Hotel Tito, by Ivana Bodrožić

34013791Ivana Bodrožić’s Hotel Tito closely follows the author’s own life. Like her nameless narrator, Bodrožić was a young girl when Yugoslavia broke up in a bloody civil war. And, like her nameless narrator, she also spent years in displaced persons’ housing, waiting for either a new home in Zagreb or the all clear to return to her hometown, Vukovar. Unlike many other survivor stories I have read, Hotel Tito is not an inspirational or heroic tale. The characters here are resolutely ordinary, fractious, and ineffectual. Such ordinary people do a lot to make this novella a feel more real than those other survivor stories because they create a sense of how disruptive, chaotic, and bloody the Yugoslav Civil War was.

We meet the nameless narrator of Hotel Tito when she is nine and already on the road. She doesn’t seem to really know why. All she knows is that everyone in her family, except her father, had to leave Vukovar. (The family never learns what happens to the narrator’s father, but it is assumed that he died in the Vukovar Hospital Massacre.) After a brief stint squatting in a Zagreb apartment, the family is relocated to the eponymous hotel, a repurposed Holiday Inn that was used to house hundreds of refugees from Vukovar and other embattled places in what would become Croatian territory.

The Vukovar Water Tower was not repaired after the war so that it would be a reminder of the city’s destruction
(Image via Wikicommons)

Hotel Tito covers the five years the family spent waiting in that hotel. We watch as the narrator’s brother grows into a frustrated young man who can’t help his family. We also see the narrator’s mother succumb to depression. Meanwhile, our narrator, who barely seems to remember her pre-war life, struggles to fit into young teenage life among refugees and locals. She is an almost stereotypical teenager, to the point where I was frequently aggravated by her selfishness and lack of empathy.

As she grows older, the narrator slowly learns to observe the people around her. She never quite loses her self-serving ways, but she tells us more about what others are going through. She also learns to focus so that we readers aren’t bounced around like a pinball as her attention shifts from diversion to diversion. While she eventually gets a good education, the narrator never asks why all this happened to her and her family. The narrator is anything but a reflective person.

Hotel Tito ends abruptly, so that the entire novella feels like dropping into and out of the narrator and her family’s life. For some readers, this abruptness, the narrator’s shortcomings, and the lack of any hint of heroism, will make this a difficult read. But then, I think that’s part of the point. War is not about heroism. Being a refugee is not about being a survivor who inspires others. Being a refugee is about fleeing for your life and losing home and family. This book is about the long, anxious turmoil of not having a home or lodestar anymore.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.


Heart of the Country, by Fay Weldon

19715715Natalie is the sort of woman that other women either envy (she’s very pretty and men are attracted to her) or want to wise up because, in Natalie’s world, feminism happened to other people. Heart of the Country, by Fay Weldon, opens on the day Natalie’s husband leaves her for a younger woman. Harry left behind a bankrupt company and too many bills for unemployed Natalie to handle. Within days, her comfortable, boring life falls apart. On its own, this wasn’t enough to tempt me into reading this book. What really got me is that Heart of the Country is narrated by Sonia, one of the women who tries to wise Natalie up, and is now narrating this story from a mental institution.

It’s not hard to feel sorry for Natalie. She’s a hapless sort. She seems to have no ambitions. Natalie sticks to her routine of caring for the kids and keeping house. It’s little wonder that everything falls apart when Harry leaves. Natalie was so oblivious that she ignored past-due notices and had no idea what the family finances were like. In another book, Natalie might have found her gumption and turned her life around. In another book, Natalie would have been a strong single mother and a role model to anyone aspiring to motherhood. Heart of the Country is emphatically not that book and I am very glad for it.

Shortly into Heart of the Country, we meet Sonia, our narrator. Sonia drops hints about why she’s incarcerated in a mental institution, but the full story doesn’t come out until the fiery climax of the book. In her narration, Sonia reveals her frustration with Natalie and Britain’s Social Services. (Sonia is one of those strong single mothers.) Sonia does her best to help Natalie get on her feet but Natalie’s natural passivity and naiveté thwarts Sonia’s efforts. Before too long, Heart of the Country reads like a more-bitingly-sarcastic-than-average comedy of errors.

