In Peter Sichrovsky’s introduction to his short story collection Verklempt (translated by John Howard), he explains that the German-Yiddish word means something that doesn’t work even though it should. In each of the stories in Verklempt, we met a man (usually) or woman who is emotionally broken in a way that makes it hard to connect with or understand others. These stories are full of misunderstandings that even the most clever comedy writer couldn’t talk their way out of.
Two of the stories, “The Aunt” and “Onju,” stood out to me in particular because they had the kind of ethical complexity I relish in fiction. (The rest of the stories would be preferred by readers who like tricky relationship stories.) In both “The Aunt” and “Onju,” elderly character reveal to their younger relatives memories (or possibly false memories) about crimes committed during the Holocaust. Even though the culprit might be remorseful (or wrongfully accused), the taint of even being associated with the Holocaust is enough to torture both the accused and the relatives. After so much time, what can or should be done? And yet, in “The Aunt,” accused and victim end up in the same retirement home and it’s clear that something has to be done.
I’ll admit that most of the stories in Verklempt washed right over me. That’s neither Sichrovsky or Howard’s fault. I am the wrong audience for stories about emotionally unhappy men who happen into odd sexual situations with women who are out of their league. (There are a shocking number of nymphomaniacs in Verklempt. Be warned)
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration.
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.
Even though they didn’t take very long to read, the stories in Mariana Enríquez’ collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, are going to stay in my brain for a while. (In fact, returning to read a few more chapters of War and Peace turned out to be a pleasant mental palate cleanser.) The stories are set in Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and other cities in Argentina between the late 1980s and now. In addition to sharing a feeling of creeping horror, the stories are connected by the way the characters are forced to confront the unhealed wounds of the past that are just waiting to reopen as soon as they are poked.
In the 1970s, Argentina was torn apart by the Dirty War, a bloody conflict in which the state terrorized its citizens in the name of anti-Communism and unity. Thousands of people were “disappeared.” The Dirty War is not directly referenced in Enríquez collection. Instead, Enríquez has transformed this trauma into semi or fully supernatural horrors that her protagonists stumble into when they try to right a wrong or stand up for themselves. In one story, “Under the Black Water,” a severely polluted river that has become a dumping ground for victims of police violence becomes a source of a zombie cult. In others, “Adela’s House” and “An Invocation of the Big-Earred Runt,” past crimes reach out from the past to claim new victims. It’s clear that nothing has healed.
The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire is also a close examination of women’s lives in Argentina. In many of the stories, the female characters are threatened by men. The threats are either of potential violence but, more often, of gaslighting. Over and over, the women in these stories are told that what they’ve seen is not real and that they should give up their “delusions.” In the final story, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” women begin to destroy themselves before their men can do it. This story is the one that will probably stick with me the longest because it is so appallingly bleak.
Things We Lost in the Fire is not for the faint of heart. Readers who tackle it, however, will be rewarded (if that’s the right word) with horripilating visions of traumatic lives, strange syncretic cults, preemptive revenge, and characters who will not leave things alone.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 February 2017.
Russian literature has (deservedly) a reputation for being utterly depressing and heavy—which is why it’s always a delight to find comic writers like Teffi and Isaac Babel. The humor in these authors’ stories and feuilletons is caustic and sharply observed, but still makes me smile and chuckle. This week I read Isaac Babel’s classic collection, Odessa Stories (translated by Boris Dralyuk), about Jewish life in Odessa in the early twentieth century. The collection is night-and-day from his collection Red Cavalry, as one might expect, but it shares similar themes of violence and chaos without being as gutting as Red Cavalry. Odessa Stories is packed with gangsters, tsarist and communist officials, pigeons, and a lot of slapstick.
Most of the stories in this collection center on Benya Krik—Benya the King—and his extended family. Benya is a gangster. He’s twenty pounds of chutzpah in a ten pound sack and gets away with things that should have gotten him shot on the spot. Over the course of the stories, we see Benya rise and the old order fall as the Bolsheviks take control of the country. We see him face off against police and set up protection rackets on intractable rich men. The stories are almost always told secondhand by someone who claims they were present or heard it from a reliable source. The narrators invariably end up telling the story in a loopy, unfocused manner that mirrors the chaos of Benya and his family members’ lives. So, while the stories are ostensibly about Benya, we end up learning a lot about their friends, enemies, and the Jewish community of Odessa and its suburbs.
