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)

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.

All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse

Between April 7 and July 15, 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Twa people were murdered by the Hutu majority of Rwanda. The Rwandan Genocide is the kind of event that people who survived it will never fully recover from. It’s the kind of horrific event that forever stains the name and history of a country. In All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse (pitch-perfectly translated by Alison Anderson), we see how the long shadow of the Genocide still smothers Rwandans decades later through the eyes of Blanche and her mother, Immaculata. Mairesse also shows us the stark divides between black and white, speech and silence, healing and long death.

Blanche is well aware of the irony of her name. In France, she goes by Barbra. Even though Blanche is half-French, through her father, she will never been anything other than an African to the French people she lives among. Blanche left her hometown of Butare, in southern Rwanda, near the start of the genocide. Her mother stayed behind and narrowly managed to survive. Immaculata stayed because her son, Bosco, joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front. All three family members manage to physically survive the violence, but all suffer deep, emotional scars that leave them forever changed.

As the narrative switches back and forth between Blanche and Immaculata, we learn more about their lives before and after the genocide and Rwandan Civil War. Before their world ended, Immaculata was torn between her two children. Blanche represents Immaculata’s desire to rise above the limitations placed on her by poverty, by expectations of her gender, and by the lingering racism of colonial rule. For a long time, Immaculata would only speak to her daughter in French and briefly forbid her family from teaching her Kinyarwanda, one of the official languages of Rwanda. Blanche does learn Kinyarwanda eventually, but her mother’s drive to Europeanize her daughter leaves Blanche feeling like a perpetual foreigner in the country where she was born. Immaculata’s other child, Bosco, was fathered by a Tutsi population, a man who was Immaculata’s first love. We don’t learn much about who Bosco is. We only know what happens to him through Immaculata’s reports to Blanche. Unlike Blanche, Bosco is never pushed into anything. Instead, he seems to represent for Immaculata her authentic, Tutsi Rwandan self, or perhaps her self-destructive choices.

What fascinated me most about All Your Children, Scattered was the role that speaking or not-speaking play. After Bosco’s death, Immaculata stops speaking. She goes silent. Meanwhile, Blanche switches between French and Kinyarwanda to try and express everything. She uses both languages to try and teach her own son where she comes from. Yet, for all her words, Blanche fails to reach Immaculata in Immaculata’s profound grief over her lost Bosco. How can words ever express that kind of sorrow? Or the fear that Immaculata felt while she was hiding from Hutu forces that wanted to kill her and everyone like her? I was reminded of all the books, articles, and documentaries that have been created about the Holocaust. There’s an ocean of words out there that can teach us what happened but they all seem to fall short of fully capturing the experience of being hunted and murdered simply because one group of people believes that your group should be exterminated.

And yet, for all that, life does carry on. Immaculata’s family lives in her daughter and her grandson. The fact that we see the characters slowly heal over the years gives this book—which like I said is about one of the most horrific crimes in history—a hardwon sense of hope. Somehow, it is possible to find peace. Somehow, it is possible to find the words to connect with others and the world. I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand all of the choices Mairesse made in this book (I’m frankly baffled by the allegorical story near the end) but I will say that it was a harrowing and beautiful read.

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

Notes on an Execution, by Danya Kukafka

The first pages of Danya Kukafka’s unsettling novel, Notes on an Execution, set the stage for a very uncomfortable read. Not only does Kukafka put us into a death row cell along with one of the primary narrators of the novel, she also writes these chapters in the second person. Having “You” tell their own story forces us into the experience of a very bad person, waiting to receive the ultimate penalty. The other narrators—the detective who hunts down You and the evidence to put You away, the sister of one of You’s victims, You’s mother—are a step removed by having their chapters written in the third person. Kukafka flips the perspective on us, a choice that raises a lot of questions about justice, guilt, and retribution. This book is an incredible feat of writing.

You is Ansel Packer, and all of his chapters count down the hours of his last day on earth. We readers will have little doubt that Ansel is an evil person. We know what he did. We even see how he plans to manipulate the people around him to try and make a break from death row. The mystery in Notes on an Execution is how Ansel came to be caught in the first place. We learn those details through the perspectives of Saffy Singh, a detective; Hazel, the sister of one of Ansel’s victims; and Lavender, the woman who gave birth to Ansel and his brother before fleeing her abusive husband.

