historical fiction · metafiction · review

The Book of Dirt, by Bram Presser

35215661Unless a family is particularly close knit, garrulous, and practice good document management, the histories of specific members will be forgotten after a generation or two. Documents and photos can give descendants hints about the full, rich lives that were live (except for all the Norwegian potato farmers in my family). When disasters, war, and other destructive events swept through, we lose clues to the past. In the case of the narrator of Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt, the greatest disaster—the Holocaust—not only meant that there were few documents to trace his family’s story, but also that the survivors were unwilling or unable to share their stories. So, the narrator (who is also named Bram Presser) set out to write stories for his maternal grandparents. The Book of Dirt is the product of Presser as narrators’s research and imagination.

Presser the Narrator (a character separate from the actual author of the book, for the sake of this review) only has a few pieces of information about what happened to Jakub Rand and Daša Roubíčková between 1939 and 1945. Rand was incarcerated in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a subcamp of Sachsenhausen. Roubíčková had a similar journey. After the war, they found each other in Prague, married, and emigrated to Australia. Decades later, Presser the Narrator sends emails and letters, then visits Yad Vashem, Beit Terezín, and museums in Prague to try and find out more. This story would have been enough to fill a book, but there are also tantalizing hints in Rand’s story that point to his possible participation in the Talmudkommando, a group of Jewish scholars assigned to sorting and cataloging looted Jewish artifacts and written materials.

When Presser the Narrator tries to find out more about his grandfather’s part in the Talmudkommando, the documentary trail goes cold. The limited paper trail about the group doesn’t mention Rand at all. The lack of evidence suggests that Rand was either mistaken or fabricating his experiences. Presser the Narrator, nothing daunted by the gaps in the record, sets out to write his grandparents’ stories as they might have been. Using his memories of his grandparents’ stories; genealogical research; and research about Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, Presser the Narrator creates a fuller version of their hardships and how they managed to survive. Presser the Narrator builds a joint memoir that explains why Rand and Roubíčková tried so very hard to never look back or talk about their long, terrible, incarceration.

The Book of Dirt is one of the most metafictional books I’ve read in a long time, so much so that I am reminded of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, in which the author writes as much about his struggles with his research and writing process as he does in actually writing a history of Operation AnthropoidThe Book of Dirt contains family photos and historical records, which are spread through chapters in which Presser the Narrator talks about his research travails and longer chapters that follow his grandparents from the 1930s through the end of World War II. All of these things are blended together into a Frankenstein-like whole.

It’s hard to tell what’s real, historical fact and what Presser the Author invented. Some readers might be bothered by this. At times, I was, because I didn’t always like the liberties Presser the Author took with the historical record. Other readers may like Presser the Author’s premise and find The Book of Dirt a meaningful tribute to his grandparents. There’s a fine like between presumption and audacity, and I’m on the fence about which side I think Presser the Author falls on. If nothing else, I appreciate the thought that Presser the Author wanted to bring back into reality what was previously lost.

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

historical fiction · metafiction · review

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

6867Novels that feature writers as protagonists almost always remind me of the fact that, when I read, I am essentially forcing myself to hallucinate based on inky squiggles on a piece of pulped tree. Reading is really weird when you think about it. And yet, I will still argue with every fiber of my being that stories hold truths. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is the most elegant expression of both the power of story to shape reality while also reminding us how powerful that story can be once it sinks its hooks into you.

Briony Tallis is the kind of character that I loved to hate. She’s incredibly selfish. She’s got control issues. She’s jealous of almost everyone in her family. Her desire to write just seems to make it all worse. The fact that she can’t control the living people around her the way she can the characters she creates frustrates her no end. Allowances might be made for her, given that she’s barely 13 years old when we meet her in the hot summer of 1935 at her family estate, but she has more power than any 13-year-old should. In her arrogance, she ruins two lives (possibly more).

The first half of Atonement tells the story of the bare handful of days that summer that changed everything. We see Briony putting the finishing touches on her dreadfully baroque novel, then getting annoyed with the lack of enthusiasm from the visiting cousins she’s pressed into service as actors. We also see her sister, Cecelia’s frustration with her place at home. She’s at the awkward age where she’s struggling to become an independent adult while her parents imagine that she will follow the path of marriage and motherhood. Meanwhile, Cecelia and an old family friend, Robbie, realize that they are in love with each other. As the reader, we have a broader view than any of the characters. We know what’s really going on in the scenes that Briony consistently misinterprets. Plus, Briony is telling us the story from much later and she is liberal with the hints that she does something terrible and unforgivable that summer. The tension is almost unbearable while I waited to find out what she did.

