literary fiction · review

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

36623661Do not be fooled by the cover of Secret Passages in a Hillside Town. Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel, skillfully translated by Lola Rogers, is a lot deeper than the lightness of the cover implies. At the start of the book, Olli Souminen is a middle-aged man with a middle-aged life. He works for a small publisher in Jyväskylä, Finland. His wife is a teacher. His son is a quiet boy. Things only start to change when old friends from his childhood reach out on Facebook—then the memories come slipping back and Olli gets another chance at the life he might have had.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is a complicated book. In one plot, we have Olli navigating his reconnection to his old love Greta Kara and the members of the Tourula Five, a group of friends who solve a case like a Finnish version of the Famous Five. In another, there are Olli’s dreams about a girl in a pear-print dress, who reawakens his libido. In yet another, we see Olli’s memories about his summers with the Tourula Five. My first impressions of all three were as deceptive as the book’s cover. The more I learned about Olli and his past, the more sinister things became.

Throughout the book, there are excerpts from Greta’s books. Both of them advocate a “cinematic life.” Instead of living a life of inertia, of what she calls the “slow continuum,” a cinematic life means being spontaneous, seizing unique moments to make new relationships or trying something out of the ordinary. Greta also believes that there are places where its easier to live a cinematic life. As she and Olli get to know each other again, they seek out these places and start seizing moments—even though Olli is married and he is being pressured to be friendly with Greta. Olli’s memories reveal that his childhood with the Tourula Five were not as idyllic as he’d come to believe. But when forces start to conspire to rewrite Olli’s life, he (and I) has to wonder if it’s possible to have a guilt-free, consequence-free second chance.

I can’t say much more about what happens in Secret Passages without ruining it. What I can say is that I enjoyed the book the more I read. The translation helped. Rogers did brilliant work in keeping the story’s secrets until they needed to be revealed. When the bombs went off, I was left with an astonishing tale of second chances and the possibilities of a cinematic life.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. This book will be released 18 September 2018.

humor · literary fiction · review · satire

The Shakespeare Requirement, by Julie Schumacher

38885815For a while, we got a lot of students at our library who wanted to write about why a liberal education was or was not worth the cost. So I frequently found myself defending the humanities on the fly by talking about critical thinking, empathy, and other, more intangible benefits. I’m rather proud of myself for being able to do this, because it’s a lot more than the faculty of the beleaguered Payne University can do in The Shakespeare RequirementJulie Schumacher’s sequel to her uproarious novel Dear Committee Members. (It’s not necessary for readers to read Dear Committee Members to understand The Shakespeare Requirement. Both books are hilariously on-point satires, so I recommend them both.)

Jason Fitger survived a year under siege in the English department at Willard Hall while the upstairs is extensively remodeled by the swimming-in-donations Economics Department. Now, Fitger has to survive being the chair of a notoriously fractious department at a time when they have to justify every penny the Payne University (there are a lot of jokes about the name) spends on them. Being academics, they believe that it’s blindingly obvious why students ought to learn Shakespeare, medieval literature, feminist and postcolonial literature, and celebrate all the Brontë birthdays. To them, the question is not why should anyone study Shakespeare. Their question for everyone else is, why wouldn’t students want to study Shakespeare?

The Shakespeare Requirement bounces from character to character to give us an inside look at a university that houses every academic stereotype we’ve ever heard of. The rapacious Econ chair is attempting to build an empire that resembles a for-profit institution. The administration is bloated with vice and assistant something or others and completely useless when it comes to the in-fighting of the faculty. Most of those faculty are oblivious to anything else but defending their intellectual territory. In fact, most of the book involves Fitger chasing down his English faculty to horse-trade so that they will pass the department’s statement of vision. Plus, there’s the bureaucracy, which could be described as a Kafkaesque nightmare or an unfixable snarl of catch-22s.

