Familiar Things, by Hwang Sok-yong

33148672Bugeye doesn’t have much going for him at the beginning of Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Things (translated by Sora Kim-Russell). Things are so hopeless that when his mother takes a job as a trash picker at Seoul’s Flower Island landfill, it’s actually a step up for their little family. And, strangely enough, the trash heap turns out to be a land of opportunity for Bugeye in this strangely charming coming-of-age story.

Flower Island lives in the shadow of Seoul (which is not named, but I’m calling the city Seoul because all of the plot descriptions say that’s where this story takes place). It has it’s own culture and economy, latched on to the rest of Korean society. There is a strict pecking order among the groups of trash pickers, the recyclers, and other salvagers. Money makes it possible to move between the groups, but it takes a long time to accumulate enough to make the jump. The adults in Bugeye’s life worry about that more than he does. Like the other children of trash pickers, Bugeye is resigned to the fact that he will probably follow in his mother’s footsteps and that the rest of Korean society will be closed to him. When I started to read about his life, I was expecting another depressing tale of extreme poverty (like The Rent Collector by Camron Wright). Instead, I was as surprised as Bugeye was when Baldspot appeared on the scene and things started to get magical.

Baldspot makes it possible for Bugeye to have a childhood. While their parents pick through Seoul’s trash for anything they can sell, Baldspot introduces Bugeye to Headquarters, a club house built as a place for the local boys to escape to. He also introduces Bugeye to the strange lights and the mysterious Mr. Kims that only they can see. The boys run around the island and make friends with the more uncanny parts of the island, such as the woman who is occasionally possessed by the spirit of the island’s guardian spirit. The poverty of their families should have crushed them, but Bugeye and Baldspot have adventures that keep their minds (mostly) off of their worries about the future.

For me, Familiar Things walks a perfect path between realism and the supernatural. There’s enough realism that I didn’t get annoyed at the story for not taking the setting seriously enough, but enough magic that it wasn’t utterly depressing. I loved learning about the dokkaebi and what Flower Island was like before it became a landfill. And the way that that past is blended into Bugeye’s reality is seamless, with a beautiful,  bittersweet ending that gives the book a poignancy that I loved. This book is amazing.

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

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The Aviator, by Eugene Vodolazkin

36926956Innokenty Petrovich Platonov wakes up in a hospital at the beginning of The Aviator, by Eugene Vodolazkin and translated by Lisa Hayden. He has no idea what’s wrong with him or how he got there. In fact, Doctor Geiger has to tell him his name. The strange thing is that Geiger is very reticent to tell Innokenty anything else about who he is. It isn’t until about a third of the way through the book that we all learn exactly how a man who was born in 1900 but is taking medication manufactured in 1997.

After Innokenty wakes up, Geiger insists that he start writing down what he remembers of his life. Geiger says that it will be better for his recovery if Innokenty remembers for himself instead of just being told. So, Innokenty starts to write about summer trips to the Crimea with his family before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. He writes about the love of his life, Anastasia Voronina, and their experiences in collective housing and the new order. He writes about his years in the nascent gulag system in the late 1920s, though he does not dwell on the worst parts of his life. All of his recollections are mixed with his introduction to life at the end of the twentieth century.

As a man out of time and a man who lived through some of the most tumultuous and important years in Russian history, Innokenty is immediately famous. He is also a huge disappointment to interviewers. Instead of telling them about what it was like to be in St. Petersburg in 1917 or as a zek in the gulag, Innokenty prefers to talk about the sounds that one no longer hears or the smells that are gone. Social historians, who chase down those bits of lost history, would love him. Innokenty’s obsessions and fascinations are interesting to read, almost refreshing after reading so many novels set in and around the Revolution that find it necessary to reiterate the same events.