Each of the female narrators in Notes on an Execution is a complicated person. None of them follow a predictable path. Their chapters just add more dimension to their characters. Lavender, for example, is a mother who abandons her young family because she can’t think of any way to make them all safe except to run away and leave her boys to the foster system. Hazel, whose sister is Ansel’s final victim, is no saint who speaks for her sister. Instead, she has a jealous relationship with her twin. Saffy Singh might be the closest to an archetype from the lot. She obsessively tries to solve the murders of three women who she knows Ansel killed when he was still a teenager. We’ve seen obsessive detectives before, except that Saffy’s goals are a lot harder to satisfy than just seeing a bad person locked away. And, unlike other righteous law enforcement officers, Saffy harbors a dark desire for her own punishment.

The plot evolves as each of the four characters spills their guts on the pages of Notes on an Execution. Small clues become definitive evidence of Ansel’s guilt, strong enough to make sure that he will never hurt anyone ever again. This book is one of the deftest explorations of crime and the death penalty that I’ve ever read. It never gets preachy and its complications preclude any kind of easy answer. I seek out these kinds of books because, the other I get, the more unsure I am about how criminal justice works in the United States. I’ve seen how much of court proceedings are simple theatre, and how the make-up of a jury can skew verdicts and sentences. And when it comes to sentences, the more I think that there are no good answers. Nothing will ever make up for the losses caused by the guilty; victims will never come back to us. Locking people up or, in some cases, subjecting some criminals to the death penalty doesn’t satisfy those of us outside. How do these sentences force criminals to make amends or “pay” for their deeds? Or is prison, like critics say, just a form of throwing people away? As for the death penalty, the efforts of the Innocence Project should terrify all of us because of how many people they find who are in fact innocent. Even if the person with the death sentence is guilty, punishing a murderer with death strongly reminds me of Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye justice.

Books like Notes on an Execution bring all these questions into the spotlight, leaving us to meditate on the emotional morass of dissatisfaction, grief, anger, and more that’s left in the wake of brutal crimes and the ineffectual sentences meted out by judges and juries. I strongly recommend Notes on an Execution to book groups and readers who like to wrestle with impossible dilemmas.

Days Come and Go, by Hemley Boum

Trigger warnings for brief depictions of domestic violence and rape.

Some families seem cursed. Whether you believe that it’s divine retribution or a supernatural haunting or epigenetics, some people just seem doomed to follow the same path as their ancestors. The reason we read about families like the one depicted in Hemley Boum’s Days Come and Go and other literary family sagas, I think, is in the hope that one of the family’s scions will find a way to break the curse. The women of the sprawling Cameroonian family at the heart of Days Come and Go seem to be cursed in love. Three generations in a row, we see women get caught up in relationships at a critical moment in their young lives. The early promises of those relationships—love, belonging, social status, financial security, parenthood—are broken early, leaving Anna, Abi, and Tina to rediscover their solitary selves. Days Come and Go is skillfully translated by Nchanji Njamnsi.

Days Come and Go is told in roughly chronological order, after some present-day sections that help establish the relationships between our three narrators. As far as I can tell, the novel spans from the 1950s to 2015. When we first meet her, Anna, the matriarch, is dying of cancer. Her daughter, Abi, is torn between caring for Anna and dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce. One of Anna’s nurses tells Abi that Anna has been talking about her past, suggesting that Abi listen in. Anna’s revelations take us back to her girlhood in a remote Cameroonian village. She tells us how a missionary smoothed the way for Anna to get a French education: all Anna has to give up is her non-European name and work her fingers to the bone to get it. She slowly loses contact with the woman who raised her and reshapes herself into the good subject that the Europeans want her to be. Around the time Cameroon becomes independent, in 1960, Anna means her husband in a whirlwind of youthful idealism and rebelliousness, only to find herself trapped by pregnancy and in-laws who despise her.

When the novel comes back around to Abi’s story, we find her in the last days of her marriage. Her husband discovers that Abi has been having a long-term affair. The betrayal brings out a frightening, ugly side to Abi’s husband and rips their small family into pieces. Just like with her mother Anna, Abi has to confront the realization that people only really show you who they are when they’re under pressure. It might be the pressure to conform to racial prejudices or the dictates of a mother-in-law or humiliation.

The last narrator’s story is the most harrowing. Tina is not a biological member of Anna’s family but, as an orphan, she was informally adopted into Anna’s household. When her dearest friend becomes religious, Tina is so lonely that she joins the local mosque, too. It’s not until far too late that Tina and her friend realize that they’ve been recruited into Boko Haram. By then, it’s impossible for them to escape with their lives. Thankfully, Anna is able to use her husband’s contacts in the Cameroonian government and military to help Tina escape.

