The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil

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The Last Bell

Pushkin Press continues to do sterling work by retranslating and republishing European fiction with Johannes Urzidil’s The Last Bell (translated by David Burnett). The Last Bell includes five stories by a mid-century Czech author who got lost in the shuffle of history. In these stories, Urzidil writes about life in Prague in the late 1930s (before he himself fled Europe) and in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I.

The first story is the eponymous “The Last Bell,” my favorite story in the collection. The story opens with housekeeper Marška being left in charge of her employers’ apartment for the foreseeable future. The master and missus are Jewish and the Germans are on their way. So, Marška decides to live it up on their wealth with her sister in the luxury apartment. Things go well, until the sisters start to fraternize with their new Nazi occupiers. The story starts with pathos but takes a completely different tone of horror by the end.

Another stand out story is “The Duchess of Albanera,” in which a lonely bank manager steals a famous painting. The bank manager keeps the Duchess in an armoire and talks to her. Meanwhile, his acquaintances notice the slight changes in his routine and wonder what’s going on. What makes the story interesting is that the Duchess talks back to the bank manager, questioning him about his ideals of women and reminding him that reality is usually a lot more sordid than his imaginings.

The other three stories feel less polished than “The Last Bell” and “The Duchess of Albanera.” Thought it might be because Urzidil’s style grew less concrete and more experimental and impressionistic over time. The last three stories feel like drifting through time and space; they could have been set almost anywhere and any-when. That said, the stories of The Last Bell offer an interesting peek into a vanished European world.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. 

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley

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Parnassus on Wheels

Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheelis a delightful novella about two oddballs who fall in love over books and light adventure in the early twentieth century. It’s a perfect book for bibliophiles, especially if they want something that has a happy ending (unlike my beloved The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry).

Spinster Helen McGill is fed up to the teeth with her writer brother’s peripatetic ways—and with being treated like his servant. So when Roger Mifflin rolls up in his mobile bookstore, Parnassus on Wheels, it seems like the perfect chance to have a bit of adventure to Helen. She writes out a check for $400 and buys Mifflin out, thinking to sell the bookstore on when she’s done with it. Mifflin accompanies her to help her learn the ropes, though it’s clear early on that both have lived very solitary lives and are lonely. All through the book are Mifflin’s monologues about the magic of literature. Mifflin is an evangelist for the written word.

The adventures start when Helen’s brother returns from his latest walkabout and starts making trouble, thinking that Helen has been tricked out of her money. After that, it’s one scrape after another for the odd couple. They face hobos, lost horseshoes, money troubles, weather, and more.Though he plans to leave Helen to her journey, Mifflin never quite gets around to it and is always popping up just in time to help. If the love of literature wasn’t enough to hook me, I would have enjoyed this book about two weirdos finding one another when they thought they couldn’t meet someone who would look past their outside appearances and eccentricities.

Parnassus on Wheels is a joy to read.

This book is freely available from Project Gutenberg.

Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Hex

The people of Black Spring, New York are cursed. It’s not really their fault. They were just unlucky enough to be born there or buy a house there. The curse is Katherine van Wyler, a woman accused of being a witch who still haunts Black Spring three hundred plus years later. In Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and translated by Nancy Forest-Flier, we learn how the Black Spring folk cope with their witch and keep her secret from the world. We also learn how a town can, if pushed down the wrong road hard enough, tear itself apart.

It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s wrong with Black Spring—what takes longer is why it’s all going wrong now. The first chapters are filled with characters dropping bits of history about their town. Katherine van Wyler was executed as a witch and carried on haunting the area as it changed hands from the Dutch to the English. Her whisperings caused people to do terrible things, so a group of clergymen sewed her eyes and mouth shut and wrapped her in iron chains. Still, the people of Black Spring and their military guardians can’t leave her alone. Everyone is terrified of her and fascinated with her.

The plot of Hex starts to take off as Tyler Grant and his friends begin to experiment on Katherine. They figure that if they can work out how Katherine works, they can lift their town’s isolation from the rest of the world. They just have to work out how Katherine’s power keeps them from leaving, then they can get the town to lift it’s Emergency Decree. Unfortunately for Tyler, his friends, and the town, their experiments kick of a series of terrible events that drive the town berserk.

We watch all of this happen from the perspective of Tyler’s father, Steve, and one of the town watchers, Robert Grim. Compared to the obsession and superstition of the other characters, Steve and Robert appear as the lone voices of reason. Watching Black Spring and Katherine through their eyes creates a tense sense of helplessness and dread because none of us—reader or narrators—can do anything about it.

