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.

Love Marriage, by Monica Ali

Trigger warning for brief discussion of rape.

When Love Marriage, by Monica Ali, opens, we meet Yasmin Ghorami at her most anxious. She and her fiance, Joe, are about to introduce their parents to each other. Yasmin is very embarrassed by her traditional Bengali parents and extremely apprehensive about the judgment of her British future mother-in-law, a sex-positive intellectual. Ali is so descriptive in this opening chapter that I was cringing on Yasmin’s behalf. Strangely enough, the dinner goes relatively well. It goes well enough that it lures Yasmin into a false sense of security. Little does she know but that dinner is one of the last times that her life will be on course for many months.

Over the course of Love Marriage, almost everything will go wrong in Yasmin and Joe’s lives, and in their parents’ lives. That dinner—with all of the characters straining to make a good impression—gives us a strong hint about what’s going to go wrong in all those lives. You see, part of the reason why all the characters are sitting with their hair clenched (to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, A Fish Called Wanda) is because all of them have secrets they desperately want to keep hidden from each other. We learn those secrets over the course of the novel as the characters make mistakes, get angry with each other, and are forced to renegotiate their relationships with each other. Sadly, Yasmin et al.’s stories prove that the course of true love really doesn’t want to run smooth.

I realize that my summary might make this book sound like a soap opera (and I haven’t even mentioned the sex addiction or the illegitimate child or the racial harassment). All of that drama serves a valuable purpose. Once the secrets start to come out, all of the characters can finally ask themselves important questions about what matters to them, who do they really love, and what are they willing to compromise over. The other benefit of all those secrets coming out is that the characters can face the things that have been haunting them, sometimes for years, and heal.

Love Marriage is one of the most cathartic books I’ve ever read. When I finished the last paragraph and closed the book, it felt like I had run a marathon. I felt emotionally wrung out. Again, this might sound bad, but it was a deeply satisfying kind of wrung out. Ali’s character development is absolutely stellar. The secrets the characters hold are original but still plausible and relatable. This is one of the best works of literary fiction I’ve read in a very long time.

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

The Evening Hero, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

After the rural Minnesotan hospital where Youngman Kwak works closes, he no longer has work to keep his mind occupied. This means that memories of his life in Korea during and after the Korean War start to creep back into his conscious mind. It also means that Youngman has time to reflect on his relationship with his wife, how they raised their son, the medical profession, and the casual racism he and his family have always faced. There’s a lot going on in Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero. Unfortunately, it’s a little too much and the tone veers from beautifully thoughtful to absurdly satirical. To me, it read like two novels spliced together.

Youngman Kwak is a dedicated OB-GYN at Horse’s Breath Hospital when we first meet him—more so because the new director of the hospital is squeezing every scrap of profit out of the hospital before ingnominiously closing the whole thing down. Youngman feels very much for his patients, all of whom are now just that much further away from good medical care. Youngman’s diligence and humane care of his patients is a sharp contrast to his son, Einstein, and the employees at SANUS (the very company that bought and closed Youngman’s hospital). After an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner that further highlights the differences between Youngman and his wife and their son and daughter-in-law, Einstein talks his father into taking a job at SANUS. Unfortunately, the promised job delivering vaccines turns out to be a humiliating gig operating a depilation machine. SANUS is mall medicine. It’s far from Youngman’s work delivering babies and caring for women.

Meanwhile, Youngman starts to receive letters from an unknown woman in Seoul. He knows that the letters have someting to do with the brother he abandoned in Korea, to start his new life with his wife and unborn child in the United States. He’s been running from his brother—and his regrets—for decades. At this point, the narrative takes us back to just before the Korean War. Youngman and his mother, younger brother, and grandfather, are eking out a living in Water Project Village. When the war comes, their situation becomes even more fraught. Not only are they facing starvation, the small Kwak family and the rest of the non-combatants walk up and down the Korean peninsula, avoiding violence from soldiers on all sides, and hoping to find a safe place to stay until they can go home. This part of the novel is utterly harrowing.

Over the course of the rest of the novel, the narrative switches back and forth from Trump-era America to post-war South Korea. The contrast between the escalating weirdness of Youngman’s life in America and Youngman’s nostalgic memories of Korea grows bigger and bigger—and harder and harder to reconcile into a cohesive whole. For me, the parts of the book in Korea and South Korea were the most interesting and enjoyable. The narrative is much better when Lee leaves behind the satire and the absurdity. Although I appreciated the points Lee made about the greed of the America healthcare industry, I preferred the emotional honesty of the other half of the novel, the parts in which Youngman looks back across his long life and wonders if he made the right choices.