Odessa Stories also contains a long pair of semi-autobiographical stories about an unnamed boy who is an awful lot like the young Babel. The stories relate how the boy got caught in a pogrom before finding shelter with a friendly family. This story is a stark reminder of how dangerous life could be for Jewish Russians: most of the time, families got along but things could turn deadly in an instant. The other semi-autobiographical story contains my favorite part of the whole collection. The young narrator has been ingratiating himself with the wealthy son of an important family. They’re good friend, but the boy tells all sorts of lies to disguise his origins. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in his lies when he reciprocates an invitation to tea. The boy sends away his embarrassing uncle and grandfather and is praying that they don’t come back before his guest leaves. So, of course they come back. Hilariously, the narrator recites Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar to distract his guest (at increasing volumes) while his uncle crows about an amazing deal he got for a huge piece of furniture and his grandfather tortures a violin outside.
Unlike Teffi’s comic stories, the darkness of Russian life is closer to the surface in Babel’s. A person more cynical than I probably would have laughed more at the characters’ antics. I did laugh, but not too much because I could always see how a lucky escape could have easily turned into an ignoble death.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016.
There is a not insignificant portion of the bookish world that seeks out the first instance of particular characters and genres. Because I am a trivia hound, I follow scholars who try to identify the first novel (probably The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibiku, depending on how you define it), the first science fiction story (probably The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish), etc. etc. The first time I tried to chase down the first instance of something happened after reading “The Purloined Letter,” by Edgar Allan Poe. This story is one of the first recognizable detective stories that I know of, published in 1844. Andrew Forrester’s* The Female Detective is probably the first collection of stories featuring a woman who works as a professional detective. It was originally published 1863-1864. I’ve been eager to read it since I first spotted a reference to this collection a few months ago.
The eponymous female detective is Mrs. Gladden, or G., though she usually doesn’t use her name in her stories. The collection is written in retrospect, as G. looks back on her time working for (I think) London’s Metropolitan Police. G. is deliberately vague about the details of her position, perhaps because she spends so much concealing that she works for the police in order to get people to talk. Unlike most detective stories, G. shares only a few cases where she solved a crime and was a hero. Instead, she shares unsolved cases, ethically ambiguous cases, or cases in which the criminal got away with it. The stories are peppered with tricks of the trade—some of which are satirical.
“Tenant for Life” opens the collection. The case begins much like any other detective story. G. spots some irregularities about a child, purely by chance, that her sense of curiosity won’t leave alone. She asks questions and tracks down witnesses to figure out who the child is and why one woman would sell the child to a London cabbie and why a second woman would by that same child from that same cabbie for thirty pounds. The investigation leads G. to a sister and brother who are running a benign fraud. By the end of the case, G. has a crisis of conscience because the criminals are good people and the “wronged” man is absolutely horrible.
I’m not sure if “The Unravelled Mystery” is the author satirizing mid-nineteenth century police work or if G. seriously believes the wildly pseudoscientific chain of logic she and a doctor friend concoct to explain how a dismembered, headless corpse came to be tossed into the Thames. G. was not on the case, but she can’t help playing armchair detective. I want to believe this story is satirical because, if it’s not, then G. comes across as a) racist and b) too impressed with her own cleverness.
“The Judgment of Conscience” is my favorite story in the collection. G. is only tangentially connected with the case until an acquaintance of hers becomes a murder suspect. This is the grittiest story in the collection and G. is not very euphemistic about the sordid elements in this story. Unlike many of the other criminals in this collection, who are unambiguously bad people, this story relates how good people can go down bad roads because of their circumstances.
“The Unknown Weapon” is less concerned with questions of justice. This story is a solid puzzle. G. decides to investigate the strange death of the son of a country squire because the coroner’s inquest was a farce. The victim was found in the garden of his father’s country house, impaled on a barb that doesn’t look like any of the usual suspects of murder weapons. The victim’s father and his servants react oddly to the death and are clearly hiding something. G. has to figure out which of the clues are red herrings because nothing adds up at first (or second) look. The conclusion to this story is fantastic.
The Female Detective was published twenty years after “The Purloined Letter” and it’s amazing to see how the genre’s conventions had already become firmly established. That said, G. also subverts some of those conventions through her gender and her commentary on the practices of her profession. The Female Detective, in addition, sheds a bright light on the nascent British police force (though women did not officially join the police force until World War I). Many of the things that G. things and does are not kosher for modern police officers and her prejudices and assumptions had me rolling my eyes. This book is going to make a lot of literary critics and scholars happy because there’s so much to dig through.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 August 2016.