Heart of the Country was a brilliant if serendipitous choice of book to follow Dragon Springs Road. In Dragon Springs Road, we had a protagonist who fought against becoming a kept mistress with everything she had. In Heart of the Country, Natalie seems more relieved than anything else when a man offers to put her up in an apartment and pay for her lifestyle in exchange for some, ahem, physical companionship. Where Jialing is full of determination and independence, Natalie seems entirely incapable of functioning in the world without a man to handle money. I was very sympathetic to Sonia who, even though she has her faults and does a terrible thing, was almost always exasperated with Natalie’s failure to land on her feet.

Originally published in 1988, Heart of the Country remains an engrossing read. I daresay that the scenes in which Natalie, Sonia, and Sonia’s friends struggle with the arcane bureaucracy of Social Services are still very relevant. I’m glad I took a chance on it when I spotted it for sale on Amazon.

The Visitors, by Catherine Burns

34466915When you first meet her, you can only pity Marion. She’s in her fifties, plan, overweight. She’s never dated, let alone married, or even held down a job. She helped take care of her mother until her mother’s death and now she haphazardly keeps house for her brother, John. Marion is timid, anxious about any kind of responsibility, and spends hours day dreaming. But as the chapters unfold in Catherine Burns’ The Visitors, it becomes clear that Marion is capable of a lot more than anyone realizes.

The first chapters of The Visitors reveal a pair of siblings who inherited enough money that they don’t need to work who live in a mouldering house full of clutter. Marion leaves everything of importance to John. John, however, is much more interested in whatever he’s been up to in the cellar (which Marion is never allowed to enter) and spending time down the pub. Marion spends her days day dreaming about past crushes or thinking back to scenes from her childhood. The more we learn about Marion’s family, the more sinister it seems. Her mother is a germaphobe. Her father was a lech. If Marion had been a bit brighter, she would have realized that her brother’s “hobbies” are an awful lot like a warm up for becoming a serial killer.

While the title of this book pulls the reader’s attention to the crime element of this story, I found it impossible to take my eyes off of Marion. From the first chapters, I was psychoanalyzing her—only to read something that would completely throw off my amateur diagnosis. What fascinates me most about Marion is how she lies to herself. Because we’re in her head for most of the book, we can see how she deliberately refuses to see things that might be upsetting. Later, we learn about memories she has suppressed because it doesn’t fit her persona of a frightened, prematurely old lady who just wants to feel loved by someone.

By the end of The Visitors, Marion is anything but an object of pity. The transformation this novel brings about in her character is astounding to watch. Each chapter or scene or scrap of an email brings another clue as to what’s really going on in Marion and John’s house. The ending is bold and chilling and absolutely perfect for this twisted family tale.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 26 September 2017.

Hanna Who Fell from the Sky, by Christopher Meades

33656823Everything about Hanna Who Fell from the Sky, by Christopher Meades, is odd. The polygamy practiced in Clearhaven isn’t that strange, given that the FLDS exist. But a girl who actually fell from the sky is definitely out of the ordinary. All her life, Hanna has been told this strange story by her mother. So while she does her best to be obedient to her father and the community’s spiritual leader and cares for her many (many) siblings, Hanna always has a sneaking suspicion that she’s different from everyone else. Maybe she really did fall from the sky. She might have gone on wondering if her sudden betrothal to a man three times her age hadn’t occurred.

Clearhaven is an isolated community located in an unknown country. Brother Paul rules with a firm hand, his dictates enforced by his two police officer sons. The older men in the community have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, because their obedience is rewarded with young wives. (The older boys are sent out into the world with just the clothes on their back, to reduce competition for wives. The FLDS have a similar practice.) The women follow along because they are not encouraged—actively dissuaded, in fact—from becoming self-sufficient.

Hanna has been raised to be just like her mother and sister-mothers. Her life is hard, but she feels useful when she cares for her younger sister, Emily, who has a twisted spine. She might have gone on like this indefinitely if Brother Paul and her father hadn’t arranged for her to marry a middle-aged man who already has four wives. She does not want to marry Edwin. She says she will, but only because she has no other options. Besides, she thinks, who will care for Emily if she leaves?

I kept waiting for Hanna to run away. As the kindle progress counter ticked upward, I kept waiting. Hanna Who Fell from the Sky is not that kind of book. Instead, it’s a story about a girl who struggles to find the strength in herself to say “No” to the men around her. It’s an uncomfortable but enlightening coming of age story where we watch our protagonist as she waffles back and forth between obedience and defiance. Meanwhile, there are hints of something that might or might not be supernatural. I’m still not sure how to interpret the ending, now that I think about it. This is a very curious book, full of all sorts of questions to think about and talk over with other readers. Some readers might be frustrated with that ending, however.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 26 September 2017.

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.