The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil

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The Last Bell

Pushkin Press continues to do sterling work by retranslating and republishing European fiction with Johannes Urzidil’s The Last Bell (translated by David Burnett). The Last Bell includes five stories by a mid-century Czech author who got lost in the shuffle of history. In these stories, Urzidil writes about life in Prague in the late 1930s (before he himself fled Europe) and in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I.

The first story is the eponymous “The Last Bell,” my favorite story in the collection. The story opens with housekeeper Marška being left in charge of her employers’ apartment for the foreseeable future. The master and missus are Jewish and the Germans are on their way. So, Marška decides to live it up on their wealth with her sister in the luxury apartment. Things go well, until the sisters start to fraternize with their new Nazi occupiers. The story starts with pathos but takes a completely different tone of horror by the end.

Another stand out story is “The Duchess of Albanera,” in which a lonely bank manager steals a famous painting. The bank manager keeps the Duchess in an armoire and talks to her. Meanwhile, his acquaintances notice the slight changes in his routine and wonder what’s going on. What makes the story interesting is that the Duchess talks back to the bank manager, questioning him about his ideals of women and reminding him that reality is usually a lot more sordid than his imaginings.

The other three stories feel less polished than “The Last Bell” and “The Duchess of Albanera.” Thought it might be because Urzidil’s style grew less concrete and more experimental and impressionistic over time. The last three stories feel like drifting through time and space; they could have been set almost anywhere and any-when. That said, the stories of The Last Bell offer an interesting peek into a vanished European world.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. 

Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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Long Black Veil

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Long Black Veil begins like many other “awful thing happens to a group of friends”stories, but it quickly becomes more complicated—and more affecting. We are told at the beginning that some of the friends will die. What we don’t know until much later is why everything happened the way it did. While we have the mystery to sort out, Finney Boylan also gives us a moving portrait of a trans woman who wrestles with the long shadow of her past.

Long Black Veil moves back and forth in time from 1980, when the awful thing happened, to the later 1980s to 2015. The awful thing is the death of one of the friends when they get locked inside the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. No body is found (not until 2015), so the friend is only missing officially. The night at the Penitentiary breaks up the friends, who drift through the next 35 years. The chapters change perspective from one friend to another, so we get to see how the death has arrested their development into adulthood. They can function, but it’s clear that none of them is living the life they wanted—with one exception.

The exception is Judith. Judith was born in a male body before transitioning in the late 1980s. She hasn’t told her husband or her adopted son anything about her past in the sixteen years they’ve been a family; the men have told her they don’t want to know. There are some small marital spats, but Judith is very much content with her life. To be honest, I was much more interested in her character than in some of the others because I wanted to see how Finney Boylan would depict someone who didn’t feel right in the body they were born in.

The mystery part of Long Black Veil gives some added tension to the whole, but I think I might have been happy with just Judith’s story on its own. That said, when the literary and mystery parts of the novel start to converge again at the end of the book, I liked how the narratives asked the same question in two different ways. The question, of course, is how do you make amends for the past? In Judith’s case, it was her initial disappearance and starting her life over without telling anyone. In the case of the rest of the characters, it’s owning up to what really happened to their friend that night at the Penitentiary.

On balance, I enjoyed reading Long Black Veil in spite of some clumsiness with the disparate genre elements. What made this book so engrossing was the psychological portrait of Judith as she becomes the person she always was on the inside.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 April 2017.

The Gargoyle Hunters, by John Freeman Gill

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The Gargoyle Hunters

1974 is a hard year for Griffin Watts. His parents have split up and they argue over money when they do see each other. He’s growing up with little guidance in a chaotic household. Plus, there’s a girl he likes, but Griffin has no idea how to be with girls. In The Gargoyle Hunters, a coming-of-age novel by John Freeman Gill, Griffin gets a hard lesson in hanging on to the past as he works with his father to save New York City’s architectural heritage from neglect and urban renewal.

Griffin is 13 in the summer of 1974. He’s young enough that he still does what his parents tell him (mostly), but is starting to get old enough to wonder if what his parents tell him to do is really the right thing. Near the beginning of The Gargoyle Hunters, Griffin is pressed into service by his father to “salvage” terra cotta sculptures and other decorations from New York’s remaining Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco buildings. To get closer to his father, Griffin soaks up his father’s stories about New York history and architecture.