What interested me most about this book is the way the characters and the plot revolve around questions of sacrifice. Early in the book, the Grant boys pester their parents by asking hypothetical questions about who they would save if it really came down to it. This echoes Katherine’s original choice of (maybe) resurrecting her son and revealing herself to be a witch (maybe). Over and over, characters have to face agonizing decisions. And, over and over, characters are left to castigate themselves for those choices.

I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Hex since I first heard about it weeks ago from Liberty Hardy at Book Riot. It absolutely lives up to its reputation as a first rate horror novel. I haven’t told all about this book in this review, so readers who are tempted will find all sorts of questions and things to think about after finishing this book.

The Zoo, by Isobel Charman

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The Zoo

Reader, I skimmed this book. Isobel Charman’s The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo, 1826-1851 is the kind of historical writing that I loathe, unfortunately. While Charman did her homework by digging through the archives of the Zoological Society of London, she writes this history as though it’s a novel, full of little vignettes of city life and the thoughts and emotions of the men who created London Zoo. The Zoo’s history is, on its own, interesting enough to sustain my interest. That’s what I wanted. So I skimmed to get the historical details and ignored what I saw as filler.

London Zoo was founded by the Zoological Society in 1826, though it took a couple years for the Society to acquire land, build the essential enclosures and buildings, and gather animals from around the world. For its first few decades, the Zoo was only open to Society members (which included Charles Darwin) and people who had permission from members plus a shilling. Still, the Zoo attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially when they had just put a particularly exotic animal on display.

Charman makes it clear that, in spite of the Society members’ collective erudition, they were woefully ignorant about taking care of their menagerie. The visitors treated the Zoo as a spectacle. Vendors sold food (cakes and such) that the visitors would feed the animals—which made the poor creatures sick. At one point, the keepers had to post a sign asking the ladies not to poke or hit the animals with their parasols. This is nothing compared to the appalling veterinary care and inadequate habitats. The veterinarians, Charles Spooner and William Youatt, tended to treat the animals’ illnesses and injuries the way doctors would human maladies: with lots and lots of mercury in the form of calomel. Spooner and Youatt were firm believers in the power of purgatives. Each chapter contains litanies of the animals who regularly died, especially during the winter.

I am fortunate enough to live near Hogle Zoo, a lovely zoo that I visit several times a year. As I read The Zoo, I couldn’t help but compare Hogle Zoo’s enormous enclosures, heavily supervised human-animal encounters, and dedicated, knowledgeable staff to those of the early London Zoo. The difference that almost two centuries has made in zoo keeping is night and day. Zoos today have to make accommodations for space, but their staff do their best to keep the animals happy and healthy; entertaining human visitors is really just a way to fund conservation efforts.

In spite of its stylistic problems, The Zoo does offer a lot of food for thought when it comes to animal welfare and scientific discovery. My impression of the Society members having read this book is that their arrogance and confidence in their own methods and objectives constantly got in the way of their ability to feel empathy for the thousands of animals that lived (and often died) at London Zoo. Two hundred years later, we know so much more about these animals and their needs. (We also know that mercury cures nothing and will kill anything sooner rather than later.) It would just take time to observe and learn from the animals, rather than forcing the animals to adapt to life in a spectacle.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 April 2017. 

Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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Long Black Veil

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Long Black Veil begins like many other “awful thing happens to a group of friends”stories, but it quickly becomes more complicated—and more affecting. We are told at the beginning that some of the friends will die. What we don’t know until much later is why everything happened the way it did. While we have the mystery to sort out, Finney Boylan also gives us a moving portrait of a trans woman who wrestles with the long shadow of her past.

Long Black Veil moves back and forth in time from 1980, when the awful thing happened, to the later 1980s to 2015. The awful thing is the death of one of the friends when they get locked inside the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. No body is found (not until 2015), so the friend is only missing officially. The night at the Penitentiary breaks up the friends, who drift through the next 35 years. The chapters change perspective from one friend to another, so we get to see how the death has arrested their development into adulthood. They can function, but it’s clear that none of them is living the life they wanted—with one exception.

The exception is Judith. Judith was born in a male body before transitioning in the late 1980s. She hasn’t told her husband or her adopted son anything about her past in the sixteen years they’ve been a family; the men have told her they don’t want to know. There are some small marital spats, but Judith is very much content with her life. To be honest, I was much more interested in her character than in some of the others because I wanted to see how Finney Boylan would depict someone who didn’t feel right in the body they were born in.