The last half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robbie just before the Dunkirk Evacuation and to Briony as she learns how to be a military nurse. Then there’s an extended epilogue that turns everything we’ve read on its head. To say anymore would ruin the effect of the book, so I’ll stop with the plot summary.

Atonement is the kind of book I absolutely adore. Not only are the characters so fully realized that I could see them in my head (although sneaky peeks at the imdb listing for the 2007 film didn’t hurt) and the setting so well drawn that I felt like I was wilting in the summer heat along with the characters, but it also plays around with story in ways that I just love. Because Briony, even as a child, is a writer, she is constantly thinking about the best way to tell a story. How should it end? What should the reader think and feel after reading that story? Ultimately, she wonders if a great story can overwrite the appalling thing she did. Through her story, she is asking us to forgive her, if we can.

I read this book is great big gulps over the course of one day. It is so well done, so masterfully constructed, that I completely agree with the hype that surrounds it. The critics are right about Atonement. Some readers may be annoyed with some of the more obvious writerly touches (echoes, very pointed letters, etc.), but those touches were catnip for me. I enjoyed the book so much I’m a little reluctant to return it to the library. I kind of want to put it on my shelf so that I can reread it whenever I like and see McEwan at work through fantastically awful Briony. Before I reread Atonement, however, I need to let the bruises on my heart heal first. This book packs a hell of a wallop.

historical fiction · metafiction · review

The Tale of the Missing Man, by Manzoor Ahtesham

36376808Character can mean either a person imagined up by an author, but also the strengths and flaws that make up a person’s personality. In The Tale of the Missing Man, by Manzoor Ahtesham and translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark, we have a meditation on both. Zamir Ahmad Khan has lived in Bhopal, India for the length of his sad sack life. We meet him in his doctor’s office, where he complains of symptoms of dissociation and malaise. Then Zamir takes us back to his childhood to show how he became who and what he is. At the end, we’re left to think about the missed opportunities of Zamir’s life. Could things have been different if he’d made different choices? Was it even possible to choose other paths?

A third of the way into the book, the narrator interrupts to explain (emphatically) that Zamir Ahmad Khan is not the narrator. The narrator chides any readers who might draw comparisons between Zamir and the narrator, to ignore the many similarities between the two. Instead, the narrator asks us to think about what might have happened if. The problem with thinking about the what ifs of Zamir’s life is that Zamir seems pathologically incapable of making good choices in his life. He falls in love with the wrong people, then fails them. He goes to the wrong school. He makes the wrong friends. He lies, all the time. He just can’t seem to help himself.

Apart from the interruptions from the narrator, The Tale of the Missing Man is written as a series of memories centered on people who have since passed away. Zamir’s life is full of wonderfully flawed people, sometimes hilariously so. To be honest, I enjoyed the other people in Zamir’s life a lot more than I liked him. Zamir, unlike those other characters, doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Where other characters pursue careers or build families, Zamir only seems to know what he doesn’t want and avoids commitment wherever possible. I don’t mind unlikeable characters normally, but the ones who don’t know what they want or have no ambitions annoy me. Zamir annoyed me a lot.

Grunebaum and Stark do sterling work translating Ahtesham’s novel. In their afterword, they write about Ahtesham’s skill with Hindi and Urdu, as well as a Persian style of storytelling called dastan, in a way that makes me strongly suspect that I’m missing layers of meaning in The Tale of Missing Man. This isn’t the fault of the translators. They captured Ahtesham’s meandering and highly detailed writing. The liveliness of the characters and the grit of Bhopal come through brilliantly.

