The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

1618Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was everywhere when it came out in 2003, so much so that I’ve avoided it for nearly fifteen years. What I wrote last week about afterwords and forewords often gets applied to books that are so much in the news that they get overhyped. Now that so much time has passed, I feel like I can give this novel a fair shot.

Fifteen-year-old mathematical genius Christopher Boone is on the autism spectrum. Over the course of the novel, we learn about his aversion to touching, the colors yellow and brown, and changes in routine. We also learn how his mind processes the world around him and how his mind is different from neurotypical minds. (One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was Christopher pointing out how illogical neurotypicals are. After all, neurotypicals can tell what people mean just from hearing exhalations from each other’s noses!) For Christopher there is so much information coming in all the time that avoiding change is one of the best ways for him to cope.

Christopher’s highly observant mind (and his love of Sherlock Holmes) lead him to investigate the disturbing murder of their neighbor’s dog. Despite his brief trouble with the police and his father’s constant warnings to stay away, Christopher is determined to figure out what happened. I would have called The Curious Incident a mystery, but much more of the novel revolves around our narrator’s relationships with his parents. The mystery is really just an entry point into what’s been happening with the small Boone family. But to say more about the plot would ruin the book.

I really enjoyed The Curious Incident and ended up being quite moved by Christopher’s story. He is utterly sympathetic as we watch him find out how much his parents have lied to him and broken his trust. This novel is very much a coming of age story, in which our narrator learns just how fallibly human his parents are while also learning to rely on himself. It’s kind of a shame I waited so long to read it.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for people who don’t understand autism or for readers with autism who’d like to see themselves in fiction.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

34390247There is a pair of old Latin phrases that have been found inscribed on graves that I thought about constantly as I read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (translated by Susan Bernofsky). The phrases hodie mihi cras tibi (today me, tomorrow you) and sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world) are strangely appropriate for a book that follows recent classicist retiree Richard as he remembers what his life used to be like. Later, as Richard becomes fascinated by the plight of African refugees in Berlin, we are left to ponder how how Germany resists and is changed by an influx of people from very different cultures and histories.

Richard is in his seventies as the novel begins and has just retired from decades of work at Humboldt University. He spends his time reflecting on how very little of his life in the former East Germany remains in modern Berlin. He no longer has his job to keep his brain occupied and knows that other bright young things in the Classics Department will replace him. After he sees a large camp of refugees in Berlin—some of the refugees are on a hunger strike to force the government to take action on their cases and help them find work—Richard becomes a little obsessed with the situation. He arms himself with a battery of questions and heads off to one of the shelters for the refugees. His questions, presumably part of a research project, help him get to know men from Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, and other countries. And, suddenly, Richard’s life has meaning again as he tries to help get the men money, work, and shelter.

The plot speeds up as Richard gets more and more involved, but it retains a mournful tone. The novel is nostalgic for the past and Richard misses some of his old life and haunts, but there was—to me at least—a sense of acceptance to the fact that nothing stays the same forever. Richard hears from friends and reads about how the government deals with the refugees that make it clear that not every one is as accepting of the fact that times change and we must change with them. (More Latin: tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.)

Go, Went, Gone is a very levelheaded look at what I think of as the manufactured dilemma of the refugee crisis. Many of the countries taking in refugees create miles of red tape to trip up people who are fleeing for their homes to, presumably, make sure the people coming in are safe to enter. The laws, as Richard finds, make it a lot easier for a country to deport someone that it is for that someone to make a new home in a new country. The red tape smacks of racism and Go, Went, Gone is full of examples of what people say about refugees: Why don’t they solve their own problems? Why doesn’t someone else take them in? Richard’s investigations put unignorably human faces on the refugees so that, while it might be easy to deport almost 500 refugees from various countries, it’s a lot harder to send Rashid, Osarobo, Yaya, Khalil, and the others back to places where they might be killed.

 I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 September 2017. 

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who need to be more empathetic to the plight of others.