The deeper I got into The Aviator, the more I was reminded of Flowers for Algernon (one of the first books I remember breaking my heart—read it!). Innokenty remarks a couple of times that he identifies more with Belka and Strelka (sent into space by the Soviets) than with any hero. He didn’t plan on surviving what happened to him and never asked to be the object of so much effort and attention. The Aviator, then, mediates on what might happen to a man who loses potential decades of time with people he understood, loved, and hated. In his second act, Innokenty confronts questions about forgiveness, loss, futility, memory, and more. I very much enjoyed accompanying Innokenty on his journey in this deft, thoughtful novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 May 2018.

All the Perverse Angels, by Sarah K. Marr

35103185A cottage in the Cotswolds seems like the perfect place for Anna to recuperate from a serious psychological trauma, with her partner, Emily. But then, near the beginning of Sarah K. Marr’s All the Perverse Angels, Anna finds a Pre-Raphaelite painting from the late Victorian era and her obsessive art conservator’s brain kicks into high gear. Instead of resting and taking her pills like a good girl, Anna dives into a quest to find out everything about the painting and the models who sat for it—anything to keep herself from thinking about what sent her to the Cotsworlds in the first place.

Anna has a strange brain, but one I can kind of understand. Like Anna, my brain also likes to connect seemingly random facts. Anna likes to imagine herself into paintings (which I don’t do). She’ll imagine herself as a figure in an Edward Hopper painting, which will make her think of the model and the model’s relationship to the painter, which will remind her of the painter’s influences and connections. Then she’ll think about the historical context or links to literature. Everything connects in Anna’s brain. She thinks like a fully cross-referenced database with the ability to get lost in art. It’s not surprising, then, that she wants to who sat for the painting in the cottage’s attic, what the subject is, why the artist stuck with the Pre-Raphaelite style after it went out of fashion. She just has to know, no matter how much it annoys Emily or how much it derails her recovery.

All the Perverse Angels moves back and forth between Anna’s present and diary entries from one of the women who sat for the painting. Penelope Swift was one of the first women at Oxford University who gets tangled up in her attractions to two people she can’t have. One is a married man. The other is a titled lady. In 1887, neither is a possibility, but that doesn’t stop Penelope from trying anyway and posing for the married man.

There is plenty of art and history in this novel. There just wasn’t quiet enough psychology for me. I would have loved to have known more about what set Anna to the Cotswolds and what drives her obsession with art. There are parts where I got so lost in Anna’s thoughts that I wasn’t sure what was memory or imagination, which made it hard to tell what was a clue and what wasn’t. Maybe that’s the point. (Or maybe this book needed a bit more editing.) In spite of this, I found All the Perverse Angels to be an intriguing story with an original take on the story of a mysterious painting found in an attic.

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

The Devil’s Reward, by Emmanuelle de Villepin

35782407Christiane’s family might never have managed to reconnect if it weren’t for Rudolf Steiner and an affair. When The Devil’s Reward, by Emmanuelle de Villepin and translated by C. Jon Delogu, opens, Christiane extends an invitation to her daughter and granddaughter to come and stay with her in Paris. After her daughter, Catherine, and granddaughter, Luna, Christiane starts to spin stories about her own childhood, their extended family—all of which provides plenty of opportunities to meditate on maternal-child relationships, the ethics of cheating, and the possibility of reconciliation.

The first evening that the women gather is more than a little awkward. Christiane is over the moon at having her family around her again. She grew up with family around her and has been lonely since her husband died. But Catherine is heartbroken about her husband’s cheating and does not share Christiane’s more liberal attitudes to cheating. If Luna hadn’t been working on a thesis about philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the family reunion might have gone completely off the rails. Partway through that first evening, Luna tells her grandmother what she’s writing about and Christiane reveals that one of her aunts was one of Steiner’s followers.

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Rudolf Steiner (Image via Wikicommons, edited by me)

There isn’t a lot of plot in The Devil’s Reward. Instead, there are long stories about Christiane’s father and mother, Aunt Bette (the Steiner follower), and the twilight years of the Picardy aristocracy. Christiane portrays herself as a worldly woman, open to the fact that married people might stray and a huge advocate of enjoying the little pleasures of life. Catherine is much more conventional. She is frequently irritated with her mother because Christiane isn’t as sympathetic as Catherine wants. Luna is their point of connection, but she’s ready to go off and live her own life. By the end of the book, Christiane and Catherine are forced to either make peace or agree to probably never speak again.