The mystery part of Long Black Veil gives some added tension to the whole, but I think I might have been happy with just Judith’s story on its own. That said, when the literary and mystery parts of the novel start to converge again at the end of the book, I liked how the narratives asked the same question in two different ways. The question, of course, is how do you make amends for the past? In Judith’s case, it was her initial disappearance and starting her life over without telling anyone. In the case of the rest of the characters, it’s owning up to what really happened to their friend that night at the Penitentiary.

On balance, I enjoyed reading Long Black Veil in spite of some clumsiness with the disparate genre elements. What made this book so engrossing was the psychological portrait of Judith as she becomes the person she always was on the inside.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 April 2017.

Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys

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Winter Tide

Though I haven’t read any of his stories myself, I can understand why Lovecraft‘s Cthulu mythos appeals to other writers. It’s so sprawling that one writer, even if they lived to ripe old age, wouldn’t have enough time to tell all of the stories. It’s also got problems with inclusivity, enough that writers like Victor LaValle and Matt Haig have staked a claim on the mythos for African Americans. In Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys has done something similar for women and LGBTQ people.

In 1928, Aphra Marsh was taken, along with all of the inhabitants of Innsmouth, into the American desert in the mistaken belief that they were unnatural monsters. In truth, Aphra and her family are just another kind of human. By the time we meet her, Aphra has managed to rebuild her life on the west coast and is trying to put the past behind her as much as possible. Unfortunately, her knowledge of her family’s lore and magic make her the perfect agent to investigate FBI agent Ron Spector’s latest case. Even more unfortunately for Aphra, the case will take her back to Massachusetts and old wounds.

Winter Tide is a meandering tale, which is fitting considering that the main character is tied to water by nature. The beginning of the book makes one feel a bit of urgency, but the plot takes its time. The case offers a bit of structure while Aphra takes on more magical students, reconnects with family, thwarts and is thwarted by various plots, tangles with creatures beyond space and time, and more. This is very much a book to sink into rather than be carried away by—unless you’re a geek like me who really digs reading about the strange books of Miskatonic University. To enjoy this book, one has to go with the flow.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 April 2017.

The Same Old Story, by Ivan Goncharov

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The Same Old Story

I used to joke that prozac, if invented before 1800, would have wiped out the entire Romantic movement. After reading Ivan Goncharov’s serio-comic novel, The Same Old Story (translated by Stephen Pearl), I’m more convinced than ever than Romantics (even if they produced great art) could have used a little therapy. Originally published in 1848, The Same Old Story, tells the tale of naive and Romantic Alexander Aduyev and his highly practice uncle, Pyotr, as they clash on how to live the best life and how to love.

Alexander has been spoiled all his life. His mother and servants have always attended to his every need. His mother in particular and his first love, Sophia, praised his writing to the skies. But when he moves to St. Petersburg from the country to do something with his life, Alexander suddenly learns that life is a lot more difficult when people insist on not living up to his expectations—mostly informed by Greek epics and Romantic poetry.

His only ally in St. Petersburg is his uncle, whose personality is almost the complete opposite of Alexander’s. Pyotr believes in keeping a steady head, planning for the future, and working his way up the table of ranks. Most of The Same Old Story is written in dialog between the two men as they argue back and forth about what love and life should be. Unlike the dialog in, say, War and Peace, the two make jokes and tease to lighten the mood every now and then while they philosophize. Still, Alexander falls in and out of depression with his changes of fortune, and these can get a little wearying.

The Same Old Story covers eight years in Alexander’s life as he (sort of) grows up and learns to leave some of his high expectations behind. We get to see him fall in love only to have his heart broken, then have another woman fall more deeply in love with him than he was prepared for. We watch him as he realizes that he doesn’t have the talent to become an instant literary phenomenon or the patience to earn acclaim the hard way. But was also get to see Alexander’s effect on his uncle, who slowly realizes, that love, happiness, and emotion can make life worth living.

I enjoyed The Same Old Story. It was kind of refreshing to read a contemporary of the late Romantics take potshots at their overwrought displays of emotion. Not only that, but I was happy to discover that there are other funny Russian writers apart from Gogol and Teffi.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 30 March 2017.

The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin

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The Blizzard

Platon Ilich Garin has a mission. He must get a vaccine to Dolgoye to stop an epidemic. But there’s a blizzard. And he’s stuck in a town with no way to get to Dolgoye. And the epidemic is a zombie virus. This kind of set up is what I’ve come to expect from Vladimir Sorokin. The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) just keeps piling on the weird until things get downright surreal.

Platon Ilich does eventually find a way out of town. He gets a ride on the bread deliverer’s sled—which is powered by horses so small it takes fifty of them to pull the sled. The rest of the book is a small saga, in which Platon Ilich and Crouper make their way to Dolgoye. As the blizzard gets worse and worse, they have numerous accidents in the sled, crash into a giant, encounter a foul-mouthed baker, and more. With each page, things get stranger and stranger.  Platon Ilich, however, keeps pushing on with his mission.

