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.

Autofiction · review

Deviation, by Luce d’Eramo

38122394As I read Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (translated by Anne Milano Appel), I had the image of a moth fluttering around a bug zapper constantly in my head. Lucia, the protagonist of this book—which I can only describe as autofiction—resembles nothing so much as a moth furiously and irrationally trying to kill itself. Lucia volunteers to work as a laborer for the Nazis in Germany to get a better look at the Arbeitslager and konzentrationslager because she believes that they can’t be as bad as the rumors make out. As if this wasn’t enough of a deviation, Lucia makes decision after decision that puts her straight back into harm’s way. In this reflective book, d’Eramo uses fiction to explore her decisions, the consequences of those decisions, and her lost memories. Fiction that hews closely to autobiography (or vice versa) seems the best way for her to try and understand her actions.

D’Eramo’s book is a collection of stories that closely resembles what happened to her in 1944-1945 and 1960. Deviation opens with an escape, when Lucia makes her way from the Arbeitslager at Dachau to a Durchgangslager where deportees and laborers live while they perform impressed work for the Nazis and Germans. (Lucia was never interned with Jewish people or any inmates in the death camps. Also, I’m not sure what the right words are to describe the laborers. Some of them are volunteers, but most of them seem to be drifters who got caught by the Nazis.) Lucia has, by this point, learned the ins and outs of camp life. She also has a knack for making the right friends, friends who will steal food and supplies for her. Futher, Lucia knows that, if things get really bad, she can always pull her rip cord: her parents connections to the well-heeled fascists of Italy. In spite of herself, Lucia lands on her feet in the Durchgangslager.

From the first story, d’Eramo takes us back and forth from the events of 1944. We see her running away from an attempt at repatriation to Italy. We see her helping rescue people in Frankfurt after a bombing—only to be crushed under a collapsing wall, an injury that leaves her legs paralyzed. We also see her striving mightily to escape a pernicious suitor after her injury, fluttering from tenuous situation to tenuous situation, with no though to anything except getting a little further away.

Lucia’s behavior is very confusing, even after d’Eramo spends pages looking back in an attempt to understand her younger self. The last “story” is full of thoughts about how she recovered memories only decades later and why she repressed those memories. D’Eramo/Lucia’s theory is that she suppressed and deliberately hid things in the earlier stories because it took her that long to realize that she wasn’t a hero for volunteering for her fact-finding mission. D’Eramo/Lucia retold a less complicated version of her life so many times that it became real, at least until the real memories started to resurface.

Luce d’Eramo in 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Deviation puzzles me greatly. If it wasn’t so obviously modeled on the author’s own life, I would have found it a particularly audacious and worrying piece of fiction. Because it is autofiction, it offers a unique look at the Holocaust—even if it leaves me with more questions than it answers. In spite of my continued confusion about the book, I want to complement Appel, the translator, for her very capable job of transforming d’Eramo’s text into coherent English. There are parts of the book that drag, but I chalk that up to d’Eramo’s maundering.

I’ll leave it to other readers to think about d’Eramo/Lucia’s epiphanies and revelations. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by d’Eramo/Lucia. I don’t think the narrator is either. The last story of the book, I think, betrays the narrator’s own bewilderment towards her own actions. Lucia’s behavior is so irrational that calm reflection decade’s later doesn’t seem capable of answering the central question of why Lucia volunteered for an Arbeitslager.

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

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

37946436If Gavrilo Princip had not fired the shot that started World War I, Lucius Krzelewski would have had to slowly make his way through the ranks of the endless Austro-Hungarian medical bureaucracy to become a doctor. Instead, he enlists as a medical lieutenant and is shipped to a field hospital somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, follows him from his days as a student to the hospital to the end of the war, as he grows from the textbook definition of a callow youth into an emotionally battered field surgeon.