The Tale of the Missing Man will be best enjoyed by readers who love detailed character studies. Readers who also like to think about a writer might be thinking about and trying to accomplish by creating characters will definitely find food for thought. I found the book overlong. The longer it went on, the more I skimmed. I just didn’t care enough about Zamir to stay glued to the text. There were parts of the book I really liked. The character studies and the ending were very good. The Tale of the Missing Man just wasn’t for me.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 August 2018.

metafiction · review · short stories

Sentimental Tales, by Mikhail Zoshchenko

36906165I am a staunch advocate of New Historicism. This school of thought argues that, in order to understand a text, one has to understand its social, historical, and cultural contexts. I don’t think this has ever been more true than when I read Sentimental Tales, a short story collection by Mikhail Zoshchenko and translated by Boris Dralyuk. This strange and blackly funny collection is written from the perspective of a frustrated writer who doesn’t know how to tell a story that will please himself, his potential readers, and the Soviet Writers’ Union.

After a series of introductions to the collections editions (which reminded me of the opening credits notes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), our narrator gives us a series of stories that are as much commentary on writing under the Soviet Union as they are portraits of scoundrels. Each story begins with the narrator lamenting his latest problem. Sometimes it’s not being able to write beautiful language to set the scene when lovers are sighing at each other under blooming lilacs. Sometimes it’s not coming up with characters worthy of writing about. Mostly it’s about not being able to write the way the Union wants while also writing in a way that pleases the narrator. I’m glad I at least knew something about the Writers’ Union. It’s possible I would have been so frustrated by what these stories were doing without knowing their context that I would have given up after the first story.

The stories are difficult to summarize—which is odd considering that not a lot happens. Each story in the collection is a portrait of a man who also doesn’t fit in the new order of things. These men who don’t fit aren’t outsiders because of their philosophies; they don’t fit in because they’re scam artists and dreamers. They don’t want much, in general. They want their creature comforts: warmth, food, a decent place to sleep. The wastrels mostly achieve this by marrying and scamming a woman with a steady income. These stories are completely different from anything I’ve read from an early Soviet writer. Zoshchenko’s characters aren’t heroic in any way, shape, or form. They’re not even anti-heroes, as in Babel’s stories.

I found the narrator’s metafictional whining hilarious. Reading the introductions to the stories was like sitting on the writer’s shoulders while he tears his hair out in frustration, before cracking open a bottle of vodka while he tells you half-formed stories about what he has seen lately. I was entertained and intellectually challenged by Sentimental Tales. I would recommend it for readers who like to see inside writers’ processes—especially readers who might want to be writers themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 31 July 2018.

historical fiction · metafiction · review

Mary B, by Katherine J. Chen

36505861Some readers are going to hate Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice. Its premise isn’t unusual. It is a retelling of the classic novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. There are dozens of other retellings, prequels, and sequels. Choosing to tell the story from the perspective of middle daughter, Mary, isn’t that unusual either. What is radically different is what Chen does with the other beloved characters of Austen’s novel.

Readers familiar with Pride and Prejudice will remember Mary as the very plain, socially clueless, serious middle daughter. She’s been caught between the lovely and vivacious older sisters who find true love and the silly younger sisters who seem determined to annoy the bejeesus out of everyone in the county. So far, nothing is different in Mary B. She tells us her version of events while the plot of Pride and Prejudice spins on in the distance.

What is different is that, in this version of the story, Mary falls in love. More, she falls in love three times. She tells us this early on in the book, so I knew that at least the first two loves wouldn’t last. I expect that most readers, especially if they identify as a woman and who read Pride and Prejudice for fun, found that they identified with one of the sisters. I doubt that anyone but me ever identified with poor, unlovely Mary. So I was delighted to see how full Mary’s life became once she is released from the bounds of her original story. I also really enjoyed seeing the excerpts of Mary’s first novel, a hilariously overwrought Gothic novel in the vein of Ann Radcliffe.

Mary Bennett, as portrayed by Talulah Riley in the 2005 film. (Image via the Jane Austen Wiki)

Mary B is not just an atypical love story. It’s also the story of how Mary grows as a person, from someone who is frequently slighted and bears grudges, to a fully fledged woman who refuses to let anyone limit her. Even when she falls in love with a man and he with her, she will not follow the dictates of society. I was very surprised by the direction Chen took in the end. Readers who hold Pride and Prejudice as sacred, as I said, will definitely not like this book. Readers with open minds will have a much better time with this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 24 July 2018.

fantasy · horror · metafiction · review · short stories

The Merry Spinster, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

35035160I’ve been chasing the high of reading Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, ever since I first read it. When I first heard about Daniel Ortberg’s short story collection, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, I hoped that I would find the same sort of disturbing truths that I found in Carter. Ortberg is not Carter, but that’s not a bad thing. Carter’s stories are about sexuality and power. Ortberg’s stories touch on sexuality, but I mostly found explorations of autonomy and the collective. Ortberg took familiar stories and uses them as a vehicle to ask new questions.