I found The Shakespeare Requirement sharply funny. I snorted and chuckled at the jokes and jibes. I loved the tangled plots and the perfect ending. But what really makes this book is the heart that underlies the jokes. The faculty, in spite of their eccentricities and pettiness (and excluding the Econ chair), love their subjects. They want to teach their students the joys of literature and to look at the world with an critical eye. They don’t just want to churn out workers. I find that admirable; I’m in an adjacent line of work and have the same goals. The jokes and satire just help the medicine—the bitter truths about American academia as it exists now—go down.

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

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Dream Country, by Shannon Gibney

37683438Who is to blame for the conditions that are turning Kollie Flomo into someone consumed by violent anger? The proximate cause is the tension between Black Americans and African immigrants who are forced into close quarters at Kollie’s Minneapolis high school. But what caused that tension? To answer that question, Shannon Gibney takes us back in series of connected stories about Kollie’s ancestors in Dream Country. In Kollie’s story, every terrible thing that happens is the result of another terrible thing that came before. The chain of blame stretches across an ocean and two centuries.

Kollie is the child of Liberian immigrants who came to the United States after the first Librarian civil war. He has memories of being in Liberia, but he has spent most of his life in Minneapolis, though mostly with other Liberian immigrants. The other Black students at their school—African Americans—enforce a sharp division between themselves and the African immigrants. The Americans mock the Africans’ food, dialect, and attitudes. The Americans call them primitive and every action and comment makes Kollie’s blood boil. After Kollie starts a fight at school and puts another student in the hospital, his parents ship him back to Liberia. They believe it’s the only way to save him.

Kollie’s story takes the first third of Dream Country. Once he arrives at the airport, the perspective shifts to a Liberian man on the run in 1926. Togbar has just run away from his village in an attempt to escape a forced labor crew. After Togbar’s narrative, we go back further in time, to 1820, as freedwoman Yasmine pushes her family to Norfolk, Virginia. In Norfolk, the family can get a boat to the new colony of Liberia. There are hints in these narratives and the shorter ones that follow to let us know that Kollie is descended from Togbar and Yasmine.

Over and over, these characters try to start over, to find a place where they can build a life out from under anyone’s thumb, only to fail. Anger builds over the generations until it seems to explode in Kollie. What causes these characters to fail so many times is racism, classicism, colorism, and other prejudices the hold them down. In Yasmine’s time, we see two varieties of this. White Americans firmly believe that Black people are inferior. The Black Americans believe that the indigenous people are inferior, that they are bringing these “savage” people the “blessings” of civilization. Prejudice rolls down hill; it’s little wonder that Kollie feels so stuck and angry.

Dream Country is a powerful novel. The characters never get lost in its profound statements about historical injustice. The setting and the structure bring a fresh perspective to questions about why there is tension between Black Americans and Africans and between Whites and people of African descent. It’s hard to read like many novels about important ideas, but I say that in the best way possible. The book’s ideas are challenging; they’re supposed to make us uncomfortable. I hope a lot of readers discover it. It needs and deserves to be read widely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

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Notes for bibliotherapuetic use: Recommended for readers who need to see the historical injustices of racism because they don’t understand why people of color can’t just get over it.


literary fiction · review

House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III

7944648Like many tragedies, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, are full of opportunities in which the characters could halt their trajectories towards disaster. If they paused to consider the consequences of their actions, for instance. If they stopped to think about whether their motivations are entirely rational, for another example. But then, the characters in tragedies are terribly flawed. They’re incapable of pausing to reflect. (Except for Hamlet obviously, whose flaw what they he paused too much.) Because the characters in House of Sand and Fog are stubborn, have addictions and intractable attachments, unresolved childhood issues, anger, and more, this book is a relentless march towards something awful.

It all begins with a bureaucratic mistake. It’s a difficult problem, but fixable. A house is auctioned off because the county believes the owners owe a business tax. Within days, the house is sold for a pittance to an Iranian immigrant who is looking to make a new nest egg for for his family. Both parties are in the right. The county messed up. All the original owner, Kathy Nicolo, wants is her house back. So, when the county offers to rescind the sale and give Massoud Amir Behrani back his money, there’s a possibility that the mistake could be fixed. But Massoud bought the house in good faith and wants the full market value for the house. Kathy doesn’t have that kind of money, of course. So, impasse.