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

Metropolis, by B.A. Shapiro

Trigger warning for brief depiction of domestic violence.

B.A. Shapiro’s Metropolis is the kind of book that reminds us that there are so many spaces and people we just brush past. Most of us don’t need to store (or hide) possessions in storage facilities. They’re usually temporary spaces. Certainly, most of us don’t need to live in storage facilities. As we travel from home to work to our third spaces and back, few of us see the homeless or the jobless or the stateless. Metropolis focuses all our attention on a Boston storage building and straight onto people who, all for their own reasons, find refuge in a place most of us wouldn’t look twice at.

Metropolis is told from the perspective of several characters and from two different time periods before and after an accident involving the Metropolis building’s elevator. It jumps straight into the aftermath by first showing us an auction attended by Zach, the former owner of the Metropolis. He is raising money for legal fees and other expenses by auctioning off the unclaimed property in the building. As the auctioneer directs the procedings, we see each unit through his eyes. We see rooms full of dog houses, the contents of a teenagers’ bedroom, a darkroom filled with undeveloped film, a lawyer’s office, and rooms that have clearly been lived in, even though the building’s not rated for that.

The story’s perspective then shifts to refocus on our other narrators months before the auction. There’s Rose, the building’s former manager, who takes extra money to rent out two (later three) of the units for people to live in. We meet Jason, previously a high flying lawyer now reduced to working any case he can get from a room in the storage facility. There’s Laurent, a gifted photographer suffering from PTSD and undiagnosed illnesses. Laurent and Marta, a Venezuelan refugee and gifted sociology graduate student, both live in the Metropolis because it offers safety and anonymity. The last narrator we meet is Liddy. Initially, she rented a unit at the facility to store her children’s belongings after their awful father shipped them off to boarding school in Switzerland. It’s Liddy’s efforts to escape her husband that bring trouble down on everyone’s head.

Readers, I was engrossed from the minute the auctioneer started opening doors to let the punters have a peek. This book scratches that itch we feel when we sense a story behind an abandoned object by telling us how they came to be there, and how they were abandoned. I don’t want to say too much because a big part of the pleasure of reading this book is learning everyone’s secrets. But I will say that each character is a marvelous study in how the pressures of money and jobs and fear and desire can push people into places they never imagined they might end up.

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

An Unlasting Home, by Mai al-Nakib

It’s strange to me—but also not so strange—that for a species hardwired to spot patterns, we can be very dumb when it comes to not repeating bad patterns of behavior. In Mai al-Nakib’s deeply affecting and engrossing family saga, An Unlasting Home, we see three generations of women who are given choices that lead them into emotional traps. They are also given choices to get out of those traps but, for one reason or another, they walk into personal martyrdom in the form of bad husbands, needy family members, economics, and religion. As each generation grows old and has children, we’re left to wonder about the costs of sacrificing oneself for others against personal happiness.

We have several narrators in An Unlasting Home. In chronological order, we meet Yasmine and Lulwa, whose marriages and choices land them in neighboring houses in Kuwait City in the 1950s. Then we meet Maria, an Indian woman who comes to work for Lulwa’s daughter, Noura (another narrator). As these women recount their stories—and woven in between them—there is Sara, daughter of Noura, granddaughter of Yasmine and Lulwa, cared for by Maria. Before they all ended up in Kuwait, various members of the family lived in Lebanon, India, Iraq, and the United States. Kuwait is where everything converges.

Sara grew up in St. Louis and Kuwait City. Although she and her mother Noura felt like the United States was the best place for them to live freely, as individuals, family obligations bring Sara back after her mother’s death. Someone has to take care of Yasmine and Lulwa, Sara argues whenever anyone tells her she should go back to the States. This same family obligation is what pulled Lulwa away from her family for seven long years between the 1940s and 1950s, after her mentally ill mother tricked Lulwa into coming back to Kuwait from India. A different family obligation brought Yasmine from Basra to Kuwait when her moody husband failed to claim his father’s political position. Sara’s decision to stay turns into a crisis unlike what her mother and grandmothers went through. Unlike them, Sara might be pushed to break free of Kuwait and her family’s history when she is accused of blasphemy after teaching Nietzsche in her philosophy course at Kuwait University.