Judgment, by David Bergelson

33931727Originally published in Yiddish by David Bergelson in 1929, this newly translated (by Harriet Murov and Sasha Senderovich) version of Judgment is a chilling set of connected stories about the inhabitants of a shtetl in western Ukraine who live very close to an outpost of the Chekathe Bolshevik secret police. The novel jumps from character to character, creating a fitting sense of chaos as revolutionaries, rebels, and reactionaries fight over every scrap of territory.

According to the foreword, Bergelson was a cutting edge Yiddish writer, keen to incorporate Modernism into a literature that mostthen and nowassociate mostly with folklore. Bergelson’s experimentalism is in full view in Judgment. Time is hard to keep track of. Tales slide into on another just like the characters do; one minute, you’ll be reading about a socialist revolutionary who got caught by the Bolsheviks and the next you’ll be reading about his cellmates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are characters who appear throughouta blonde who travels with a child and two mysterious cases, the injured but harshly committed captain of the Cheka, the aforementioned socialist revolutionarybut I couldn’t say that Judgment is any of their stories, really. Rather, Judgment is about a tangle of people who lived near the border between Ukraine and Poland at a particularly bloody moment in history.

The Modernist elements make for difficult reading. It’s hard to know what or who to focus on. It’s impossible to predict where the narration is going to go next and Judgment reads like a much grimmer (and fictional) history-in-moments than Teffi’s MemoriesIn a sense, this very much captures the destruction and turmoil of the post-Revolution Civil War. At the beginning of the novel, most characters are either trying to flee or make money off of the people fleeing. Things aren’t all that bad yet, but then the local Cheka start to round up anyone even associated with anti-Bolshevik activity and a group of violent rebels swing through. By the end of Judgment, it seems like all of the members of the shtetl are now in prison, dead, or missing.

Having read Judgment and, a very long time, The Zelmenyaners, I feel like I have another piece of the Russian literature puzzle. I’ve read the heavy classic work of Tolstoy, the surreal Gogol, the light and fluffy Teffi, the surreal Bulgakov, the blunt and sometimes vulgar Babel, and the deeply affecting Pasternak and Vasily Grossman. Judgment comes from a blend of the avant-garde and the traditional. I’m not sure what to make of it yet. What I know now is that Russian literature is a lot more diverse than many literature teachers would have us think.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 September 2017.

Hame, by Annalena McAfee

American cover

A house is a building. An address is a geographic location. But a home is something more than these. In Hame, by Annalena McAfee, is a blend of literary academic novel and long meditation on home and belonging to a place. Hame looks at two people who come to the remote (fictional) Hebridean island of Fascaray. One is a fiercely Scottish poet who champions the Scots language* and all things Scottish, especially his beloved Fascaray. The other is a Scottish Canadian scholar who is responsible for setting up a museum to the poet’s memory. The poet is very clear about who he is and what he stands for. The academic…not so much. Over the course of this novel, we see how a house can become or fail to become a hame.

Hame is a book for academics. Brief chapters relate the day-to-day work of Mhairi McPhail, who has returned to her ancestral island of Fascaray to set up a museum for the “Bard of Fascaray,” the crotchety poet Grigor McWatt. Other chapters come from McWatt’s The Fascaray Compendium, a journal of flora, fauna, history, language, and gossip from the island. There are also chapters from McPhail’s book about McWatt and McWatt’s “poetry”—which are almost all translations of English poems into Scots. (These are fun to read, at least the little bits I can understand. Mostly, though, they’re incomprehensible unless you understand Scots.) Readers who feel at home (ha!) with both fiction and nonfiction will be comfortable with Hame. Readers who want a more traditional novel might get a bit bored with the more academic sections. Readers who wanted a more truthful tale might be frustrated by the fake citations.