As a slow collection of stories, essentially, about mothers and daughters, The Devil’s Reward has a lot to say about how family members struggle with each other when they are such different people. Some of them follow strange philosophies, while others are very pious Catholics, and some are hedonists. Throughout the generations, the hedonists keep coming into conflict with the believers and traditionalists. They’re all stubborn and finding common ground often seems impossible. Characters stay true to themselves, instead of swerving to create a glowing happy ending. The reconciliations that do happen are hard won. As such, I found this book to be a much more honest and realistic portrayal of generational conflict.

A note about the translation: One of the things that bothered me most about this novel was the occasionally clumsy translation. There were phrases that I thought were literally translated from the French when they ought to have been rendered in more natural sounding English. The translation was mostly fine, but the overly literal translations were jarring.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 1 May 2018.

Woman at 1,000 Degrees, by Hallgrímur Helgason

33590219After the life she’s had, it’s probably not a surprise that Herbjörg María Björnsson (better known as Herra) is living out her last months alone in a garage with only the internet to keep her company. She was a mostly absent mother. Her father was in the SS. She curses, smokes, and sleeps with whoever takes her fancy. But the more I learned about Herra in Hallgrímur Helgason’s Woman at 1,000 Degrees (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), the more I pitied and understood her struggles against conventionality. Her story is a wild, fascinating, moving journey across most of the twentieth century.

Herra is a prickly old woman. Her deteriorating condition (she has metastatic cancer) is not helping. This novel gives us the chance to keep Herra company as she starts to reminisce about her past, from her early days with her mother on a remote Breiðafjörður island, off the west coast of Ireland, to her time wandering the length of Germany during the Second World War, to scheming in Argentina, and her constant attempts to come home. With each chapter, the layers of her personality are stripped away to reveal her darkest secrets.

Herra blames her father and Hitler equally for ruining her life. If Hans Henrik hadn’t been a weak man who was existentially attracted to the appearance of strength, perhaps the family would have been able to stay in Lübeck for the duration. Hans Henrik would’ve become a Norse scholar and everything might have been fine. But Hans Henrik signs up for Nazism, the family gets split up, and nothing ever goes right again.

No one else in her family seems to know how much Herra struggles. To be fair to them, Herra can’t seem to articulate why she feels the need to cut and run so often or why she feels the need to be an apologist for her mistaken Nazi father. It’s also really uncomfortable to hear an 80+ year old woman talk about sex. This chance to listen in on Herra had me thinking about how much the years 1939 to 1945 left lasting damage on everyone it touched. I realize these last paragraphs make this book sound depressing (and there some very depressing parts, sure), but it leaves out how funny Herra is and how full of life she is even at the end.

When I started Woman at 1,000 Degrees, I was amused by Herra’s humor and refusal to act her age. I had no idea what I was in for. This novel turned into a tale of astonishing emotional depth. Like all great books, Woman at 1,000 Degrees builds up a perfect portrait of a unique woman who is the result of everything that has ever happened to her.

Darwin’s Ghosts, by Ariel Dorfman

38605315Late in Ariel Dorfman’s philosophical novel Darwin’s Ghosts, a professor asks the protagonist, “who is not the product of some crime committed in the past?” This question summarizes all that Fitzroy Foster and his wife, Camilla Wood, discover about his ancestry after Foster’s fourteenth birthday when all photographs of him bizarrely show the face of a long-dead indigenous man from Tierra del Fuego. The quest to figure out how to “cure” Foster leads the pair to uncover the tragic, horrific history of the men and women who were kidnapped and displayed in human zoos in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Foster’s dad takes a picture of the boy that will change Foster’s life for the next eleven years. Instead of seeing his happy, teenaged face, they see the face of a sad, dark-skinned face of a mysterious man. The strange photo is not a fluke. Repeated experiments keep showing the same unknown face. The photos send Foster’s mother on a quixotic (and fatal) quest to advocate for displaced Amazonian peoples while leading Foster to become a recluse. On his own, Foster is fairly ineffective at figuring out who the man in the photos is and why he seems to be haunting the teen.