Lucius, when we first meet him, is the privileged youngest son of an aristocratic family living in Vienna. He doesn’t know how to make small talk. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk to women (including his mother). He stutters under pressure. The only thing that brings him pleasure is scientific observation. Medical school is pure joy for him, once he finally convinces his parents to send him and pay his tuition. Study does start to wear a bit thin when he realizes that the extremely stratified bureaucracy above him means that he will barely be allowed in the same room as patients for ages. It doesn’t take much wheedling from his closest friend to encourage him to enlist when war breaks out.

Because the Austro-Hungarian Army is desperate for anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, Lucius is readily accepted and sent to a field hospital near the Eastern Front. On arrival, Lucius learns that all of the previous doctors and medical personnel are dead or fled. The only one who knows anything about medicine is a nursing sister called Margarete. Without her, it’s a wonder anyone would have survived either in Lucius’ hands or during the doctor interregnum. There are scenes in the first half of the book that reminded me strongly of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov who found himself in a similar situation as an untested doctor in a remote part of the Soviet Union. Lucius slowly becomes a competent surgeon and field doctor under Margarete’s roughly diplomatic tutelage.

Patients and personnel at an Austro-Hungarian field hospital on the Austrian-Italian front.
(Image via Wikicommons)

In addition to Lucius’ growth, a major theme of The Winter Soldier is the growing problem of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier, named Horvath, is the first case Lucius has a chance to observe in his field hospital. We never learn what Horvath saw, but his condition is so extremely debilitating that Lucius fights to keep him from being re-conscripted by a sadistic Austrian officer. At the time, “shell shock” was viewed as cowardice or malingering. Men with this condition were subject to horrific punishments and “treatments,” in order to get them back into the fight. Lucius’ intervention has awful consequences, deepening The Winter Soldier from bildungsroman to a more complicated portrait of a naïve man caught in the middle of a collapsing empire at war. His intervention also means that his romance with Margarete takes a sharp turn towards tragedy.

The Winter Soldier is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read about World War I. Characterization is fully-realized, which I appreciated. What I loved about this book, however, was the way Mason recreated the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its catastrophic end. The book highlights the divisions between the empire’s ethnic groups which became fracture lines by the end of the war. Many of the recruits did not speak German (the empire’s official language) well enough to follow officer’s orders. There are shortages of everything. Transportation is a mess. All of that comes through sharply through Lucius peripatetic attempts to find Margarete in the later half of the book.

I would strongly recommend this book to readers looking for a good read about World War I.

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

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.


historical fiction · review

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

27428407There are two paired questions I hear all the time from students studying World War II. The first is, how much did ordinary Germans know about the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The second is, how could they not know what was happening? In Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (translated by Anthea Bell), we see a small family of aristocratic Germans who are so clueless about what was happening outside of themselves that I wanted to scream at them. This disturbing novel follows the von Globigs and a handful of their acquaintances over the course of a few weeks in January 1945. They’ve been isolated from the truth of the war up to this point, but the war is heading straight towards their little piece of East Prussia and they will no longer have the luxury of sitting to one side.

Last fall, I read Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale, so I had a very good idea of what was going to happen to any German who got caught by the Red Army. I can’t entirely fault the von Globig family for not knowing; the Red Army was still in their future. But I can fault them for their self-absorption. Katherina von Globig is a society lady who has deliberately isolated herself in her rooms of the family manor, Georgenhof, after the death of their daughter two years previously. Grief is hard, especially for a parent, but Katherina still has a living son, Peter, to keep an eye out for. Auntie, Katherina’s relative-in-law, who lost her family’s estate in Silesia in the 1920s and who lived through World War I should know better than to shut out the world. The Polish and Ukrainian “servants” should definitely know better. And yet, the family carries on with their own amusements. Katherina reminisces about the movies she’s seen and her affair with the local mayor. Peter plays with his trains. Auntie keeps an eye on the family goods so that no one steals anything. None of them has an eye on the horizon, even though Katherina occasionally tunes into the BBC.