I can imagine readers’ responses to the choices made by the narrators in An Unlasting Home go in two very different directions. On the one hand, readers might rail against the decisions these characters make. They might holler at the pages for Yasmine, Lulwa, Maria, Noura, and Sara to cut loose and run. Their happiness is more important than living in misery to make others happy. Other readers might applaud the self-sacrifice of these characters. Without their choices, the family would’ve crumbled. And although I’ve probably painted a pretty bleak picture of these characters’ lives, there is a lot of happiness and joy in their lives. Yasmine and Lulwa and Maria delight in their children. Noura is able to express her opinions through her foreign language bookstore in Kuwait City. And Sara is a philosopher, through and through, and believes in her educational mission of teaching at Kuwait University. Where some readers would see a clear choice, others will see situations where it’s impossible to decide on the right course of action. After all, who can predict what will happen in the future?

This beautifully written book, with its wonderfully developed characters, is a fantastic read for book groups, or for readers who want to wrestle with the question of obligation versus self-actualization.

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

The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon

Sometimes, you just need to read something silly, something that puts a smile on your face and lets your brain relax. The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon, is exactly that kind of book. This book has one of the most ludicrous plots I’ve ever read and I enjoyed every page of it. I wasn’t worried about what would happen in the end—because like so many of the characters—I had faith that it would all work out. I don’t consider myself nearly as religious as protagonist Nino Speranza (whose surname means hope in Italian), who searches out saints to help him with his various problems, but I do believe that there’s someone looking out for fools trying to do good deeds.

Speranza is the mayor of the declining Italian village of Prometto (“I promise,” in Italian), although the villagers come to him with problems about their dogs more often than they do about real problems. As The Patron Saint of Second Chances opens, Speranza is dealing with an actual problem. An official has just found serious problems with the village’s plumbing. If Prometto can’t pay the 60,000 Euro repair bill, its water supply will be cut off and the villagers relocated elsewhere. Prometto would be no more. Speranza breaks into a desperate, furtive panic that lasts nearly the entire course of the novel. He decides not to tell anyone as he works out a way to save Prometto. This turns out to be a good thing as Speranza’s plan is, essentially, lying his ass off to everyone in the village.

The big lie Speranza tells is that Dante Rinaldi, the current hunk-du-jour of Italian cinema, is coming to Prometto to make a film. (This lie is based on a story a sketchy friend tells him about a neighboring town that experienced a surprise boom when it was rumored that George Clooney was going to buy a house there.) Like all big lies, Speranza’s story quickly spirals out of control. His assistant at his vacuum repair business transforms himself into a screenwriter and director and actor (standing in until Dante arrives). His daughter offers to do make-up. The richest man in town is conned out of most of the cost of the repair for the promise that Speranza will put his most handsome son in the movie. The first person to start asking questions is the village priest, but Speranza becomes very adept at dodging his old friend.

I know that there’s no way that Speranza will get away with his mad scheme, of course, but I hoped that he would be able to get along with it long enough to be able to save Prometto for at least a few more years. He tap-dances just as fast as he can and he, along with his assistant Smilzo, seem to have just enough daft luck to make it possible that they might be able to pull it off. I won’t ruin the ending and tell you all whether or not that happens. Instead, I’ll just say that the ending is the cherry on top of this confection of a novel.

If your brain needs a little getaway to small-town Italy, I recommend The Patron Saint of Second Chances.

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

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

Trigger warning for violence towards animals.

Aminatta Forna’s tense novel, The Hired Man, shows us why the saying is just “revenge is a dish best served cold” and not “revenge is a dish best served cold and bewildering.” Our protagonist, Duro, is a patient man. He’s been waiting a very long time to tell the people who wronged him just how much he wants to hurt them. He’s also not a monologuer, so when the time comes, it’s hard to say what his targets are supposed to feel when his plan finally springs into action. I know I’m being hard on this book right out of the gate, but that’s because I was really enjoying the ride right up until the end. Take what I say with a grain of salt: I didn’t understand the ending, possibly because I was reading too fast to take in the important details.

Our story takes place in Gost, Croatia. The town used to be an important waypoint back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those days are long behind this rural backwater now. The Yugoslav Wars pushed the town even further into irrelevance. People still live there, mostly because it’s where they and their families have always lived. And Gost is quiet, mostly because the people did things to each other during the Wars that no one wants to talk about. The most excitement in years turns up in the form of an English woman and her two children, after the woman buys a house that is very important to Duro. Seeing the old Pavić house occupied after so many years shocks Duro for a moment. Then he goes up and introduces himself to Laura with an offer to help her fix the place up.