At first, working with his father is a thrill. They bond over the history of the city and the dangerous lengths they have to go to save architectural ornaments. But their expeditions always take place at night and many have some element of breaking and entering about them. Before too long, Griffin begins to see that his father’s salvage business is an obsession. Meanwhile, Griffin has to contend with his regular life as a thirteen year old with girls, teenaged humiliation, a distant mother, poorly thought out pranks, and just trying to figure out who he is as a person while the city of New York goes through its worst financial crisis.

I was initially drawn to The Gargoyle Hunters because of the architectural salvage. I love older buildings’ elegance and detail. When I visit places like Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver, I like to wander around and gawk at the details on hundred year old buildings. Newer, plainer architecture doesn’t appeal to me. Architectural nostalgia, I found, is the backbone for this book. We can’t go back to the past, none of us. What we can do is remember what came before, preserve the best parts, but keep in mind that the future is ahead of us like a lot ready for a new building. After all, all of the great cities are buried on layers of history that never really go away.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 March 2017.

Joy in the Morning, by P.G. Wodehouse

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Joy in the Morning

Of course, yesterday’s post doesn’t mean that I won’t indulge in a literary escape or two now and then. I read P.G. Wodehouse’s delightful Joy in the Morning on Saturday in between frantic sessions on Twitter. Wodehouse’s silliness was the perfect antidote to the news.

Originally published in 1946, Joy in the Morning is another breezy Jeeves and Wooster story. There are near-miss engagements, scheming, unlucky coincidences, shouting from elderly relatives, one burned down house, a hockey stick in the night, and lots and lots of witty language. I already knew from the series that everything always turns out well in the end thanks to the assistance of the ever helpful Jeeves. (This is exactly what I needed after a week of politics.)

The novel is somewhat different from the series. In this book, at any rate, Bertie Wooster is not quite as gormless as Hugh Laurie portrayed him. He is a bit daft, but mostly he’s just unlucky. He’s either in the wrong place and the wrong time or he gets caught up in a series of escalating blunders. His track record with trouble often brings even more trouble, as the more serious characters immediately blame him for things that really aren’t his fault. Jeeves, on the other hand, is much as Stephen Fry played him in the series. Jeeves doesn’t say much. He doesn’t need to. Everyone trusts his wisdom and savvy. As they should, because Jeeves always comes through.

What I loved most about Joy in the Morning is the language. The vocabulary is rich, eclectic, and sings across the page. Wodehouse doesn’t belabor jokes, so the humor ranges from slapstick to subtle wordplay. I really, really enjoyed this little novel.

 

The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

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The Lost Book of the Grail

Lovett continues his theme of literary mysteries in The Lost Book of the Grail. Previous books have dealt with lost Shakespeare and Jane Austen. This time, Lovett explores new metafictional heights in the most literary grail quest I’ve ever encountered. The Lost Book of the Grail tells the story of Arthur Prescott’s meticulous progress through the library of Barchester Cathedral’s library to find any clues that would prove his grandfather correct: that the holy grail is somewhere in Barchester. Along the way, he has help from a talkative American digitizer and his fellow bibliophiles.

The Lost Book of the Grail opens with a surprising bit of action. One night in 1941, German bombers—lost on the way to London—dropped bombs on Barchester Cathedral. (Fellow readers might recognize the name Barchester from Anthony Trollope‘s Barsetshire novels.) A young choir boy is pressed into service to help rescue books from the cathedral library before they’re destroyed. After rescuing the books, he spots a mysterious man stealing one of them. We then jump ahead to 2016, where Arthur Prescott is working on a guidebook to the cathedral. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on. In reality he’s seeking any information about St. Ewolda, the local Saxon saint, and trying to find more evidence that the holy grail might have made it to Barchester in the early middle ages. His grandfather earnestly believed that the grail had somehow come to their out of the way county before disappearing from the historical record.

This introduction might make the book sound like another The Da Vinci Code, but it’s a lot slower and a lot funnier than Dan Brown’s novel. Arthur is the consummate luddite. He loathes the modern era and prefers to spend this time in the cathedral library, reading medieval Latin. He, at first, considers the presence of Bethany an intrusion of the worst kind. She’s there to digitize the manuscripts and books in the library at the behest of an American billionaire. She’s very talkative and loves taking tangents—but she can also argue Arthur to a standstill, which he enjoys in spite of himself. Just reading their dialog is delightful.

