters can’t get enough people to understand what they want no matter how much they yell in the media. Time and again, the nascent terrorists give up on non-violence, deciding that only a big enough bomb can help them achieve their aims.

The Association of Small Bombs is not an easy book. Given it’s subject matter, it really couldn’t be. I very much appreciated the way this book challenges its characters and us to think about why. All of the characters have different responses to this question so that there are no overall conclusions. Overall conclusions would have ruined this book. The question of why is so big that conclusions would have been too simple and implausible. But The Association of Small Bombs does provide a critical but nuanced look at the ramifications of terrorism and what it actually achieves: death, misery, and more of the same.

A Separation, by Katie Kitamura

30407998As a translator, the narrator of Katie Kitamura’s complex examination of a dead marriage, A Separation, has a unique awareness of what is meant, what is interpreted, and what is going on underneath the surface of what people say to each other. In the opening pages of A Separation, we learn that our narrator has been separated from her husband for six months and that he has gone to Greece without her. We also learn that the husband and wife have agreed not to tell anyone that they’ve separated—which makes things very difficult when the narrator gets a call from her mother-in-law and finds out that said husband has gone missing.

After that call, our unnamed narrator takes off for Greece (but is also sent by the mother-in-law, who booked everything in advance). Our narrator, who is rather passive about a lot of things, is not surprised to learn that her husband has been flirting with women all over the souther Peloponnese. She’s mildly bothered by the husband’s infidelity, but she already knew about other affairs and, besides, they’re going to divorce anyway. It might annoy some readers at how little the narrator actually does in A Separation. Rather than trying to dig up leads about where her wayward husband went, she lets information come to her.

While she makes a terrible investigator, our narrator is very good at observing people around her. She’s almost obsessive about teasing meaning from gestures, tones of voice, body language, and word choice. This hyper-attention to details means that she knows a lot more about what’s going on behind peoples’ speech than they’d like to admit. She also turns that attention on herself and her uncomfortable family situation. She keeps maintaining the fiction that she and her husband had not been separated, romantically and physically, even after a hard truth is revealed to her in-laws.

Towards the end of A Separation, this situation and the narrator’s thoughts about it got a lot more interesting as she reflects on the tension between the fictions we prop up to avoid disappointing or angering people we esteem and what’s really going on. Other readers might think of the narrator as a coward for the way she constantly ducks confrontation. I don’t think “coward” is the right label. The best word I can think of for the nameless narrator is passive. She’s not so much avoiding conflict as trying to detach from her unhappy in-laws and the social conventions that she’s still propping up.

I suspect that only very specific kinds of readers will actually enjoy reading A Separation. I’m not one of them. I have a hard time with characters who let things happen to them and let little unkindnesses pile up. I’m also not too keen on literary fiction about broken marriages. I picked this book up because I thought there would be an intriguing mystery for the narrator to pick apart. A Separation is more mundane than I wanted. What made me carry on was the intellectual puzzle of polite fictions that keep a family functioning in spite of underlying turmoil. Also, it’s a short book.

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

2227528The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich, didn’t quite make sense to me until I read the brief note at the end. This note pointed out that several of the “sections” of The Plague of Doves had been previously published as short stories. When I looked back on what I read as a series of linked stories, I had to marvel at the way a story and a theme of disillusionment coalesced out of the various characters’ narratives. Motifs suddenly became clues about the central mysteries of the collection. The achronological organization began to feel like I was interviewing potential witnesses and suspects of the crimes committed on a North Dakotan Ojibwa-Metis-Michif reservation over generations. By the end, I felt that I knew more about these characters than, perhaps, they meant to reveal, as though I really was an investigator or oral historian.

The Plague of Doves covers more than 100 years of history, but it opens near the end of that span. Evelina shares her grandfathers retelling of the day he was almost hanged by a posse of white men. The posse suspected Mooshum and three other Native Americans he was with of killing a white family (excluding one infant survivor). Despite token resistance by white law enforcement, Mooshum’s friends are lynched. The lynching and the murders that precipitated it form a core for several of the narrators to hang their own stories on. With each new narrator, whether directly connected to those killings or not, we learn more about the lynching, the murders, and a lot of things that happened since.

Because some of the sections are only tangentially related to the killings, I looked for something to connect all the sections. Partway through The Plague of Doves, I think I spotted it: disillusionment. Over and over in this novel, I watched characters (who are on the pragmatic side, for the most part) realize that love, law, faith, and other abstract concepts might let them down. That said, this is not a hopeless book. Rather, I read this book as a series of awakenings as characters realized that what they thought was important was either more complicated or just figments of their imaginations. The characters sometimes break, but I sense that they become stronger for their mental ordeals.

The Plague of Doves is a complex piece of fiction that offers several meals’ worth food for through. Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like my brain has been performing marathons as I’ve tried to work out what this book is all about. This brief review doesn’t even come close to covering it all.