Some of the standout stories from this collection are:

“The Merry Spinster” is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a twist on the ending that I absolutely adore. Folklore is full of stories of self-sacrificing daughters. Women sacrifice their well-being and happiness for foolish parents or to end conflicts, etc. When her financial whiz mother loses and regains the family fortune, Beauty (an ironic nickname here) is asked to pay the price for her mother’s trespassing on Mr. Beale’s property and stealing his roses. Beauty is not happy about this. She is less happy when Mr. Beale starts asking her to marry him. In this version of the story, Beauty will sacrifice only so much. She holds her ground when asked for more.

“The Frog’s Princess” is an unsettling tale set in a land where beautiful people are obliged to others because of their appearance. They don’t belong to themselves. Beautiful people are told to smile, to make other people happy. The king’s daughter (who is written about using “he” pronouns”) runs a foul of this when he loses a golden down a well occupied by a frog. The frog offers him a deal: the frog will return the ball if the daughter keeps the frog with him forever. The daughter never says yes, but the frog retrieves the ball anyway. Even though the daughter never took the deal, he is beholden because someone else acted on his behalf. This story is an uncomfortable look at the thorny issues of implied consent.

“The Rabbit” is probably the most disturbing story in the collection. In this tale, a velveteen rabbit wants to be Real. Only a child can make him Real, so the rabbit takes out his rivals to become a boy’s favorite toy. The original book, The Velveteen Rabbit, was a story about love. This version is parasitic, as the rabbit becomes more Real as his leeches the life out of the boy who loves him. In the end, we’re left to wonder about how far it’s acceptable to go to be self-actualized.

The reaction to The Merry Spinster has been mixed. Some readers have liked it for its boldness with the source material. Other readers have been too weirded out by the stories. I can see their point, but I’m on Team Boldness. Ortberg reinvigorates old stories that ask questions our society desperately needs to have conversations about. I was disturbed, but I enjoyed reading this collection.



alternate history · historical fiction · metafiction · review

Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg, is a very sneaky book. It begins as a discovered manuscript story when academic R. Voth comes across a handful of eighteenth century pages that purport to be the “confessions” of legendary thief and jail-breaker, Jack Sheppard. This is exciting enough, but then it quickly becomes an audacious and extremely erudite story about an intersex protagonist and transgender archivist, slavery, and capitalism. The book sucked me in with Jack’s story only to leave me thinking unsettling thoughts about how much we might (or might not) own our own bodies and livelihoods.

Jack Sheppard was a historical figure with short career as a thief. He is mostly known to us today because he escaped Newgate Prison four times—which was believed to be impossible—before being hanged at Tyburn at the age of 22. In the manuscript Voth discovers, Jack Sheppard has an even more intriguing secret: he is intersex. He prefers male pronouns and dress, but he constantly worries about being found out as well as being rejected by the women he is attracted to. Jack does find love with Bess, a sex worker (as Voth deliberate names her), and the two lead their nemesis, Jonathan Wild, a merry dance, for as long as they can.

Jack Sheppard in Newgate

Voth speaks to us through footnotes. In the beginning of the book, the notes define eighteenth century London slang and offer references to actual scholarly works. But then, they begin to comment on the strangeness of the text—and to fight with their employer, the Dean of Surveillance. The Dean, and his bosses (a nefarious company with too many holdings and very good lawyers), very much want the manuscript. Unlike Voth, who wants to share the text with the world, the Dean and PQuad have a prurient interest in Jack and Bess’ sex life and Jack’s anatomy. The Dean and PQuad don’t understand Jack. They see someone they can gawk at like the Lion-Man in Jack’s story. Their interest raises the stakes for Voth, who suddenly has a bigger mission than just transcribing the manuscript.

I loved the interplay between Voth and Jack’s stories. The parallels between the two lives get stronger as Confessions of the Fox continues, leading to a twist that I’m still thinking about. There is so much in this novel to unpack; this is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time. Readers with an academic background will be right at home with this metafictional marvel. Readers who don’t like footnotes, however, may have a hard time with this book. This is also one of the rare books I recommend people read in print.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.