While Arthur and Bethany work their way through the historical clues, we get brief scenes from previous centuries that let us know that we’re on the right track. Centuries ago, a monk from Glastonbury asked the monks at St. Ewolda’s to hide a treasure. Since that time, one guardian has kept the secret safe from vikings, Henry VIII’s monastery breakers, and Roundheads. Now the big danger is lack of funds for restoring a cathedral that’s starting to fall apart. The race to find something to save the cathedral before the library is sold off provides a bit of tension among all the page turning.

If you’re the sort of person who gets excited about research, The Lost Book of the Grail will be absolute catnip. If you’re the sort of person who loves characters who bicker before and after they realize they love each other, you’ll have a good time with this book. If you’re a little squeamish about religion, well, this book will still be pretty enjoyable.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss and NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 28 February 2017.

One Hundred Twenty-One Days, by Michèle Audin

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One Hundred Twenty-One Days

Michèle Audin’s One Hundred Twenty-One Days (translated by Christiana Hills) is the first Oulipo novel I’ve ever read, though not the first experimental work of fiction I’ve read. Experimental fiction plays with form more than characterization and plot to get readers to think about story in completely different ways—but Oulipo fiction goes further and plays when authors choose not to use the letter e in their story or write an entire novel as a palindrome. For me, a good story revolves around plots, characters, setting, and good writing and not trickery. Literary gimmicks usually drive me up the wall. And yet, I was intrigued by what Audin was doing with her blend of epistolary, documentary, and Oulipo techniques in One Hundred Twenty-One Days. If this is truly representative of Oulipo, I might have to take a deeper dive.

This brief novel begins around 1900 in southern Africa with a boy who is (according to his parents) too smart for his own good. His teacher has to beg the parents to send the boy, Christian, to better schools to nourish his mathematical talents. By the time World War One rolls around, Christian is working on his dissertation for the Parisian École Polytechnique. But Audin starts to switch perspectives on us at this point. By the end of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, we will hear from Christian’s future wife, his colleagues, and his would-be biographer (who also happens to be his son-in-law). Before long, I had mostly lost sight of Christian and gotten much more interested in his family than I ever was in him—especially once he turns out to be the next thing to a collaborationist during the Second World War.

Towards the latter half of the book, I was confused about what I was supposed to make of Christian, who I thought was the main character. But then I had an epiphany. Because One Hundred Twenty-One Days is written in a documentary style, I started to think of the job of biographers. Biographers, especially of the dead, have the incredibly difficult task of trying to recreate an entire person from the papers and impressions they left while they were alive. Even if a biographer can talk to someone who knew their subject, they would still get only a partial view of the subject. So, how to bring someone to back to life, to understand why they did what they did?

Audin is skilled in recreating the biographer’s space. I felt, at times, like I was doing the biographer’s research as I read through diaries, letters, notes on the backs of photos, and the biographer’s own notes. This is what won over the book for me. I love piecing together the real story from things that unreliable narrators let drop. What else is a biography but a story about a character who wants you to think the best of them, after all? And none of the gimmicks kicked me out of the narrative, which is even better.

Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller

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Swimming Lessons

Relationships are a mystery to outsiders. Perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that so much literary fiction attempts to peer inside disintegrating marriages. Most of what we know of a relationships comes from what a friend, one half of that relationship, tells us, with the slant that comes with hearing only one side of the story. Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller, gives us two sides to the story of a marriage that ended with one half of the couple disappearing into the sea. Ingrid, the one who disappeared, tells us her story through letters written before she left or drowned. Another side of the story is told by Flora, one of the couple’s daughters, who saw her father with the admiring eyes of a child. As each chapter passes, more is revealed and heroes become villains only to be redeemed again. Swimming Lessons is one of the most elegantly written examples of its genre that I’ve ever read.

A short prologue sets up a family crisis that draws ever member of the Coleman family home, except for Ingrid who disappeared 12 years before. Gil Coleman, a writer famous for one salacious book, is browsing the local secondhand bookstore when he spots a woman who is a deadringer for Ingrid outside the window. He chases her, only to fall over a railing and breaking several bones. His daughters, Nan and Flora, come home to take care of him. It quickly becomes clear that Nan, the older daughter, has a very different perspective on things than her dreamy younger sister. They annoy each other so much that Nan starts to burst Flora’s bubble about her father and his formerly philandering ways.