Meanwhile, Drygalski keeps butting into their business as the local housing manager. The little martinet wants to use the large house to billet refugees and, any way he can, stick it to the aristocrats who’ve always looked down on them. Peter’s tutor, Dr. Wagner, carries on teaching the boy Latin. A parade of refugees—the higher in rank, the more self-absorbed and out of touch with their rapidly changing reality—comes through Georgenhof. Only a few characters have healthy senses of self-preservation. Most of them are fixated on what they’ve lost, their family heirlooms, their instruments, etc.

It’s only towards the end of All for Nothing that the characters get swept up in the cresting wave of refugees from the east. I don’t want to give away the characters’ fates, but I can say that bad luck strikes the family and their acquaintances with an almost divine sense of retribution. There are moments of kindness and mercy, as well as moments of opportunistic cruelty and murderous chaos. With blind luck in the mix, it’s a wonder anyone makes it out of this novel alive.

Kempowski’s novel—through Bell’s lucid translation—has the feeling of folklore throughout. There are few details about the characters given, except for easy to recall facts that stand in for development. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, I see All for Nothing as a fable that serves to teach us lessons about the impossibility of staying neutral when others commit terrible crimes in one’s name. So, we drift along with the characters as their fortunes change from moment to moment. We have to experience along with them their good and bad luck. There is backstory of some of the characters, but nothing to distract us from what is happening during those cold weeks in January 1945 with the Red Army coming as fast as it can to snatch them all up. All for Nothing is extraordinarily effecting in answering at least one of the questions we always ask about the Germans on their home front.

historical fiction · review

The Sixteen Pleasures, by Robert Hellenga

8497521It’s hard for book conservators to find adventure in their professional lives, at least adventures by normal standards. But when the Arno floods in 1966, Margot Harrington finds her chance. The beginning of The Sixteen Pleasuresby Robert Hellenga, sees her traveling to Florence on her own dime to help the hundreds of volunteers who arrived to save priceless works of art and clean up the city. The meandering novel tells Margot’s story as she grows through adversity into the person she was always supposed to be—all while doing work that librarians, museum curators, etc. would consider heroic.

Though she sometimes wonders what might have happened if her life had taken other turns, Margot comes to realize that if her mother hadn’t been so fascinated with Italy, she wouldn’t have been in a position to help the other book conservators in Florence after the Arno Flood. Her fluent Italian and in-depth knowledge of book making mean that she’s indispensable (despite what some of the other males in Florence think). After initially working as a translator for an American librarian, Margot leaves to work for a convent with a strict no-men-who-aren’t-priests rule. The unique opportunity brings Margot solace. She’s finally found a place where she feels peaceful and useful.

The Sixteen Pleasures might have ended there, except that two of the nuns discover a copy of Petro Aretino‘s Sonetti lussuriosi. The Sonetti are a series of erotic poems with very explicit illustrations allegedly suppressed by the pope. How they ended up in a convent could be its own novel. The book gives Margot an idea to give the convent an independent income at last and save it from the financial depredations of the Bishop of Florence.

Mud Angels_Florence flood
Volunteers called “mud angels” move damaged books out of a flooded building, 1966.
(Image via University of Michigan School of Information)

In other hands—like those of Dan Brown—this novel could have turned into a historical thriller, with mysterious and menacing men following our heroine across Europe trying to get the book back. This is not that book. There is some skullduggery around keeping the book out of the bishop’s hands, but The Sixteen Pleasures is much more leisurely than that. The book leads Margot to a life-changing love affair and some important epiphanies about what she wants; there are no secrets that will change history forever.

Some readers (myself included sometimes) may be frustrated by the slow and wandering plot. The book never settled on what I thought it would. Instead, the book kept its focus on Margot’s personal growth. I enjoyed Margot’s company, but I felt like several of the events and characters in the book were lost opportunities. (There was also quite a bit of repetition in the book that bothered me.) The Aretino book sometimes becomes a sideline. Margot falls in love with a man who buckles under pressure and who disappears after their affair ends. The nuns get left behind until almost the very end of the book. This book disappointed me, I’m sad to say, even though it looked like it would be very interesting. After all, how often does one get to read a story about a book conservator who has interesting adventures? Sadly, this novel is not the best example of the premise.