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Undated poster advertising exhibits of human captives at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, which is frequently mentioned in Darwin’s Ghosts. (Image via Wikicommons)

Fortunately for Foster, his girlfriend (later wife) Cam is fascinated with the whole thing. Also fortunately for Foster, Cam is a multilingual genius. Most of Darwin’s Ghost will be catnip for history and library buffs because Cam dives deeply into the quest to figure out who the man is, what happened to him, and how to get rid of him. The man is revealed to be a kidnapped Tierra del Fuego native, dubbed Henri (later Heinrich) by his captors, who was displayed in human zoos after 1881. Cam does PhD level digging through the archives and libraries in France and Germany about the heartbreaking stories of people who were kidnapped from around the world to be displayed in zoos, only to die of disease and deprivation after been exploited. She also learns about Foster’s tangled descent from the exploiters who photographed and studied (abused) these indigenous people.

Foster spent most of his teenaged years thinking that Henri wants revenge on the descendants of the people who captured and killed him. After all, the photographic haunting led to his mother’s death in Brazil. What Cam uncovers slowly teaches Foster to be more empathetic to Henri’s ghost. He grows up at last, after spending years as a sulking recluse, and finally looks for a way to put Henri to rest.

Darwin’s Ghost takes a bizarre premise and uses it to shed light on a chapter in history that should not have been forgotten, when paternalistic anthropology crossed with unscrupulous commercialism to create an appalling crime. There are definitely parts of this book that are hard to read. There are also parts of this book that get very preachy. That said, this novel asks a very important question that needed to be asked: how do we put things right for crimes our ancestors committed when those crimes are still impacting the descendants of the victims? Foster asks himself this question more than once. After all, he didn’t kidnap Henri. He wasn’t even alive. Still, the haunting wakes him up and makes him wonder seriously about his historical debts. I found the entire book fascinating.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 1 May 2018.

Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi

37487139At the beginning of Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi and translated by Tina Kover, we sit down in the waiting room of a fertility clinic with Kimiâ Sadr. Kimiâ is attempting to realize a lifelong dream of having a child. To pass the time with us, she tells us how she ended up here—a tale that involves going back to the last years of the nineteenth century to explain how the events experienced and decisions made by her parents and grandparents brought her to Paris in the early 2000s.

The saga of the Sadr family is a winding one; a story about one relative leads to another. Kimiâ’s retelling circles around the Iranian Revolution and something called THE EVENT (only fully explained near the end of the book). Along the way, we see Iranian society transformed from its lingering feudalism up through the 1970s and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Sadrs are at the heart of these transformations. In the late 1800s in Mazandaran Province, Kimiâ’s great-grandfather was powerful rural lord who ruled with a worryingly distracted iron first. Her grandfather was a wheeler-dealer in Qazvin until his past caught up with him and the family left their ancestral holdings in the north and moved to Tehran. Both of her parents were dissidents under the Shah and Khomeini until they fled to exile in France.

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The Trans-Iranian Railway in Mazandaran, Kimiâ’s ancestral homeland. (Image via Wikicommons)

In the same way that Iran is torn between tradition and stubborn progressiveness, so is the Sadr family. It takes a few chapters for Kimiâ to reveal why she lives on the periphery of her tightly knit family, but her homosexuality is as undeniable as modernity is to Iran. One of Kimiâ’s uncles was gay and never allowed to live the way he wanted. He suppressed sexuality so that the family could carry on without being forced to change or face scandal. Later and half a world away, Kimiâ has the opportunity to follow her heart wherever it leads. She struggles against her family, who want her to pretend to be “normal,” but she is much more free than anyone in her family ever was. There is pain and struggle, but Kimiâ doesn’t have to hide herself.