I’m not sure when The Blizzard is set except that its some time in the future and somewhere in Russia. The lack of details (apart from those about the tiny horses and such) gives the book a timeless, fable-like quality. The lack of details about the setting and world outside of the snow and epidemic also kept me grounded in what Platon Ilich and Crouper were up to as they battled the elements. This book is like the weirdest take on the on the serum run to Nome anyone has ever cooked up.

The Gargoyle Hunters, by John Freeman Gill

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The Gargoyle Hunters

1974 is a hard year for Griffin Watts. His parents have split up and they argue over money when they do see each other. He’s growing up with little guidance in a chaotic household. Plus, there’s a girl he likes, but Griffin has no idea how to be with girls. In The Gargoyle Hunters, a coming-of-age novel by John Freeman Gill, Griffin gets a hard lesson in hanging on to the past as he works with his father to save New York City’s architectural heritage from neglect and urban renewal.

Griffin is 13 in the summer of 1974. He’s young enough that he still does what his parents tell him (mostly), but is starting to get old enough to wonder if what his parents tell him to do is really the right thing. Near the beginning of The Gargoyle Hunters, Griffin is pressed into service by his father to “salvage” terra cotta sculptures and other decorations from New York’s remaining Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco buildings. To get closer to his father, Griffin soaks up his father’s stories about New York history and architecture.

At first, working with his father is a thrill. They bond over the history of the city and the dangerous lengths they have to go to save architectural ornaments. But their expeditions always take place at night and many have some element of breaking and entering about them. Before too long, Griffin begins to see that his father’s salvage business is an obsession. Meanwhile, Griffin has to contend with his regular life as a thirteen year old with girls, teenaged humiliation, a distant mother, poorly thought out pranks, and just trying to figure out who he is as a person while the city of New York goes through its worst financial crisis.

I was initially drawn to The Gargoyle Hunters because of the architectural salvage. I love older buildings’ elegance and detail. When I visit places like Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver, I like to wander around and gawk at the details on hundred year old buildings. Newer, plainer architecture doesn’t appeal to me. Architectural nostalgia, I found, is the backbone for this book. We can’t go back to the past, none of us. What we can do is remember what came before, preserve the best parts, but keep in mind that the future is ahead of us like a lot ready for a new building. After all, all of the great cities are buried on layers of history that never really go away.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 March 2017.

The Girl from Rawblood, by Catriona Ward

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The Girl from Rawblood

Some families describe their histories as haunted due to wars, famines, and other traumas. But in Catriona Ward’s The Girl from Rawblood, the family is genuinely haunted. The Villarcas of Rawblood have all died young and horribly after getting married. Consequently, Iris, the youngest and last of the Villarcas, has grown up isolated to protect her from the family curse. Even though she follows her father’s rules (most of the time), the curse might be coming for her anyway.

The first part of The Girl from Rawblood switches back and forth between Iris in the early twentieth century and Charles Danforth in the 1880s. It isn’t clear what the connection between the two is until much later, except that they are both tied up with the terrible, shocking history of the Villarcas of Rawblood. (We learn that history in bits and pieces until the second half of the book.) We see Iris’s father, Alonso try to teach her to control her emotions, impressing upon her the danger of becoming friends with outsiders. Meanwhile, Charles works with a much younger Alonso to try and find a cure for the curse, which Alonso suspects might be a kind of congenital madness. It isn’t until much later that we learn of the family ghost, a bald woman with terrible scars who scares people to death, always referred to as her (with italics).

In the second half of the book, Ward takes us back into the family history and the deaths of previous Villarcas and Hopewells (the original owners of Rawblood). If each new generation wasn’t so very stubborn about how they will be the one to break the curse and find happiness in love, marriage, and family, they would have died out long ago. And yet, every time, they try to find a way to avoid her. The first half of the book might lead you to believe that Alonso is right and that there is a hereditary mental illness in the family. The second half, however, makes it clear that the Villarcas are genuinely haunted.

I admit that I found the first half of The Girl from Rawblood a little slow. Iris’ chapters are written in the present tense, which bothered me, and I found Charles a bit priggish. (Also, the vivisection scenes were very hard for me to get through.) But the second half was captivating. The Villarcas go through tragedy after tragedy, but they still keep falling in love and trying to thwart fate. This book is clearly a horror story, and yet, there’s a note of hope and redemption underneath all the of the violence. I also loved the spectacular conclusion of this book. It was worth it for me to keep reading just to get to that ending.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.