What fascinated me most about Hame—apart from all the Scots words**—was the tension between the poet and the scholar. McWatt is absolutely himself. He will fight anyone who besmirches the reputation of his chosen language and country. He’s a nationalist. He wants nothing about his island to change and will write up a storm to keep developers and politicians and billionaires from despoiling it. McPhail, on the other hand, is coming out of a bad break up. She has doubts that she’s the right person for her job. She has questions about the gaps in McWatt’s life. She also has a young daughter that she worries she has uprooted. Her accent is posh British because a teacher worked very hard to rid her of her Scottish one. She sounds and feels very much like an outsider in the very small community of Fascaray. The two are almost polar opposites and their juxtaposition raises all kinds of questions about who we are. Are we who our parents and childhoods made us? Or is it possible to reinvent oneself?

British cover, which I like better.

Unsurprising for a book about homes and identity, Hame has a strong sense of place. McWatt’s Compendium (which several characters cite as evidence of hypergraphia) is so full of detail that I could clearly picture the towns, moors, and forests of Fascaray and its smaller twin, Calasay. I also got to know a fair few of the islands inhabitants, as they appear in both McPhail’s chapters as she interviews people for memories of McWatt, and McWatt’s chapters about the history of the island.

I had two problems with Hame, however. First, the way that Mhairi treats her daughter really bothered me. Second, I feel that the ending is too fast and unearned. There is a great twist near the end of the book that I don’t think was fully explored—which I found curious considering that almost every other topic in the book is explored in great detail.

Apart from my two issues with the novel, I quite enjoyed it. I loved the languages of the book, both English and Scots. McWatt’s vocabulary is incredibly rich and his translations are fun to try and puzzle out. (I am an unabashed word nerd.) I also enjoyed the idea at the heart of this novel that one might be able to completely transform oneself with enough confidence and enough self-knowledge. In Hame, completely transforming oneself means becoming one’s true self, the person we might be in our heart of hearts.

As a fun bonus, Annalena McAfee partnered with Callum Rae to record a version of McWatt’s song, “Hame tae Fascaray,” and make a music video.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

* There is no clear definition of what is a language and what is a dialect. I usually go by mutual intelligibility. Since I can’t understand most of the Scots words in Hame, I’m calling it a language.
** Thankfully, there is an extensive glossary at the end of the book.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti

30556459Parent are mysterious creatures, at least from the perspective of their children. I doubt any parent is as mysterious as Samuel Hawley. Though he is a devoted father to Loo, Hawley carries around a platoon’s worth of guns and ammunition, knows how to hot wire cars, and is always looking for an escape route. Loo doesn’t think this is strange, nor does she think it’s strange that her father has so many scars from bullet wounds. As Hannah Tinti’s novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, unspools, we start to learn the mysteries behind the scars and find a wonderfully criminal story of a mostly functional family.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is told in two, intertwining halves. In the present, we have Loo as she finally settles down after years of roving in her deceased mother’s former hometown. In the other, we have a series of episodes in which Hawley received yet another bullet wound as he performs jobs for a violent, watch-collecting ex-boxer. Loo is a chip off the old block. When she first arrives in town, she’s more apt to settle things with her fists—or a rock in a sock. The town soon learns that father and daughter are best left alone.

Like all parents, Samuel Hawley had a very full life before he fell in love with Loo’s mother and became a father. But unlike most parents, Hawley’s past is starting to catch up with him almost eighteen years later. Meanwhile, Loo is starting to have serious questions about what happened to her mother and why she has memories of her grandmother’s house when she thought she had never been there before.

I enjoyed Loo’s stubbornness and disinclination to conform with what her grandmother and the locals want her to be. But I loved Hawley’s devotion to his wife and to Loo. He’s far from perfect, but he is fiercely protective when real danger threatens his family. In a way, he reminded me of my own dad, a former Navy senior chief who isn’t always great with emotional stuff but who I always knew would fight like a bear for me if necessary. (Of course, Dad never taught me how to shoot or hot wire cars. An oversight, I think.)