Kimiâ is a wonderful guide not only to a very interesting family but also the recent history of Iran. Her way of circling back around gives us plenty of opportunities to learn why Iran (and Kimiâ) are the way they are. Some readers might find her overly academic. I didn’t at all. Of course, I am an academic myself so my scale is probably off. At any rate, I devoured Disoriental. I loved the way the story moved around and around, the depth of history I was able to explore, and the fascinating relationships between the Sadr family members. This book was a great introduction to a country I don’t think I’ve visited in fiction before.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 17 April 2018.

The Little Clan, by Iris Martin Cohen

35457939Having worked in libraries for over a decade, I’ve met a lot of people who feel like they’ve found the perfect corner of the world in which to live. (I’m one of these people.) Not only are we surrounded books, but we encounter a lot of people with their slightly odd obsessions and preferences. Most of us are also very introverted*. Ava Gallanter, the protagonist of Iris Martin Cohen’s The Little Clan, is a quintessential librarian. I identified so much with her (with one big exception) that it was almost scary. She is incredibly shy, affects old-fashioned dress and rituals, and is quite content to work at a job cloistered away in the library of a private club. Her big regret is that she wants to be in a relationship. Her shyness and lack of self esteem, however, are so acute that she finds it almost impossible to talk to people she doesn’t know.

Ava might have quietly moldered away forever in New York’s Lazarus Club, with its aging members and dodgy architecture, if it hadn’t been for her college friend Stephanie blowing into her life like a well-dressed hurricane. Stephanie figuratively twists Ava’s arm until she agrees to become Stephanie’s partner in a grand scheme to turn the Lazarus Club into the city’s hottest night club/literary salon. The details are fuzzy. In truth, the details are always fuzzy when it comes to Stephanie. The woman is a dynamo of confidence and terrifyingly good at wheeling and dealing—at least compared to Ava.

An outside perspective or a protagonist with a bit more savvy can easily tell that Stephanie is a flimflam artist. Ava grumbles about the amount of physical labor she has to do to make the club pas muster with their ultra-rich clientele. She worries about the debt she has had to take on to pay for the things the Stephanie’s schmoozing fails to accumulate. She puts up with Stephanie’s occasional vicious criticisms. Ava is along for the bumpy ride in the hope that all this will somehow transform her into a dazzling social creature like Stephanie. Poor Ava is a terrible judge of character. She’s also a bit of a coward in that she’s allowed her fear of rejection and embarrassment stop her from trying to break out of her shell.

All this might sound like The Little Clan is a depressing read. It very much isn’t. It’s funny, quirky, and packed with details about the dilapidated Lazarus Club and its equally dilapidated members. I loved the atmosphere of this book. So much of it rings true from me, from the painfully awkward Ava and over the top Stephanie to the off-kilter plans they hatch over the course of the book. What they get up to is just what you might expect from people who think they know what they’re doing but very much don’t. This book was a perfect read for me.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 17 April 2018.


* Yes, I know there are extroverted librarians. I’ve met more than a few. I’m just saying, there’s a reason stereotypes exist about us.

Downdrift, by Johanna Drucker

33912091Johanna Drucker’s Downdrift is the first (and probably only) book I’ve ever read that was narrated by a microorganism. Funny enough, this isn’t the strangest thing about the novel. This novel imagines a world in which animals, from lions and house cats to mice and badgers to flies, start to behave like humans. They stop hunting each other (except for some hold out species) and start social networking, data-mining, building homes, breeding hybrid, species, running food stands, suing each other, and other activities. Downdrift is very much a thought experiment and, while it probably didn’t have to be as long as it is, still offers plenty to intrigue readers.

Our narrator is an Archaeon, a very old type of single-celled organism. Because it has colonies across the planet—and because connections between animals species are rapidly growing during the downdrift—it is able to follow two cats as they wander the world on their way to meet up. Only Callie the house cat has a name. The other cat, a male lion, ends up traveling across oceans to briefly meet Callie. The meeting isn’t really the point of this book; it really just gives the rest of the narrative something to hang on to as it primarily consists of vignettes.