The details in the women’s stories vary but they all share the same rough arc. (There are some hints that Tina might be the one to break the family curse.) They all dive deeply into relationships with people they don’t really know. Anna’s husband had a controlling family and a taste for the kind of finer things that only lots of money can buy. Abi’s husband saw her as a possession; he was shockingly misogynist for a man who professed to be a lovely family man. Tina’s friend nursed a deep sense of rejection that led her to a fundamentalist group of terrorists that later killed her.

What are we to make of these stories? Should we stay away from all-encompassing relationships? Do we have to give up on love and kinship and friendship? In spite of all the heartache and pain the women experience in Days Come and Go, I think that the narrators in this story wouldn’t say that we have to give up any of these relationships. Instead, I think they’d say: keep your eyes open. I think they’d also say: you don’t need another person to make you whole. And I think that, in the end, they would say: we are stronger and more resilient than we realize.

The lake in Parcour vita, Douala, Cameroon. Much of the story takes place in Douala. (Image via Wikicommons)

Two Nurses, Smoking, by David Means

In Two Nurses, Smoking, David Means presents us with a series of moments, captured by characters who are transfixed in time for a variety of reasons. Many of the characters are stuck in their grief. Others are trapped in unhappiness. Still others are caught up in lust or mental illness. Readers who read for plots will need to slow down while readers who are in it for characterization may relish these repeated opportunities to reflect along with the characters on moments of perfect recall, last sights, or imagined possibilities.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Clementine, Carmelita, Dog”—Means immerses us in the perspective of a dog. Clementine’s primary knowledge of the world comes through her nose, not language. She smells when her owner develops cancer, but can’t understand why that owner suddenly disappears from Clementine’s world. And she also can’t understand why her next owner, a grieving man, turns her loose in the woods one day. Although she might not know why things happen, Clementine can understand love, family, and belonging. This story will be especially sweet for those of us who have pets.

“Lightning Speaks”—This story features a character, Meg, who appears in at least one other story in the collection. This non-linear story bounces around the disorganized mind of a girl/woman who seeks out love only to end up in an institution. She struggles to communicate with others who dismiss her, by taking the specialness out of her stories or talking over her. By the time her interlocutor realizes that he’s squelched Meg’s efforts to describe transcendence, the moment is lost.

Although I liked the meditativeness of Two Nurses, Smoking, overall this collection kept playing the same note. Many of the (mostly unnamed) narrators were impossible for me to differentiate; they all sounded alike. Means is excellent at capturing fleeting moments of clarity or memory, but I would’ve liked to have seen more variety among the stories. This book is best read over time and not in a single sitting.

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

Witches, by Brenda Lozano

Trigger warning for rape, anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, and interpersonal violence.

There are so many things we don’t know about ourselves. There are medicines we take for which we don’t know the mechanism of action. There are ailments that we don’t have good treatments for or, sometimes, any treatment at all. Perhaps the most mysterious illnesses of all are the ones that afflict our psyches or, as the protagonist of Brenda Lozano’s affecting novel, The Witches, would say: sickness in our soul or our “deep waters.” Feliciana, modeled in part on real-life curandera María Sabina Magdalena García, has been healing people’s sick souls for decades through veladas, ceremonies involving the use of psychoactive mushrooms. When journalist Zoe comes to interview Feliciana after the murder of Feliciana’s transgender mentor and friend, Paloma, we see how Feliciana works her magic on maladies that no one else would consider curable.

The Witches is thoughtfully translated by Heather Cleary, who also writes a very informative introduction that I recommend to readers who aren’t familiar with curanderos or third-gender people in Mesoamerican cultures.

Feliciana and Paloma are the children of curanderos. Their family knowledge of local flora and fungi give them the ability to heal people with conditions Westerners might diagnose as alcoholism, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, attention from Western researchers, doctors, and (mostly) celebrities has turned her into a powerful woman who is viewed with jealousy by many people in her small Mexican village. But whatever ire is directed towards Feliciana pales in comparison to the violence faced by muxe Paloma, who we only meet through Feliciana’s memories about her mentor and friend. Just before the book opens, Paloma is murdered by a man who she accidentally infected with “a disease unborn,” which I think means HIV.

