literary fiction · review

Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, by Yusuke Kimura

In April of 2011, northern Japan suffered a trio of disasters. A massive offshore earthquake triggered an even bigger tsunami, which immediately caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. These disasters and the long (still partly unfinished) cleanup after are never far in the background in Yusuke Kimura’s two novellas, Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge (translated by Doug Slaymaker).

In Sacred Cesium Ground, our protagonist gives us a front row seat to one of the more gutting consequences of the three disasters. Because of the catastrophic and wide-reaching radiation contamination, people were told to leave their animals behind when they were evacuated. Some animals starved to death before their owners could return for them. Nishino, our narrator, has heard of a farm called the Fortress of Hope, where a rancher is collecting abandoned cattle instead of putting the animals down per government orders. Nishino has left her unsatisfying and abusive life in Tokyo to volunteer at the Fortress. In Isa’s Deluge, a young man named Shōji begins collecting stories about his notoriously violent uncle Isao (called Isa). The stories and the possibility that he might someday publish a slightly fictionalized version of them keep him going even though his life is nearly as depressing and purpose-less as Nishino’s is. Reading Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge reminded me strongly of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata in that all three of these stories are about characters who don’t fit, who don’t have the same reactions as other people. Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, however, pack a bigger emotional punch.

An interesting wrinkle to these stories is revealed in the translator’s afterword. Slaymaker writes that Kimura’s novellas are based closely on the author’s own experiences. The Fortress of Hope is modeled on an actual farm of rescued cows. The stories about Uncle Isa are based on family stories from the author’s own family. These two novellas, however, didn’t strike me as auto fiction. Described purely in terms of plot, these novellas seem relatively simple. What makes these stories complicated is the emotional depth and their commentary on Japanese society and the official response to the disaster. As I read both of them and followed the action, I could also see Nishino and Shōji winding themselves up in frustration, helplessness, sense of misunderstanding, and anger at everything until they snap. Autofictional stories—at least the ones I’ve read before—are heavier on the plot than they are on the character studies.

A cow walks down a road in April 2011in the evacuation zone after the tsunami. (Image by VOA Herman, via Wikicommons)

Slaymaker writes in that same afterword that he struggled to convey the Northern Japanese dialect the characters speak, but I didn’t notice anything too unnatural with his solution of having the characters talk a bit like lower class New Yorkers. The accent doesn’t detract from the emotional struggles of the characters or the unsettlingly detailed descriptions of the tsunami ravaged landscape. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed reading these novellas, given the subject matter. (Sacred Cesium Ground is particularly wrenching for me.) But I can say that I appreciated them a lot for the way they grapple with the Japanese psyche and the unhealed wounds of April 2011.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

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literary fiction · review

Sugar Run, by Mesha Maren

It is difficult, if not impossible, for newly released convicts to get back on their feet after their sentences. The lucky ones find jobs and have support networks. Unlucky ones, like Jodi in Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run, have no guidance after they are set at liberty. All Jodi has is an appointment with a parole officer, a $400 loan from her family, and a self-imposed mission to find a friend from eighteen years prior with whom she has unfinished business. Jodi was a very young girl when she went in, with no advanced education or job skills; she was in prison for longer than she was free. All that said, I think any reader can agree that the choices Jodi makes after she finishes her sentence are definitely not the right choices.

We meet Jodi on the bus from Jaxton Prison, where she has just finished serving eighteen years for manslaughter. She has a vague plan to go back to the town her lover, Paula, was from in Georgia to pick up the lover’s younger brother, to save him from an abusive family. Long flashbacks slowly reveal what happened between Jodi and Paula that landed Jodi in prison for so long. In between the flashbacks, we watch Jodi as she makes one bad decision after another: she picks up a drug addict with three kids who is in the middle of a long, emotional drama with her musician husband; she helps said drug addict kidnap those kids; she squats on family land that was auctioned off for taxes; she lets her brother store drugs and more on the property. There’s a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs in this novel, which absolutely does not help things.

Sugar Run depicts a train wreck of a life. There are so many points in Jodi’s story where, if she’d had a bit more perspective and a bit more of a vision of what she wanted her life to be, Jodi might have been okay. Jodi might also have been okay if she’d had a functional support system, if she hadn’t returned to the economically depressed mountains of West Virginia, if she hadn’t fallen in lust with a drug addict. But then, Jodi might also have been okay right from the very beginning if it weren’t for her jealously and complete inability to say no to people who want her to do illegal things for them. Which brings me back around to the question about whether or not it’s possible for convicts to have any kind of life after serving time. Is it Jodi’s circumstances or her personality that landed her in trouble? Is it her situation or her inability to learn from her mistakes that keeps her from a legal kind of life? Sugar Run doesn’t give us any answers along with these questions, but it offers plenty of food for thought about readers curious about prison and judicial reform or life in Appalachia. This is an excellent book club read. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

literary fiction

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

Trigger warning for domestic abuse.