The Houseguest, by Kim Brooks

27037153What do we owe one another? This question and some of its variations keep coming up in The Houseguest, by Kim Brooks, leaving us to think about altruism, rescues, gratitude, and obligation. Set in Utica, New York, in 1941, two men become involved in the Jewish refugee crisis from different angles. Abe Auer and his family take in a Polish Jewish actress who managed to get to America. Max Hoffman, Abe’s rabbi, starts to work for an organization that is not only trying to help get Jewish refugees out of Europe but also field a Jewish army. Helping others escape genocide might seem like the obvious choice, but things rapidly get complicated.

Abe Auer, when we meet him, is a depressed man who cannot stop reading the Yiddish language newspapers as news begins to pour out of Europe about what the Nazis are doing to Europe’s Jews. Meanwhile, Max Hoffman grows distressed at the lack of progress that various organizations are making when it comes to helping refugees. The State Department (in the book and historically) refuse to take more than a bare handful of Jewish refugees. Only Jews who have relatives in America who promise to support them are allowed in to the United States.

The St. Louis carried 937 Jewish refugees from Hamburg in 1939, but no country would let them dock. They were forced to return to Hamburg. Most of its passengers were killed by the Nazis. This ship and similar incidents are mentioned in The Houseguest.
(Image via Wikicommons)

Ana Beidler, an actress in Yiddish theater, is one of the few who manages to get into the country. Abe agrees to host her, but the family are not at all prepared for how traumatized and unusual she is. Abe’s wife, Irene, tries not to be hurt by Ana’s reclusive behavior and bad habits, but it’s clear that neither Abe nor his wife are what they’re supposed to do with Ana. No one is what the others expected. But what do they owe each other? Abe and Irene have offered her room and board, but they want to help make her part of the community. Ana seems to want servants and room service. Allowances must be made, but no one is comfortable or particularly grateful to each other.

As we watch Ana and the Auers try to build some kind of relationship, we also see Max starting to come apart at the seems at his lack of progress. Max has always been sensitive, but it is agonizing to see him bang his head against a metaphorical brick wall. It’s impossible for him (and me, to be honest) to understand why no one will help Jewish refugees and other refugees from the Nazis. Where Abe, Irene, and Ana make us ask what we owe each other as individuals, Max makes us think about what we owe each other as a society.

I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed The Houseguest because the plots aren’t woven as tightly together as I like. There is also a big revelation near the end that pissed me off. But I appreciate the questions this book raises and the parallels that any reader has to draw between how the US Government dealt with Jewish refugees and the way it’s trying to do the same to refugees now.

The Stopping Place, by Helen Slavin

3390801Helen Slavin’s The Stopping Place is a horror novel, at least for women readers. It isn’t terrifying at first. The first part of the novel is unsettling, sure, especially as protagonist Ruby starts to become a vigilante for women who have problems with men who don’t listen to the word “no.” But when the second part, in which Ruby reveals where she came from and why she is so profoundly afraid of men, that The Stopping Place turns into a story so chilling that I had a hard time getting through it. Thankfully, the ending (not to say too much) delivers justice for Ruby and other women victimized by men.

When we meet Ruby, she is a library assistant in an unknown British city. (I only know this book is somewhere in the UK because of the vocabulary. Ruby is awfully fond of the word “claggy.”) She lives alone. She does not cultivate friendships. Instead, she watches people. In her role as voyeur, Ruby watches her coworker Martha’s relationship begin to turn violent. It’s clear she doesn’t want to engage, but Ruby masters her fear to fight back on the behalf of other women in her circumscribed world. Her successes, however, mean that her ex-husband tracks her down.

In the second part of the book, Ruby finally reveals her story. This part, I’ll say again, is very hard to read. Imagine trigger warning stickers all over the place for domestic violence, sexual violence, and emotional abuse. The second part probably goes on too long, if I’m honest. And yet, some of it is very necessary showing the emotional life of women involved with controlling, violent men. These abusive men are reasonable at first. They’re sexy, too. But, the longer the relationship goes, the reasonableness turns into a pot of emotional boiling water: little things are dismissed, larger things are explained away, and the biggest things must be coped with because the abused person has no way out.

The best part of The Stopping Place is the ending. During the first part, when Ruby-as-librarian digitizes and catalogs the papers of a Victorian photographer and searches for a missing laundress from the photographer’s estate, I didn’t see how any of it added to Ruby’s story. It was interesting, but it wasn’t until the end that I finally twigged to this subplot’s purpose. When it hit me, I saw how The Stopping Place is, over and over, a story of women pushed into uncomfortable or dangerous positions by powerful men (physically or otherwise) and hit their breaking point.

In spite of the difficulty in reading about physical and emotional abuse, I liked this book. I’m a big fan of a book about extrajudicial justice anyway, especially when the vigilante is a woman. I also enjoyed Ruby’s strange, new life and the way she gets little revenges on people who wrong her. The Stopping Place is a challenge, but I found it very much worthwhile.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 November 2017.