While Duro busily puts things at the Pavić house back to rights, Forna takes us into his past. We see his friendship with the Pavić children, especially daughter Anka—and also how his friendship with the son Krešimir goes sour as the boy’s moods grow violent and erratic. The three children grow up in the last decades of Yugoslavia, until Duro is forced to leave. The more we see, the more it makes sense that Duro is a solitary man, living in a former pig shed with his two dogs, dedicatedly putting together the home of his absent lost love and best friend.

It’s only later that Forna reveals to us how the war came to Gost, even though we all know that devastating and sectarian violence is coming. As that tension builds, another tension starts to form as Duro comes closer to finishing his restoration of the Pavić house. Strange things start to happen around Gost that remind Krešimir and the repugnant owner of the town’s only bar, Fabjan, of the terrible things that happened there so many years ago. There are no outright accusations. Instead, Duro’s narratives slowly show us who did what to whom. It’s left to us to decide if anyone deserves punishment or revenge, and if it’s fair to manipulate others to unwittingly be pawns in Duro’s long revenge.

This is an extremely well-written book, for the most part. It’s incredibly atmospheric and the character development is among the best I’ve seen. Before I consign this book to the “tried it” pile, I think I’ll need to go back and at least read the last third again. Resisting the urge to rush and reading slowly might make me change this book from a three to a four or five out of five.

At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop

Once a certain amount of time has passed and once we’ve heard a story the same way enough times, history can kind of fossilize in our collective memories. Historical fiction can bring those old stories to life for us, but it takes a book like David Diop’s emotionally wrenching At Night All Blood is Black (faithfully translated by Anna Moschovakis) to make use revise what we thought we knew and push the fossils into new shapes. In this brief novel, Diop puts us into the fracturing mind of Alfa Ndiaye, one of 200,000 men who fought for France as a Senegalese Tirailleur.

Alfa Ndiaye is a legend among his regiment. After the dead of his more-than-a-brother, Mademba Diop, Alfa has been lingering in no man’s land to ambush German soldiers. When he catches one, he kills them and takes their rifles and right hands. Alfa is hailed as a particularly gutsy hero for, he tells us, the first three hands. When he brings back the fourth, his captain and the rest of the regiment start to turn on him. He might be a legend to them, but he becomes a terrifying one that no one knows what to do with.

The above (and a bit more in the form of flashbacks that show us Alfa and Mademba’s childhoods and adolescence) are the barebones plot of At Night All Blood is Black, but that’s not all that happens. The plot is really a support for Alfa’s thoughts as he reflects on his friend’s death and his own role in it, about what it means to fight for the country that’s colonizing his own, what feels like to be seen as a savage by so-called civilized people, and what true bravery really is. This is not an easy book to read, especially once Alfa’s sense of self—and even his sense of embodiment—starts to disintegrate after another comrade dies and he brings back an eighth hand.

Alfa and his story push us to think about the African experience of World War I, an experience we might not have known even existed. It’s strange to be reminded that World War I involved soldiers pulled in from Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia (that I know of). I’ve read several novels that show how bewildering it was for the average Briton, German, or Frenchman being whisked into a brutal war over national promises. How strange and horrifying it might have been for a man to be pulled into a war because Great Britain or Germany or France marched into his country decades or centuries earlier and put their flags down everywhere.

Five soldiers from the 43rd Tirailleurs battalion, c. 1914-1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, by Quan Barry

Quan Barry’s outstanding new novel, When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, is a perfect example of one of the reasons I read fiction. In this engrossing story, we walk along (sometimes literally) with protagonist Chuluun as he, accompanied by his twin brother, two fellow Gelug Buddhist monks, and a woman servant from a monastery in Ulaanbaatar look for the resurrection of one known as the One for Whom the Sky Never Darkens. It’s a journey full of doubt and questions and dharma and, just maybe, enlightenment. This book is so beautifully written, so realistic and so human, that I was nearly moved to tears by the end.

Twenty-three-year-old Chuluun has lived in a Buddhism monastery in remote Mongolia since he was a child of seven or eight. Chuluun tells us—and shows us in flashbacks—that he ended up at Yatuu Gol because the rinpoche believes that his twin, Mun, is the reincarnation of a great monk known as the Redeemer Who Blows the Conch in the Darkness. Chuluun is scooped up with his brother as the Servant to the Redeemer Who Blows the Conch in the Darkness. Yet, we know from the beginning of the novel that Mun rejected life as a monk and relocated to Ulaanbaatar. Mun’s resistance and occasional disdain for Buddhism becomes an important antithesis to Chuluun’s quest. In Gelug Buddhism, as far as I can, tell, great spiritual people are sometimes reincarnated as tulku. The Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas, and hundreds of others are tulku. When one of these men or women is about to die, they leave clues as to where they will reincarnate. It is up to others to find them. Children believed to be tulku are tested to see how much they remember of their previous incarnations. If they pass, they are folded into Buddhist monastic life. As we see with Mun, it can be a bewildering, frightening, and stressful existence that shouldn’t be foisted onto anyone who doesn’t understand what it means.