For most us, the closest we get to putting ourselves into the shoes of our ancestors is by reading about them. Some people, like Silvie and her mother and the other members of an experimental archaeology class, get to experience what their ancestors’ lives were like through reenactments. And, for most of us, this kind of experience is entirely voluntary. Not so for Silvie and her mother in Sarah Moss’s haunting novella, Ghost Wall. Where the students are trying to live and Iron Age life in a patch of almost-wild wood and moor in the north of England, Silvie and her mother are there because Silvie’s abusive father is obsessed with pre-Roman Britain. 

Ghost Wall does not wait to let us know that not all is right with this historical experiment. The prologue depicts a harrowing scene of a human sacrifice, based on what archaeologists and historians theorize might have happened to some of the Neolithic bog bodies that have been discovered over the years. Just at the moment the teenage girl is about to be consigned to the bog, we are whisked away to Silvie’s irritation at having to live in a dark hut, sleeping on a bag of lumps, and wearing an itchy tunic. Her father has hauled their small family along to a semester-long class where students attempt to live as people did during the Iron Age. Living this way would be challenge enough—finding food in a place where cultivation and livestock have severely damaged the biodiversity, gaps in historical knowledge, the fact that none of the history students knows how to forage—but Silvie also has to deal with her father’s explosive anger and her shame about the abuse. 

The emotional tension builds unbearably as Silvie’s father grows closer to the professor who is supposed to be in charge of the reenactment. “Professor Call Me Jim” steadily cedes his authority because Silvie’s father seems to be the only person who knows how to keep the experiment going, even though the regressive gender roles and Silvie’s father’s peevishness don’t sit quite right with the good professor. The status quo might have held if Silvie’s father hadn’t started to wonder what it might be like to build a ghost wall. A ghost wall was believed to be a fence crowned with human skulls, built during pre-Roman times for protection against enemies. The men all throw themselves into the project, seducing themselves with faux mysticism. And then, Silvie’s dad suggest reenacting one more thing from the Iron Age: human sacrifice. 

Throughout Ghost Wall, there are small references to Silvie’s life at home with her parents. There was a time when Silvie enjoyed romping around England’s Iron Age and Roman ruins with her father. We never learn quite what changes this relationship, but Silvie reveals her father’s growing and disturbing fascination with bog bodies and finding a “true” British past, facts be damned. This theme could have been developed more, but Moss’s focus sharpens over the course of the novella as the reenactment slowly goes off the rails. Even though there are missed opportunities, Ghost Wall is a chilling, original story and definitely engrossing. If nothing else, Ghost Wall teaches us a very important lesson: once the reenactment leaders start ordering people to put skulls up on a fence, it’s time to pack your bags and go home. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

Butser Farm, a reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement, in Hampshire, England. (Image via Wikicommons)

literary fiction · mystery · review

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs, by Kristien Hemmerechts

Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse.

Odette tells us at the beginning of Kristien Hemmerechts’ The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (translated by Paul Vincent) that she is the most hated woman in Belgium, even more than the woman who murdered all five of her children. We don’t know quite what Odette did to land herself in prison, but it has to be bad. Really, really bad. Before we learn what Odette did, we learn everything about how Odette came to be the person who did those things. There’s a tension the runs all the way through The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is how much we believe Odette, and how much we can excuse her in light of what landed her in prison for sixteen years and her husband, M, in prison for the rest of his life.

Odette was probably destined to be the unwitting (possibly unwitting) accomplice to a predator. Her mother was desperately attacked to her, to the point of threatening to harm herself if Odette wanted to go away to camp, sleep over at a friends, or express her sexuality. When Odette meets M, who excites her so much sexually, that it doesn’t take much for her to adjust from her mother’s prickly neediness to M’s more violent, unpredictable, controlling ways. From the outside, both of these relationships are very clearly abusive. Odette’s lawyers and some of the more sympathetic journalists portray here as a weak person, who was manipulated by M. Odette’s version of events belies this, somewhat, because she constantly shows herself to be as fierce a mother as she can be to her three children. 

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs confronts the idea that knowing more about a criminal can mean excusing their behavior. Over and over, Odette excuses M’s behavior and her mother’s behavior by expelling why they are the monsters that everyone else can see that they are. But, even before I learned what M and Odette did, I knew that I could never excuse their behavior. M’s actions are so beyond the pale that it’s a marvel to me that Odette still feels the need to try and rationalize his abuse and his crimes. But she needs to rationalize M’s behavior because that rationalizes her behavior. If M’s parents hadn’t been a nightmare, M might have been able to be satisfied with a monogamous relationship. Because M is not and because he has “trained” Odette to always try to get him what he says he wants, Odette aids and abets M’s crimes. There is a chain of logic there. It’s a terrible logic, which a healthier person would never have to work out for themselves. And yet, to a warped personality like Odette’s, it’s baffling that other people can’t understand her. 