Strangers in Budapest, by Jessica Keener

33590212Will and Annie might be at loose ends in Budapest, but the elderly man they check on during a heatwave has no questions about what he is in the city to do in Jessica Keener’s Strangers in BudapestWill and Annie are in the city to try and get Will’s cell phone business up and running. Unfortunately, Will keeps hitting dead ends. Meanwhile, Annie only has her jogging and intermittent parenting to occupy her. But Edward Weiss, the elderly man they meet one hot day, is in the city for vengeance. I’ll be blunt. This little summary makes the book sound a lot more interesting than it actually is. I was frequently frustrated with the way the plot fails to progress in any meaningful way for most of the book.

We spend most of the time shadowing Annie as she stagnates in Budapest. In the States, she worked with homeless alcoholics. Since becoming an adopted parent, Annie has given up her work to tend to Leo. But, bafflingly, she and Will hire a babysitter to take care of the boy for hours at a time. Between the babysitter and Will taking meetings with anyone who will agree, she really doesn’t have a lot to do. It’s little wonder that she latches on to Edward after mutual friends as the couple to check up on him. Annie pushes through Edward’s rudeness and crotchety ways because she seems to need to help people, even if they don’t particularly want her help.

Over the course of Strangers in Budapest, we learn what drives Edward and Annie and what has gone wrong in their lives. Both are burdened by guilt and have suffered family tragedies. Where Annie’s tragedies have lead her to be a social worker, Edward’s have reinforced his need to protect only himself and his family. Edward doesn’t understand helping people he considered “losers”—alcoholics, addicts, the homeless, etc. He frequently asks Annie why she helps people he thinks can’t be helped. Annie, however, can’t explain other than to say it makes her feel good to at least try. She is not the most eloquent character, so I got a little annoyed at watching her flail with words when Edward puts her on the spot.

There is a lot of praise for this novel, but I found Strangers in Budapest very flawed. It’s not so bad that I gave up on it, but I’m not sure if I can recommend it. The dialog is boring. There’s hardly any plot. I didn’t understand Annie at all. The characters keep talking about how depressed the Hungarians are in sweeping generalizations. There’s little sense of place and this book could have been set anywhere outside of the United States. Edward brings up the Holocaust so many times, even though it has no bearing on the story, that it felt like a cheap emotional ploy. There were so many little things I didn’t like that this book was a chore for me to read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

Hotel Tito, by Ivana Bodrožić

34013791Ivana Bodrožić’s Hotel Tito closely follows the author’s own life. Like her nameless narrator, Bodrožić was a young girl when Yugoslavia broke up in a bloody civil war. And, like her nameless narrator, she also spent years in displaced persons’ housing, waiting for either a new home in Zagreb or the all clear to return to her hometown, Vukovar. Unlike many other survivor stories I have read, Hotel Tito is not an inspirational or heroic tale. The characters here are resolutely ordinary, fractious, and ineffectual. Such ordinary people do a lot to make this novella a feel more real than those other survivor stories because they create a sense of how disruptive, chaotic, and bloody the Yugoslav Civil War was.

We meet the nameless narrator of Hotel Tito when she is nine and already on the road. She doesn’t seem to really know why. All she knows is that everyone in her family, except her father, had to leave Vukovar. (The family never learns what happens to the narrator’s father, but it is assumed that he died in the Vukovar Hospital Massacre.) After a brief stint squatting in a Zagreb apartment, the family is relocated to the eponymous hotel, a repurposed Holiday Inn that was used to house hundreds of refugees from Vukovar and other embattled places in what would become Croatian territory.

The Vukovar Water Tower was not repaired after the war so that it would be a reminder of the city’s destruction
(Image via Wikicommons)

Hotel Tito covers the five years the family spent waiting in that hotel. We watch as the narrator’s brother grows into a frustrated young man who can’t help his family. We also see the narrator’s mother succumb to depression. Meanwhile, our narrator, who barely seems to remember her pre-war life, struggles to fit into young teenage life among refugees and locals. She is an almost stereotypical teenager, to the point where I was frequently aggravated by her selfishness and lack of empathy.

As she grows older, the narrator slowly learns to observe the people around her. She never quite loses her self-serving ways, but she tells us more about what others are going through. She also learns to focus so that we readers aren’t bounced around like a pinball as her attention shifts from diversion to diversion. While she eventually gets a good education, the narrator never asks why all this happened to her and her family. The narrator is anything but a reflective person.

Hotel Tito ends abruptly, so that the entire novella feels like dropping into and out of the narrator and her family’s life. For some readers, this abruptness, the narrator’s shortcomings, and the lack of any hint of heroism, will make this a difficult read. But then, I think that’s part of the point. War is not about heroism. Being a refugee is not about being a survivor who inspires others. Being a refugee is about fleeing for your life and losing home and family. This book is about the long, anxious turmoil of not having a home or lodestar anymore.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.