Flora’s version of events is interesting, but I was much more taken with Ingrid’s story of her relationship to Gil. They met in the mid-1970s, when she took a class from him. The two immediately connected and started sleeping together. When Ingrid becomes pregnant, the pair are kicked out of the university; Gil is fired for sleeping with a student and Ingrid is told not to come back because she’s a bad example to the other students. The reality of parenting and bills is a cold bucket of water on the couple’s early intoxication with each other.

Even though the Colemans are a family, each seems fundamentally alone. They are all driven by something different. Gil is a hedonist. Ingrid is a realist whose early dreams were superseded by being the responsible parent. Flora wants love and to find an outlet for her creativity. Nan just wants everyone to stop pretending that everyone was perfect for once. Perhaps this is why stories of relationships are so fascinating. On the surface, they look like one story of two people finding each other and becoming whole. When we take a closer look, however, we realize that they are really the story of two people who choose to spend as much of their lives as possible together but who may never really meld into that ideal, impossible whole.

Even though Swimming Lessons is not my usual cup of tea, I very much enjoyed Fuller’s deft psychological portraits of flawed people. She is fantastic at slowing revealing important pieces of information that turn everything I thought I knew about the characters on its head.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be published 7 February 2017. 

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, by Nadia Hashimi

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The Pearl that Broke Its Shell

As depicted by Nadia Hashimi in The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, there is only one correct way to be a woman. First, girls are obedient daughters, then they are obedient wives who have sons. There is only one tiny exception; everything else is deeply wrong or criminal. The exceptions are the bacha posh, girls who dress and act as sons for families that don’t already have a boy. The Pearl that Broke Its Shell tells the story of two girls who live as boys for a time before returning to lives as women. It is also a story of hardship, violence, and gendered oppression. Those looking for an easy read should steer clear.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Rahima grows up as one of five daughters until her mother cuts her hair, puts her in boys’ clothes, and has her act as the family’s son. Living as a bacha posh is unusual, but Rahima is following the example of her legendary great great great-grandmother, Shekiba. Both women’s lives follow a similar pattern. They live with their families, relatively happily, until disaster strikes. In Shekiba’s case, cholera and grief kill off every member of her family. In Rahima’s case, it’s a father’s opium addiction and a heavy hitting local warlord breaking up the family.

In alternating chapters, we see Rahima and Shikiba rise and (mostly) fall over the course of their lives. We see their misery as they are mistreated by the people who take them after their families can no longer care for them. For both women, live with their new families means constant menial labor, insults, and the threat of violence. Watching these two women threatened and beaten by the other women in their families—especially their dreaded elderly female relatives—is especially painful to watch. The only time Rahima and Shekiba can live without fear is when they are living as boys. Boys are valued in Afghan society, indulged and treasured. Having a son elevates a woman’s status.

Both Rahima and Shekiba eventually become mothers, but that’s where their stories diverge. One will find a measure of security in her role. For the other, motherhood means tying herself even closer to a family that wants to get rid of her. I won’t say what happens to who, so as not to ruin the whole book for readers who want to tackle this book. But I wanted to bring it up because, in Rahima and Shekiba’s culture, being the mother of sons is the best (and usually only) path for a woman to take. In western society, motherhood is one of several paths a woman can take—all of them equally valid. The important distinction is that, where Rahima and Shekiba are forced to marry and have children, women in western society are free to choose what fits them best. The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, however, is all about the lack of choice for women in their world.

Bodies of Water, by V.H. Leslie

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Bodies of Water

V.H. Leslie’s short novella, Bodies of Water, is perfect for feminist reading. In addition to the overt themes of women overcoming damaging relationships with men, there are also repeated metaphors of water, women’s perspectives of reality, and wombs. I enjoyed this ghostly story, but I feel that it is a dissertation waiting to happen. This isn’t a criticism. It’s more a warning that, if you are or have ever been an English major, those close reading skills will activate before too many pages and may get the way of really sinking into the story.

Bodies of Water parallels to lives that intersect at the same place, a century apart. In the 1870s, Evelyn has been sent to Wakewater House for the water cure. She has been diagnosed with hysteria after an incident that is only revealed later. Later, Wakewater has been turned into Wakewater Apartments and Kirsten has just moved in. She bought the place because it overlooks the Thames and just couldn’t resist the draw of the water. It soon becomes clear that Wakewater Apartments is haunted by what happened in Evelyn’s time.