Odette blames her fatigue, her mental health, her need to care for her children on scant resources, and M’s abuse for everything. And yet, Odette lets slip things that make her less of a victim that she might want us to think. Later in the book, she tells us that she knew what was going on in the cellar of her husband’s house. (This is where the title is explained at last.) She chose not to do something for which she is down being punished because she says she was tired and overwhelmed. But I think that the prosecutors and the journalists who condemn Odette are right: her excuses wear thin when we examine them. 

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is a hard read, even though it’s only briefly graphic. M’s crimes are referred to just enough to let us know what landed the pair of them in prison. Thankfully, Odette doesn’t give us any more. Paul Vincent’s translation perfectly captures her voice and her inconsistencies to give us Hemmerechts’ disturbing meditation on abuse and culpability loud and clear. I enjoyed this book a lot, even though the subject matter is very dark, because it’s one of the best psychological portraits I’ve read in a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 Junary 2019.

historical fiction · literary fiction · metafiction · review

The Brahmadells, by Jóanes Nielsen

Imagine a triangle with its points in Iceland, Norway, and Scotland, skewed a little closer to Scotland than the other two countries. That’s roughly were the Faroe Islands at located. The Faroes, a long time colony of Denmark and a place few have heard of, is the setting for Jóanes Nielsen’s The Brahmadells (translated by Kerri A. Pierce), a metafictional family historical saga that runs from the 1840s to the early 1990s. The family stories that make up the bulk of the novel support a variety of tangents that attempt to explicate the Faroese character. The people in this novel eat partially decomposed meat, live dangerous lives, believe strange things, and sometimes fall prey to their worst impulses.

In the 1990s, writer Eigil Tvibur (the descendant of a Norwegian soldier who was garrisoned in Tórshavn before becoming a landowner), feels that his life is falling apart. His lover has definitively left him. His political career has imploded. He is angry all the time. And his house might be haunted. I might have felt more sympathy for him if it hadn’t been for the terrible, violent rage that he inherited from that Norwegian ancestor. Eigil’s anger and sense of entitlement leads him into a series of awful mistakes. Thankfully, only the beginning and end of The Brahmadells focuses on Eigil. The rest is about the twinned history of the Tvibur family and the Brahmadella family. 

I had a lot more sympathy for Tóvó í Giel. Tóvó is a scion of a family nicknamed the Brahamadellas because of their supposedly otherworldly knowledge. We met Tóvó during a terrible measles epidemic when he’s just a boy. Because the boy’s plight (a lot of his family members succumb to the disease), a prominent doctor takes the boy under his wing. Tóvó ends up traveling across a good chunk of the Faroe Islands before heading out to sea to see the world. Eventually, he returns home and inherits a house from the man who turns out to be Eigil’s Norwegian forefather. 

The oldest neighborhood in Tórshavn. (Image by Vincent van Zeijst, via Wikicommons)

Sadly, we don’t stay with Tóvó or even get much inside this character’s head. Instead, we are treated to an often bewildering montage of Faroese history. We are treated to chapters about Danish exploitation and oppression, Faroese literature, weather, cuisine, coal mining, a failed attempt at creating a union, and more. I suspect these tangents are part of the reason why this novel was chosen to be translated into English; it offers a full meal of Faroe-ish fare, rather than just a taste. The tangents definitely explain the novel’s comparisons to Moby-Dick. Unfortunately, the book jumps around so much that it’s hard to tell who we need to focus on, what’s important to remember, and what the point of it all is. The Brahmadells also suffers from what are either typos or translation errors, or possibly both, that just put me off the book even more. This book is a shaggy dog and while I got to mentally travel to a place that fascinates me, I had a tour guide that ruined the experience with his bluster and frightening anger.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

The Master Butchers Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich

While most of Louise Erdrich’s works center on Midwestern Ojibwe life, The Master Butchers Singing Club takes its inspiration from the author’s German ancestors (one of whom is pictured on the hardcover edition pictured at left). This immigrant story features a wide cast of characters who are mostly neither good or bad; they’re mistake-prone humans more than anything else. As we watch the foibles of the residents of Argus, North Dakota and the Waldvogel family, the story touches on balancing, love, obligation, homosexuality, and many other topics as it meanders its way from the early 1920s to World War II. 