What makes everything worse is Kathy’s anger over the injustice of the whole thing and Massoud’s proud stubbornness. House of Sand and Fog moves back and forth between Kathy and Massoud’s point of view for the first two thirds of the book, immersing us in both sets of emotional baggage. Each chapter shows us why neither character takes one of the many outs they are given by other characters. I had my heart in my mouth for most of the book because I knew it would end in blood.

What struck me most about House of Sand and Fog is its focus on male fragility. After Kathy’s side of the story gets eclipsed by her cop boyfriend, Lester’s, we have two men fighting each other who both are desperate to maintain their masculine power. Massoud was formerly a colonel in the Iranian Air Force under the Shah. He was a powerful man from a patriarchal society. He’s used to everyone listening to him and obeying him. Lester is a deputy sheriff who is also used to having people obey him. Neither man seems particularly comfortable in their power. Their authority was granted by uniforms and legal standing. Because their authority was given, it can be taken away; both men are terrified of losing their power. When Massoud’s wife, Naderah, challenges her, he hits her. When Lester is challenged, he pulls his gun on the Behranis and worse. Two hair-trigger men in conflict with each other is a recipe for disaster.

House of Sand and Fog is a terribly good story, fully Shakespearean at times. It’s hard to witness what these characters do to each other. It definitely will make readers want to shout into the book to get Kathy or Massoud to pause. Still, there’s something fascinating in watching a train wreck about to happen. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s the pleasure I take in seeing moving pieces fall into place. Maybe it’s watching someone else making worse mistakes than I ever would. Whatever it is, House of Sand and Fog delivers it in spades.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Refuge, by Merilyn Simonds

39082310Cass MacCallum has had a life of ups and downs. At ninety-six, she has more or less made peace with it. She lives in her little house on her little Ontario island, waiting for her body to finally give out with age. But then someone from Myanmar starts to send her emails, claiming to be the granddaughter of Cass’s long lost son. At the beginning of Refuge, by Merilyn Simonds, Nang Aung Myaing shows up at Cass’s house with a request for help with her claim for asylum.

Cass was always her father’s favorite and, unfortunately, loathed by her older sister, May. When their father dies and May makes it impossible for her to stay on the farm, Cass takes her newly minted nursing degree and goes to Mexico City. Through a few lucky coincidences and with the generosity of the people she meets, Cass builds a fuller, more interesting and useful life. (I’ll admit that I raised my eyebrows when Cass met and nursed Frieda Kahlo.) The vivacity of Cass’s life in Mexico is a bright contrast to the cold, grating existence in Canada, with a sister who will not forgive her for anything.

While we learn more about Cass’s life in Mexico, we also see her stubbornly refusing to believe Nang Aung Myaing’s story about her heritage. At first, I didn’t understand Cass when there was compelling evidence to believe the new arrival. It’s only as Cass unspools her story that I saw what she had once had and what she’d had to let go that I realized what it might cost Cass to accept that she might still have living family. She loved her son and her son’s father so much, that one would think having something of them back would be a boon. By the same token, however, accepting Nang Aung Myaing means that she can’t avoid dredging up her grief over their loss.

While Refuge begins with a woman winding down her life, it ends with a reclamation of what life she still has left. Nang Aung Myaing brings back some of the brightness and urgency Cass felt when she lived in Mexico, or when her lover or her son were still alive. This book is full of life and the struggle to stay alive, which I always find profoundly moving. Even with the bits I didn’t quite believe (Frieda Kahlo!), I really enjoyed Refuge.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction

The Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka

40206964Over the course of Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, several characters ask Ivory Frame what her project of recording bird and animal calls is for. She struggles to answer every time. No one seems to understand that she’s trying to save these sounds in case the animals go extinct. This is reason enough for her, but everyone else thinks is a waste of time, a fool’s errand, an elaborate way of coping with the tragedies of her past, or some combination of all of the above. The more we learn about Ivory, the more I started to agree that her project is some combination of the aforementioned and also one of the most elaborate works of art and science ever attempted.