In alternating chapters, we learn more about what sent Evelyn to Wakewater, what the water cure entails (lots of pruniness), and the psychic scars that were left behind. This might make the house seem sinister, but it’s not so much the house. Rather, the haunting is much more severe and strange than I was expecting at the outset of the novel. I’m not entirely sure I buy what Leslie was trying to sell me, but I was very interested in what she did with the idea of female despair and anger and the river.

Bodies of Water is the second novella I’ve read from Salt Publishing. It’s also the second novella I’ve enjoyed. The form is amazing for what the authors are able to pack into a limited number of pages. The stories they tell need a little room…but too much more would probably kill the driving pace the authors’ set. I’m glad there’s a publishing house out there that will take a chance on novellas. I’m also grateful to the readers who pointed me in the direction of these books.

A Word for Love, by Emily Robbins

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A Word for Love

When Bea opens a package from an old acquaintance—full of letters and poems—it sends her back to the months she spent in an unnamed city in an unnamed country (probably Damascus, Syria), learning Arabic and getting tangled up in the lives of her host family and their maid. A Word for Love, by Emily Robbins, is a poetic exploration of love, loss, language, betrayal, and tragedy as seen through the eyes of an American student who abruptly realizes that the consequences of mistakes are much more serious outside of the United States.

All Bea wanted was to learn enough Arabic to read “the astonishing text,” a medieval poem that makes everyone who reads it cry. But when she arrives in the unnamed city, she finds bureaucracy stalling her at every point. The librarians won’t retrieve the manuscript from their closed stacks. (A practice that offends me deeply, being an American librarian.) The university won’t respond to her application. It’s fortunate that Bea has a caring host family to take care of her. Madame constantly gives her advice about getting ahead and attracting a boy. Baba watches over her with a paternal eye. The family’s children are like siblings for only-child Bea. The Indonesian maid, Nisrine, takes care of the household and the food for all of them.

The family adopts Bea so fully that it would have been impossible for the American to avoid worrying about them, especially since Baba is still involved with the anti-government resistance in spite of the years he spent in prison. This would have been enough to hook me into the story, I think, but the love that develops between Nisrine and a policeman-poet named Adel quickly takes center stage. At first, Bea though Adel was interested in her. When she is disappointed to learn that Nisrine is the object of Adel’s affection, she becomes a somewhat reluctant accomplice for the star-crossed lover.

The fact that the two are physically and politically divided calls to mind Romeo and Juliet. The frequent foreshadowing of tragedy makes the association stronger, but A Word for Love harks back to an older tradition: courtly love. The two have very few chances to actually speak to each other. For most of their short relationship, they have to make do with waving and stolen glances across the street that separates Baba’s apartment and the police station. Adel has poetry to express himself and he is often given to thinking in images straight out of a medieval poem (or Romeo and Juliet):

[Adel] watched her veil, the way it swept down over her forehead, caressed beneath her chin. What if I were that veil? he thought. What if I lived there, in the folds beside her cheek, where I could always reach her neck, always kiss her skin? (n.p.*)

Nisrine has no such outlet. Instead, she grows distracted, aggravating Madame and threatening her position in the household.

One could argue that Adel and Nisrine are more in love with the idea of each other than the real person. They’ve barely spoken to each other, after all, and have never spent time together. But this doesn’t seem to stop them from developing an extraordinary depth of feeling for and dependence on hope that Adel can somehow rescue them from their hopeless situation. Throughout A Word for Love, Bea makes constant reference to “the astonishing text,” which tells the story of the courtly love between a poet, Qais, and his love, Leila. The two characters never managed to be together because Qais, apparently, is not a man of action. It’s not hard to draw parallels between that story and what’s happening with Nisrine and Adel.

If A Word for Love were a different kind of story, I would be hollering for Nisrine to rescue herself. But I always knew this story was going to be a tragedy, even without all the foreshadowing and the astonishing text. While most of the book is about love, especially love that can grow on even the shakiest of ground, I think this book is more about loss and learning to go on after disappointment and broken hopes. The book reminds us that we were all young and foolish and felt too much once, but some kind of life can continue after we’ve been battered and bruised, even if things aren’t as bright and hopeful as they used to be.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 January 2017. 


* Quote is from the advanced reader copy from Riverhead Books. It is not paginated.