Psilocybe caerulescens, one of several psychoactive mushrooms used in Mesoamerican healing (Image via Wikicommons)

Feliciana tells her story—and Paloma’s story—to Zoe, a journalist who has reached the end of her psychological endurance. Just as Feliciana relates her life story, the curandera asks Zoe about her own life. It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Zoe and Feliciana’s lives: parents with abilities beyond the strictly mundane, sisters with histories of abuse, and pressure to “stay in their place” from society at large. The big difference between the two is that Feliciana has a deep, hopeful faith that everything wrong can be righted whereas Zoe has struggled to function and find happiness in her own life.

While Witches is primarily centered on the women’s lives, it does touch briefly on cultural appropriation, the limits of faith and healing, and the duty to one’s own happiness versus the duty to use one’s knowledge to help the community. I was glad to see these topics addressed because it enriches what is already a fascinating pair of stories. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a soul-deep story about hope, healing, and honesty.

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

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, by Tsering Yangzom Lama

There are (at least) two different histories of the land we know as Tibet, depending on who you ask. The official People’s Republic of China version calls its actions a “liberation” or an “annexation” of Tibet. If you ask Tibetans, China invaded and occupied their country. In 1959, after an attempt to get the Chinese Army out of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama, his government, and thousands of Tibetans fled their mountains to India, Nepal, and other countries. Tsering Yangzom Lama’s novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, follows a family of refugees from their mountain village to Nepal and Canada, from 1960 to the early 2010s. Through the eyes of Lhamo, Tenkyi, Dolma, and others, we see the effects of exile, loss, disappointment, and misunderstanding. This book is a welter of emotion that, among other things, serves as a reminder that the Tibet many once called home may never be reclaimed.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies follows a roughly chronological structure, with some jumping around the generations. The book opens in 1960, with Lhamo. Lhamo is the daughter of a shaman. She and her father mind the house and keep people fed and clothed while Lhamo’s mother consults gods and spirits for any visitor who needs answers to their questions. Lhamo is the kind of dependable person who, from a Western perspective, might be seen as a doormat. She is always taking care of others, especially her younger sister, Tenkyi. We learn about her dreams and longings as we spend time with her. She wants better than a life of very hard work but always puts other ahead of herself. Tenkyi, who we meet later in the novel, travels further than her sister. Her intelligence is recognized early and the teacher in their Nepali refugee camp helps raise funds to send Tenkyi to college in Dehli. Dolma, Lhamo’s daughter, perhaps travels the furthest. She and Tenkyi manage to get visas to Canada, where Dolma goes to graduate school. Dolma’s distance isn’t just geographical. Unlike Tenkyi and Lhamo, Dolma never lived in Tibet. She was never fully immersed in the culture and beliefs. The closest she can come to knowing her heritage culture is to study it with Western anthropologists on another continent.

As we sojourn with the women through the decades and the miles, we watch them try to make a life for themselves out of their displacement. None of them can know what might have happened if Lhamo and Tenkyi’s parents hadn’t chosen to flee. (Their mother was under suspicion for her role as a religious leader and healer.) When those parents tragically die, the girls are even more adrift. It seems like Lhamo, Tenkyi, and Dolma constantly revisit the question of what might have been as they grow older. What might have happened if Lhamo had been able to find love? What might have happened if Tenkyi had been with the security of a family? And what might Dolma have been able to become if she’d grown up fully living her culture, instead of learning about it secondhand?

Under the heartbreaking plot and character studies, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is the richest depiction of Tibetan life and culture that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I was engrossed in the narrative but what really grabbed me were the details about Tibet’s shamanic traditions, the food Tibetans were able to create in their sparse homeland, and a way of life ruled by the tenets of Gelug Buddhism. I spent a lot of time bouncing around online and in Wikipedia looking at pictures of Tibet and its people, while trying to get up to speed on the political history. I wanted to see what I was reading about. The Wikipedia dive isn’t necessary to understand this book and, actually, I recommend saving the research for after you’ve read the book. Without prior knowledge of the historical context, readers of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies—which I think is a reference to pilgrim’s prostrations—might be able to feel some of the bewilderment of an uprooted people, who have unreliable access to trustworthy information, living in long-term exile.

If you enjoy family sagas or books set in locations far away from any place you’ve ever been, I would definitely recommend We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.