This novel begins in the aftermath of World War I. Fidelis Waldvogel was a sniper during the war, though he has resolutely turned his back on his war experiences with one big exception: he proposes to the pregnant fiancé of his best friend during the war due to his strong, Teutonic sense of obligation. But Germany after World War I is a hard place for a young family to get ahead, so Fidelis packs a suitcase full of his family’s finest sausages and heads off to America. Fidelis is a major characters of the novel, but he eventually cedes narrative duties to Delphine Watzka. Delphine is the daughter of the town drunk. She tries to live this down first by escaping (she works for a long time as a human table in a balancing act), then by being one of the hardest working women in Argus.

What struck me most about The Master Butchers Singing Club was the way that Delphine and Fidelis balance their desires and their obligations. Early in the novel, while Delphine was still working the side show circuit, Erdrich describes the act in great detail. While Delphine’s partner would balance himself on a series of stacked chairs, Delphine would hold everything up so that the act could continue. She never really stops trying to balance things. Delphine tries to keep her alcoholic father out of jail and mostly sober, while helping the Waldvogels in their butcher shop and maintaining an unfulfilling relationship in spite of her desire for children. Fidelis has his own balancing act, as he tries to keep the shop going, raise his sons, deal with his awful sister, and so on. Watching these acts feels as tense as watching Delphine’s act. We wait for the metaphorical chairs to fall. They have to fall. It seems impossible that they can stay up in the air. Sometimes, I wanted those chairs to fall so that Delphine and Fidelis could be free to do what they wanted for a change. 

Though Erdrich offers some very interesting and gruesome subplots to keep things interesting, the bulk of the novel simply follows Fidelis and Delphine for twenty some odd years. (The subplots revolve around a family that died while trapped in Delphine’s father’s cellar and the sheriff’s obnoxious failed courtship of Delphine’s best friend.) Readers of domestic literary fiction may enjoy this, as will readers who enjoy in-depth character studies. Readers who want more action in the plot or who get frustrated with characters who seem incapable of choosing to seek out their own happiness should stay away. Being a member of the later camp, The Master Butchers Signing Club is one of my least favorite Erdrich novels. Very little about this book satisfied me, possible because of Erdrich’s faithfulness to her ancestors’ story to the detriment of the novel. Now that I’ve finished, I wish she had decided to seize the opportunity to rewrite history and give us a happier ending.

literary fiction · review

The Book Hunters of Katpadi, by Pradeep Sebastian

In Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Kayal and her boss, Neela, have created a bibliophilic paradise in Pradeep Sebastian’s profoundly bookish, The Book Hunters of Katpadi. Reading this book, as it works it way through two big plot arcs and numerous asides, is a deep dive into the world of collecting antiquarian books. There are many parts of this book that are essentially a sit down with one expert or another about letterpress printing, the history of Sir Richard Francis Burton‘s time in India, bibliophilic clubs, rare children’s books, and other topics. This book will be catnip for some readers, but I fear that it will be on the dull side for readers who don’t want to attend a seminar on a bunch of different things with “biblio-” affixed to the topic. 

Kayal was a somewhat aimless graduate student with a predilection for book arts when she is snapped up by rare book dealer, Neelambari Adigal, to work at Biblio. Biblio, we are often told, is India’s first antiquarian bookstore. The aim of this store is to provide rare editions of books published before 1950 to the ravenous bibliophilic collectors around the country, as well as offer browsers from off the street a place where they can see and touch rare books. There are a few chapters in The Book Hunters of Katpadi that explain why there isn’t as robust a rare book culture in India as there is in Europe and North America, mostly due to the late start printing got in India, readers’ stronger interest in “reading copies,” and a climate that is not always kind to paper and ink. Thanks to this book, I now know more than I think I ever wanted to know about the antiquarian book trade in India. 

There are two plot arcs, as I mentioned before, that break up the lectures. (There are lectures that are quoted at length in this book.) First, Kayal gets involved with some bookish shenanigans at the Madras Christian College. Thanks to the efforts of one of the school’s priests, it comes to her attention that the soon-to-retire librarian has helped himself to the most valuable books in the chapel library as a retirement gift. This librarian has sold off some of these books, but it’s unclear whether the librarian is a bibliomaniac, a thief, or some combination of the two. The second plot takes up more of the book and involves a strange discovery at a former hill station. A teacher at the local school claims to have documents by Sir Richard Francis Burton that were previously thought lost—plus a family legend that claims they are descended from the explorer. The discovery sets off a papery bomb in the bibliophilic world. 

I don’t feel as though The Book Hunters of Katpadi is a fully formed novel. Instead, it feels to me like a few linked short stories surrounded by dialogue and didactic chapters that teach the reader about this little slice of the world. I was interested in a lot of it, but it was more heavy handed than I liked. There is some nice character development, but not enough to make up for all the places where the story came to a dead halt while we were told about the Roxburghe and Grolier Clubs, Burton’s eye infection, or apologia for The Story of Little Black SamboThe Book Hunters of Katpadi turned out to be a disappointing experience.