Tales suburban families usually bore the life out of me—unless it turns out that at least some of the family members have particular skills they’ve acquired over a very long career. I sank into this book like a warm bath because it had so many of the things I love in a good book. The characterization is deep and off-beat. The structure is perfect. The plot is brilliant. I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander

Dinner at the Center of the Earth

There are a lot of people trying to escape in Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth. In some cases, characters are trying to escape problems of their own making. In others, they’re trapped by someone else’s will. Watching these characters run as fast as they can and, mostly, get nowhere was a simultaneously frustrating and educational reading experience.

There is one man at the center of this novel: the General. The General is never given any other name but we know that he is a major figure in recent Israeli history and politics. After he suffers a stroke, his mind drifts through his past victories (as he would call them) and his sorrows. The General’s exploits include the Qibya Massacre and the Sabra and Shatila Massacres. As we learn more about the General, we also learn about the plight of Prisoner Z, the irritations of his reluctant guard, the stubbornness of the General’s almost-like-family-assistant, and—later in the novel—a waitress and a mapmaker who got caught in the ripples of the General’s actions.

This book might have been a thriller, but it has a more literary feel. The plots move slowly and focus more on what the characters’ feel. There’s also a very hazy feeling to the scenes that made me feel like I was drifting with the General as he recalled his life or with Prisoner Z, who is slowly losing his mind in his prison cell somewhere in the Negev desert. This haziness and focus on emotional development creates an experience where I ended up thinking more about the unintended consequences of the General’s and Prisoner Z’s actions than about the original actions.

The theme of unintended consequences is reiterated by the waitress, the mapmaker, and Prisoner Z. The history of Israel and Palestine, even before Israel became a state, is full of tit for tat retaliation. An action was later avenged, which then itself had to be revenged by the original actor. For more than fifty years, Israelis and Palestinians have been killing each other. People are avenging and fighting over things that happened before they were even born at this point, including some of the characters in Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Over and over in this book, characters have the opportunity to meet each other in the middle—literally and metaphorically—only to fail to reach detente.

Which leads me back to my original observation that the characters in this book are all attempting to escape something. They are invariably trying to feel the consequences of Israel and Palestine’s long conflict, as embodied by the General. And they can’t do it. They can’t escape because their entire world is built on perpetuating the fighting.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that I didn’t understand at first. (I have my doubts that I actually got what these stories are trying to tell me.) Only later did the various plots and scenes started to make sense. This is the kind of novel that one has to sleep on (though I did appreciate the waitress’ role very much as I was reading). This is a sneaky novel.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The Round House

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is one of the few perfect books I’ve ever read. I have nothing to complain about. I would change nothing about this heartbreaking, but satisfying book. Instead, I have only praise—so you’ll all need to bear with me while I gush about how stunning this book is. The Round House has so many of the things I love: explorations of justice and ethics, revenge, broken histories, and subtly beautiful writing.

We tend of think of the law as a stable thing. Laws against murder, assault, theft, and so on are always illegal. The truth is much messier than that, especially on Native American reservations. American law (like everyone else’s, I expect) is cobbled together, full of oversights, mistakes, and loopholes. When people get caught in one of these gaps, the results can be devastating. Such is the certainly the case in The Round House. The novel begins with our protagonist, Joe, and his father arriving home to discover that Joe’s mother, Geraldine, has be been brutally attacked and raped. In the first third of the book, Joe and his father, Judge Coutts, pursue the case because it’s not clear who’s jurisdiction Geraldine’s case belongs to. Once they do discover who did it, things get worse because Geraldine doesn’t know if the attack happened on tribal, state, or federal land. Because no one knows where the crime happened, no one can try the criminal.

Joe, at thirteen, burns with outrage for most of the book. He sees his mother suffer terribly in the aftermath of her rape. Then he sees his father rendered helpless by the laws that he is sworn to uphold. Joe doesn’t understand, deep down, why no one is ensuring that Geraldine gets justice. The novel makes it clear that White justice won’t work. That said, the narrative contains many hints that there are other paths to justice.