In short scenes, most only a couple of paragraphs long, the Archaeon, the lion, and Callie encounter species from bacteria to elephants in the grip of downdrift. No one knows what caused so many species to start adopting the behaviors of humans that aren’t essential for life or reproduction. Callie and the lion frequently have to fight against their biological needs to adapt to the fact that prey species can no longer be hunted without serious social and legal repercussions. They’re hungry a lot of the time in this book and, being cats, they’re not temperamentally suited to work. (A brief scene about archivist cats sleeping on piles of unsorted documents made me laugh.) So, they wander and observe and steal food when they can.

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One of the main characters in this book is an East African lion.
(Image via Wikicommons)

Seeing all these animals trying to adopt law, clothing, and the rest highlights how strange most of human behavior really is. More, it shows how unnecessarily complicated and dysfunctional our ways are. We’ve come a long way from our hunter-gatherer days. Downdrift doesn’t argue that the animals—including Homo sapiens—need to revert to the old ways. After all, nature is red in tooth and claw most of the time. But I think it argues for an examination of these activities to see if they’re beneficial or not.

It’s hard for me to see Downdrift as anything other than a slightly overgrown thought experiment. Unlike most thought experiments that I’ve read, however, I genuinely enjoyed this one. It’s probably best read in small doses, so that readers have time to ponder the many ideas this book touches on. Reading it all in one go risks catching a dose of the melancholy that infects the elephants and tigers. Because, if nothing else, Downdrift forces us to ask questions about how much our ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed, and whether it’s possible to put things right again.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

The Changeling, by Joy Williams

35276867If I hadn’t noticed the other editions of The Changeling, by Joy Williams, on Goodreads, I would not have figured out that this book was originally published 40 years ago. It’s fairy-tale-like portrayal of a very strange and disturbing family on an off shore American island could have been set in almost any time and any place. This is certainly true of the novel’s central story of a woman descending into madness while her family insists that everything is fine and that she just needs a little “rest.” The Changeling is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read in a long time.

Pearl tells is over and over that she wants what’s best for her son, Sam, when we meet her in a hotel in Florida. There is something very wrong about the island and the family she fled. Unfortunately for both of them, Pearl returns to her hotel room and finds the husband she ran away from waiting for her. Her brief escape is over. Even worse, the plane that they board to take them back “home” almost immediately crashes. Her husband is dead. She and her child are never quiet the same, even after they’re escorted back home by her husband’s sinister brother, Thomas.

Pearl’s interior monologue at the hotel clues us in to the fact that things are deeply wrong on the island. Thomas, the leader of what might be called a cult if they had more rules, is intent on raising children with complete freedom. We never learn what he’s after. He just tells Pearl and the rest of the adults that things are fine while children concoct a small culture that is flavored by medieval philosophy, a dash of Lord of the Flies, and narcissistic whimsy.

Because her life, before and after her escape, involves spending large amounts of time with these children, Pearl is often adrift in what is real and what isn’t. Even though she’s supposed to be recovering, she is often the rare parental voice on the island asking the children to stop this or that. They don’t listen to her of course, but she tries. When she starts to see very strange things (children changing into animals, for example), Pearl falls headlong into what I think is madness and what other readers might more charitably call a fairy tale. I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong. There is a lot in this book to make everyone question what they’re really seeing.

The Changeling is a difficult read because Pearl never gets any respite from the oddness of the children and the island. Because we spend the entire novel in Pearl’s head, neither do we. It is mentally exhausting to constantly question what’s real and what’s not. I suspect this mental exhaustion is exactly what we’re supposed to feel, given that I think this book is about a descent into insanity. I would recommend this to readers who are looking for a challenge, for a novel that makes them forget everything that’s going on around them even if it makes them question their own sanity.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.