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

Drigung Monastery, eastern Tibet, 2009 (Image by Antoine Teveneaux and hosted on Wikicommons)

A Map for the Missing, by Belinda Huijuan Tang

When he gets the call that his father is missing, Yitian hasn’t been back to his home village in Anhui, China for more than a decade. I don’t he’d be able to explain why he leaves his wife and his job at an unnamed American university to get on a plane and go help find the man. Over the course of A Map for the Missing, by Belinda Huijuan Tang, we learn what would compel Yitian to travel back to the place that holds his worst memories. We also learn about the forces and chances that can derail us from our chosen paths in life.

Years before he became an assistant professor at an American university, Yitian was the son of poor, rural farmers. He’s not a strong worker and, instead of going to the fields, Yitian would rather listen to his grandfather’s stories about the history of China. His hard-bitten father loathes Yitian for his preferences. And Yitian’s life might have gone on like that—hard labor, abusive home life, no future—if it weren’t for the announcement that the gaokao would finally be held again. These national college entrance exams had been suspended since the Cultural Revolution. If Yitian can score well enough on the gaokao, he can go to university and escape the Tang Family Villages. And if his friend, Hanwen, a sent-down teenager from Shanghai, can score well enough, perhaps she can leave the villages, too, and return to her mother.

Hongcun, a traditional village in Anhui (Image via Wikicommons)

A Map for the Missing bounced back and forth between 1993—when Yitian returns to China to help look for his father—and the late 1970s and early 1980s—when Yitian is still a teenager dreaming of becoming a scholar. As the narrative shifts in time, we see that life is never a straight line. Yitian has pinballed through his entire life, responding to the actions of others and being bounced off of his previous trajectory. For example, he ended up in America because the head of his department at university in Beijing recommended him. He married his wife because she initiated contact. He passed the gaokao because Hanwen badgered him into studying. Yitian hardly has to make choices at all. And, if you look closely, you can see how other characters similarly pinball through their lives in response to someone else pushing them off course.

A missing father is just a catalyst in A Map for the Missing. The real story, I think, is about the loneliness people can feel when they believe that no one else really understands them. No one in this story shares their stories with each other. When a character learns about another’s past—and, hence, why they are the way they are—it’s a revelation. My impression of most of the characters in A Map for the Missing is that they are all presenting one version of themselves to the world while keeping their thoughts and emotions private. None of them can make themselves vulnerable enough to talk about the things that really matter. And so, as they all ricochet around each other, opportunities for happiness and love and understanding appear and vanish and reappear. This is an emotionally complex novel. I’d recommend it to readers who like deep psychological portraits in interesting settings.

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

Nuclear Family, by Joseph Han

It’s easy to mistake stability for coasting and it’s pretty clear from the beginning of Joseph Han’s Nuclear Family that the Cho family is coasting. The elder Chos plan to expand their small Korean delicatessen but that dream has stalled in the face of competition. Neither of the younger Chos really want to carry on the family business. They don’t know what they want, really; they just know they don’t want to do that. When Jacob inexplicably decides to take a job in South Korea and even more inexplicably tries to run across the demilitarized zone to the North, everything falls apart for the family. This book, then, is a slow burn of directionless decline in which we can only hope that the four Chos can somehow find their paths forward.

Most of Nuclear Family is narrated by daughter Grace and son Jacob. There are brief passages narrated by their parents and grandparents that add a little more context to the family’s struggles in Korea during and after the war and, later, in Hawai’i. Of the two, Jacob’s story is much more interesting (to me, at least). His disorienting fall has a clear cause. You see, he’s being haunted (and sometimes possessed) by his long-lost grandfather, whose unfinished business has turned his spirit into a gwisin. His sister, on the other hand, is possessed by marijuana. The drug seems to be the only thing that keeps her from completely losing her grip, at the cost of detaching her from reality. I find reading from the point of view of inebriated characters difficult. It often strikes me as so much blather. This might be because I ran with a nerdy crowd in high school and college; we were all too busy reading to experiment with mind-altering substances.

While Jacob struggles to ditch his supernatural pest of a grandfather and Grace barely pauses between puffs from her vape pen, their parents find that their community—especially their fellow Korean emigrants—has turned on them. Their son’s bizarre run marks the Chos as traitors. The main branch of their delicatessen is the target of a thrown brick. The snubs and gossip are even worse. I felt for the elder Chos. To see their dream of financial independence and a future for their children evaporate in the face of public disapproval is heartbreaking. What was all that work for if it can disappear in an instant?

The ending of Nuclear Family offers some hope for the future but, like so many other works of literary fiction, there is still the possibility that something else will happen to send the family off the rails. It might not be a happily ever after and I appreciate that. The conclusion of this novel feels honest and satisfyingly hard-won.

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