Ivory is 92-years-old when we meet in a remote cabin in Canada. Her only companion is Skeet, a fellow biologist. Skeet knows not to press Ivory—unlike the journalists and colleagues who occasionally ask—about her past. Anything before 1950 or so is off limits. But things have changed. A pair of letters (one to each of them) have Skeet worried and send Ivory down memory lane.

Before she was a biologist, Ivory was a girl from an unhappy home who wanted to be an artist. When her parents send her to an art school in Paris after her latest expulsion from a convent school, Ivory finds herself in the middle of the city’s Surrealist renaissance. The Surrealists’s excitement and iconoclasm encourage her, but none of her works quite capture how she sees the world or expresses what she wants to say. The only thing that feels right is the passion she has for Lev Volkov, a Russian expatriate artist on the run from the Soviets. The first part of Ivory’s life was full of emotion and activity—which makes it easy to see the other decades as penance or exile.

The Dictionary of Animal Languages is a very slow burn. Tagging along with an old woman as she ruminates about her past does not make for the most gripping reading, at first. But patient readers will find, as I did, that a bit of mystery about what exactly happened is just enough bait to keep them going until they’ve gotten to know Ivory so well that the last third or so of the book is emotionally devastating in the best way. This book is a powerful and brilliantly constructed story about loss, love, and communication of all types.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

literary fiction · review · short stories

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana

39857325Teresa Solana’s collection, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, is one that rewards readers who have a twisted sense of humor. Peter Bush’s translation preserves every twist of each story, as well as maintains Solana’s sly portraits of characters who are hilariously oblivious to what’s going on around them, ones who are more than willing to eliminate people for the slightest gain, and the ones who are just plain unlucky. I had more fun with this collection than I probably should have.

Some of the standout stories from this collection are:

“The Son-in-Law.” This story is one of my absolute favorites in the collection. In this story, an elderly mother calmly receives a pair of mossos (the Catalan term for the Barcelona police) in her apartment as they ask about her missing son-in-law. It isn’t long before the mother tips us readers in on what really happened to the man and were he can be found. I love this story because of the mother’s sheer gumption.

“Still Life No. 41.” This story made me laugh the most. It spins out a old joke about modern art—that no one really understands what they’re looking at—and turns it into the scandal of the art world. Here, a young director of a modern art museum laments how her career has been ruined by a mistake anyone could have made (according to her) involving a series of statues by an artist know for his high realism (including smells). After all, she thinks, who would turn down an extra statue by an artist in high demand?

“Happy Families.” The mansion in this story probably is cursed. It’s not just that it’s inhabited by two centuries of ghosts, it’s that everyone who comes into possession of the house is doomed to a short life and a bloody death. In other hands, this story could have been chilling and quintessentially Gothic. In Solana’s hands, however, we have a bunch of ghosts who are choosy about their post-life company. When the house changes hands and they catch wind of a murder plot, the ghosts leap into action.

“Connections.” The later two-thirds or so of The Prehistoric Serial Killer are a collection within a collection. These linked stories share characters that are peripheral in one story but become lead characters in another. The first story in this little series introduces a typically self-absorbed teenager who has the bad luck to witness a murder. In the next, we find out who was murdered and why. The stories after that edge further away from that murder to reveal other crimes. My favorite is the blackly funny story about a woman who commits murder after murder to get away from the one thing she hates the most: opera.

I enjoyed The Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories very much—so much that I hope her other stories and novels are available in translation from Catalan. Solana never does the expected thing and isn’t afraid to play around with topics that others don’t see as fit for comedy. But then, I know I have a warped sense of humor. I would strongly recommend this collection for other readers who are also seeking stories that will make them laugh a little too hard at things they shouldn’t.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.