Early in The Round House, Joe and his father are reading over case files to try and find Geraldine’s rapist. While they do that, Joe thinks of the 1883 case, Ex parte Crow Dog, a curious Supreme Court ruling that established that people who had been tried by a Native American tribe could not be re-tried in another court. There are also stories, told by Joe’s grandfather, about how the Ojibwe would deal with wendigo, people who had gone so far to the bad that they needed to be killed for the safety of others. The book is so subtle about the theme of sanctioned vigilantism that it snuck up on me. When I finally understood what The Round House was trying to say, I had to marvel at the skill that went into this book.

While this theme is emerging, we see Joe and his life on a South Dakotan reservation is such rich detail that I could feel the heat and dust of summer. I’ve only been to South Dakota once, but my memories of the state and of the reservation just north of my hometown came roaring back as I read. But the reservation in The Round House is not the desolate, poverty-stricken place that we normally see in fiction and on the news. It helps that Joe has a lyrical mind:

Now the crane my mother used to watch, or its offspring, flapped slowly past my window. That evening, it cast the image, not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from their slender body. Then the feathers took fire so that creature was consumed by light. (157*)

Joe’s reservation feels like home, as if there’s no other place that he could live and be comfortable. Joe’s exploits with his friends and his grandfather provide much needed doses of levity in an otherwise very somber book.

The Round House is one of the best written books I’ve read in a long time. The writing is so simple and gorgeous that I’m still glowing But what really made this book for me was the way that it dealt with the idea of thwarted legal justice and justified retribution. I wish I had read this with my book group because I want to get into a long discussion with someone about the outcome of Joe’s quest.

Undated photo of Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota

* Quote is from the kindle edition by Harper.

Impossible Views of the World, by Lucy Ives

Impossible Views of the World

Perhaps the only immutable rule of writing is not wasting the reader’s time. Lucy Ives broke that rule in Impossible Views of the World as far as I’m concerned. I requested this book from NetGalley because the description had tantalizing elements of a mystery set in a museum, possible corporate conspiracy, and nineteenth century utopias. I’ll be frank: all of this fizzled, due mostly to a narrator that I found so scatterbrained and non-confrontational (with one spectacular exception) that I could barely tolerate her. I hung on because of those plot elements but, now that I’ve finished, I feel that my time has been wasted.

Stella Krakus is a self-described functionary for the Central Museum of Art in New York. CeMArt specializes in American decorative objects and Stella works on whatever projects her boss sends her way. She has a difficult mother, is in the middle of a divorce, and frets about her affair with a coworker and her lingering feelings for him. When Stella’s sort-of work friend, Paul, disappears and is later found dead of an apparent overdose, she starts to investigate what he was working on.

Paul’s work leads Stella on a research bender into a pseudonymous nineteenth century author and a long, kind-of interesting family history. Being a librarian, the parts of the book in which Stella scoured catalogs and diligently googled and compulsively read obscure books were catnip to me. If I were a different reader, I might not have been so annoyed when Stella would get derailed by her personal life. If Stella were a different narrator, there’s also a good chance I would have been less frustrated by this book.

Sometimes, I like unlikable characters. The degree to which I like them depends a lot on what makes the character unlikable. I’m fond of curmudgeons, the damaged, the vengeance-seekers, etc. But Stella’s passivity bothered me. She lets other characters—her boss, her mother, and her former lover—take advantage of her good nature. The only character she confronts is her soon-to-be-ex husband. Stella’s narrative style is also incredibly scatterbrained. While some of my best friends and dearest family members are scatterbrained, Stella bops around from subject to subject so much that it was hard to track where the book was going.

Impossible Views of the World is a strange book—so strange that I don’t know what it’s trying to be. I don’t recommend it and I wish I could get back the time I spent waiting for it to get better and for the mystery to start making sense.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 August 2017.

The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde

The History of Bees

Bees have fascinated humans for centuries, I suppose, because it’s unsettling to see such small insects build such complicated structures and societies. Even after all those centuries of study, bees are still mysterious as we learn in Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. Lunde shows us three characters in three different countries and three different centuries who depend on bees (more closely than the rest of us do). The three seemingly disparate characters also seek to impose order on their families, so that the next generation hums along and maintains the orderly status quo. Of course, this is an engraved invitation for everything to go topsy-turvy.