Unlike Mun, Chuluun is a believer, although he is wracked with feelings of unworthiness. No matter how hard he strives, Chulunn still feels flashes of sexual desires. He wavers between returning to Yatuu Gol, where he will need to defend his faith and take on the mantle of full priesthood, or giving everything up to live in the secular world. There is a lot of pressure on Chuluun to become a fully-fledged Buddhist monk. Even though this book is set somewhere around 2015 (I think, I’m not sure of the math), Buddhism is only recently emerging into the light after decades of Stalinist repression. Not only is Chuluun fulfilling his own destiny, he’s also a representative of his faith in a newly democratic nation.

Mongolian landscape, 2005
(Image via Wikicommons)

Around all this rich characterization and narrative, Barry draws us a living portrait of rural Mongolia. As Chuluun narrates (all in the present tense, which is an amazing way to incorporate his efforts to live in the present into the text), we visit not only Ulaanbaatar, but the shamanic nomads of Khövsgöl Province, the Muslim eagle hunters of Bayan-Ölgii, and the arid fossil grounds of the Gobi desert as they seek the One For Whom the Sky Never Darkens. Chuluun frequently comments on the eternal sky and the way that the legend of Chinggis Khaan still inhabits the land. He shares stories from his pre-monastery boyhood living in gers with his grandfather, father, and twin and their herds. Although Chuluun might doubt his ability to be a priest and monk, he never doubts that he is Mongolian.

All of the wandering and questioning comes to a head during a sandstorm in the Gobi, in a transcendent moment that left me awestruck. The ending alone is worth the price of admission to When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, but I would’ve loved this book even if it had had a completely different ending. This is a truly magical book that, like few others, offers us an immersive, emotionally honest opportunity to experience someone else’s life.

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

The City of Incurable Women, by Maud Casey

Maud Casey’s The City of Incurable Women brings me back to an old fascination of mine: the women incarcerated at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital after being diagnosed with hysteria and other related maladies. Casey’s unusual book blends contemporary photos and doctors’ notes with fictional passages that give voice to women who bore their society’s expectations of their gender and their projected fears of women who broke those expectations. This is not an easy book to read—due to the subject matter and the experimental writing style—but I found it fascinating.

Most of the book (outside of the parts excerpted from actual historical documents) is narrated by a collective “I,” made up of real and imagined inmates of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes an “I” will separate from the pack to tell her story; one of these “I”s is the famous Louise Augustine Gleizes. These stories are sometimes tales of child labor and sexual abuse that end with the Salpêtrière when the “I” can’t take it anymore and she snaps. Others are stories of women who suffer from genuine mental illness. These stories were even more heartbreaking to me, since the late 1800s offered very little hope of relief, much less a cure.

Jean-Martin Charcot and other doctors make brief appearances. Their paternalistic writings—when seen in contrast with the words of their patients—are show up for the hyper-rational nonsense they are. It seems like these men only diagnosed based on physical symptoms and the words of whoever brought the women to the Salpêtrière in the first place. Charcot pre-dated Freud somewhat, but it appears that it never occurred to anyone to actually ask these women about their thoughts and feelings. It’s astounding how Charcot and his colleagues wildly theorized about the causes of symptoms like catalepsy, impressive feats of sleeping, strange facial expressions, or acts of destruction without any repeatable kind of evidence. It’s also astounding to me that it never occurred to these geniuses that some of their patients might have been playing up to the doctors’ expectations for the perks.

Reading a fictional account of the women of the Salpêtrière (in The Mad Women’s Ball) and this semi-fictional account make me want to read a fully non-fictional version, but preferably one that focuses on women like Gleizes. But given the fact that so many of the women only appear in the historical record in Charcot and the other doctors’ (and possibly some police reports), books like Casey’s might be the best way to try and understand what their lives might have been like.

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

A Salpêtrière diagnosed with “hysterical yawning,” c. 1890 (Image via Wikicommons)