Lunde first takes us to the end of twenty-first century to show us a world without bees. Tao works as a pollinator at a massive pear orchard. Everyone is hungry and poor, yet they carry on because humans tend to be stubborn in Tao’s future China. The same cannot be said for the main character at our next setting. In England in 1852, William has refused to get out of bed for months because of ennui and malaise. He’s lost his passion for everything, until his son happens to leave a book on beekeeping in his room. The book relights William’s interest in science and he returns to life (though he’s irritable and too willing to throw in the towel with things go awry). In between Tao and William is George, who manages a large beekeeping operation in the Ohio of 2007. Until he’s hit with a serious case of colony collapse disorder, George’s greatest irritation is his son, who doesn’t seem to want to take over the farm (bee ranch? I’m not sure what to call it) after he goes off to college.

The chapters alternate between the three characters. Bees are an important part of all of their lives, but I feel that they have more in common as fierce, unbending parents. In each century, the parents face children who—like children often do—want to go their own way. Tao’s young son would rather run around and play than learn math. George’s son wants to be a writer and not a beekeeper. William’s son doesn’t want to do much of anything except carouse. The character’s lives would be a lot more simple if their children behaved like bees, preprogramed to fall into their genetic roles without any fuss.

I found The History of Bees to be compulsively readable, if melancholy. I wanted to yell at William and George and tell them not to be so set in their ways, that they’re making their children miserable. I had more sympathy for Tao because of what happens to her son early in the book. Also, seeing these characters’ dependence on bees made me think more of our general dependence on bees as pollinators. Without them, as we see in Tao’s China, our society would suffer its own collapse disorder as our agricultural system fell apart. We currently don’t know what causes colony collapse disorder and we still don’t know all the hows and whys of bee behavior, yet so much depends on them keeping the status quo. The events of the book make it seem like both the children and the bees are in rebellion.

What I loved about this book was its ending. The ending just shines. When I finished it, I put down my iPad with a big smile on my face.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.

Among the Survivors, by Ann Z. Leventhal

Among the Survivors

I don’t mind unlikeable characters. As long as I can understand their actions, I can keep reading. The characters who frustrate me are the ones who do the opposite of what I would have or who make what I consider stupid choices. This was my problem with Among the Survivors, by Ann Z. Leventhal. Karla Most, the protagonist, is a woman with extraordinary lucky but who is completely clueless about what she wants out of life and who she wants to be. What made Karla incomprehensible to me is her passivity, especially as it comes to taking care of herself.

Karla was, perhaps, not destined for a life of self-actualization. Her mother dressed her in black from the very beginning, even to the point of dying her diapers black. After her mother dies—a mother who trained to always worry about the Gestapo breaking down her door—Karla is supported by her paternal grandparents. Still, she decides to work as a house cleaner while auditing courses at NYU. She’s on the job one day in the late 1970s, when she becomes transfixed by a Modigliani painting in a client’s bedroom. She is caught looking at the painting by the client, Sax, and the two immediately begin an affair that lasts more than a decade. (I’m really not kidding about the immediate part. They go to bed the very day they meet.)

Karla spends the next decade as Sax’s lover, supported by his largesse and basically continuing her aimless life. Later, she develops a yen to discover what really happened to her mother during the war after she re-discovers a picture of her mother as a young girl standing next to her swastika-wearing father. For me, the book got much more interesting at this point as Karla uncovers her mother’s lifelong secret.

I suppose what frustrates me most about Karla is that she never grows over the course of the novel. She ages from 21 to 37, but only takes a few steps towards finding a life path. Perhaps I didn’t understand her because there’s a lot more telling than showing in Among the Survivors. Perhaps I was annoyed because I kept fining other characters’ stories much more interesting than Karla’s. I’m not sure who I’d recommend this book to, to be honest.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGallery for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.