I’ve been a fan of Helen Oyeyemi since I discovered Mr. Fox a couple of years ago. She has a gift for turning stories inside out so that you can see their guts and ponder how they work, while also dropping bits of truth here and there. That said, her short story collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours is…not my favorite.While the stories are linked and characters reappear here and there, the collection lacked coherence for me. Tonally, some stories are vaguely fairy-tale like. Others are bluntly literal. As I read the stories, I felt a recurring fear that I wasn’t smart enough to pick up on the deeper links between the stories that I suspected were there.
I did enjoy some of the stories in this collection. I liked the feminist commentary in “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society” and “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think.” In both of these stories, women take the cruel things that have been said to and about them and turn them into power.
There are elements of some of the other stories that I enjoyed, but I got lost in “Books and Roses” and “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” because the focus kept shifting from one character to another. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be paying attention to. Because the jacket copy told me the stories were linked, I spend a lot of time waiting for characters to come back and finally reveal their secrets. Sometimes that happened. Most of the time, however, I was frustrated that this didn’t happen.
I am a mite disappointed in this collection. The stories at the end of the book, especially “Homely Wench” and “If a Book is Locked,” made up (a bit) for the unkept promises of the first stories.
When I request books from NetGalley and Edelweiss, I ask for things that interest me. Then I put them on a list and sort them by date so that my review will appear closer to the publication date. Every now and then, I will be sent a book months before its publication. By the time I get around to reading it, I may have forgotten why I asked for it in the first place. Due to the vagaries of my interests and my self-imposed restrictions on when I read things, I get some strange juxtapositions. I finished and reviewed Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Liesyesterday and today I’m reading a collection of short stories about Yemeni and Mizrahi Jews in Israel and Canada, Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth. Tsabari’s stories are probably the best palate cleanser I could have chosen if I’d remembered the publisher’s description. Dumb luck is on my side this weekend.
The stories in The Best Place on Earth revolve around themes of tradition, loneliness, and identity. Unlike many stories about the Jewish experience, these ones do not revolve around religious practices in the main. Instead, Tsabari’s stories examine culture. The younger generations are expected to carry on the traditions of their parents and ancestors, but many of the characters in this book are seeking new ways of living. The conflicts come when they break away from their parents’ expectations. It can be lonely to break away, even if one has a partner, because no one can guide a person on their quest to figure out who they are.
“Brit Milah” – Reuma has traveled across the world to spend time with her daughter after the birth of her grandson. Reuma and her daughter used to fight like cats and dogs, but her grandson is a chance to reconnect. She has packed foods and spices from home to bring to Canada. She has strong hopes for this visit, but she and her daughter start to clash (though politely) almost immediately. The crisis comes when Reuma learns her daughter has no plans to circumcise her son.
“Invisible” – The main character of this story is one of the few non-Jewish characters in The Best Place on Earth. Rosalynn is the Filipina care-taker of an elderly Yemini Jewish woman. She doesn’t have papers anymore, so she keeps a low profile. Her days are spent listening to the old woman’s stories about life in Yemen and her near forced conversion to Islam as well as caring for the woman’s physical needs. When a traumatized Israeli vet moves into the shed behind the house, Rosalynn starts to come out of her shell. (This story is one of the sweetest in the whole collection.)
“Below Sea Level” – Most of the stories in The Best Place on Earth are about mothers and daughters. “Below Sea Level” is about a son and his father. David’s father was a career soldier in the Israeli Defence Force. For years, David’s father gave him grief for his lack of physical prowess and his sensitivity. The last straw was when David ducked out of his compulsory service. Now, years later, David has returned with his girlfriend to visit his father. Revelations about his father’s health may have made it possible for the two to find a way to heal their relationship.
I’m usually irritated by “finding oneself” stories because they so often reek of selfishness and indulgence. I never felt that in Tsabari’s stories, perhaps because what the parents here represent stagnation and/or continued war with Arabs. Why preserve a way of life if it means not only sublimating oneself to assimilate or to continue fighting in a never-ending war? Tsabari’s stories are not openly critical of Israeli policies. Rather, there’s a subtle theme of dissatisfaction that I picked up on. Neither are the stories particularly earth-shaking, but they provide plenty of food for thought.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 March 2016.
I probably should have warned my book group about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, a short story collection by Bonnie Jo Campbell, when we picked it last month. It’s been very well reviewed and the content of the book rings a lot of our bells: women’s issues, family relationships, profound psychology, etc. But when we picked it, I remembered hearing Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot describing it in her mostly positive review as “every bad thing that can happen to women” (as best I can recall).
“Playhouse.” Our protagonist isn’t sure what happened to her at last night’s party. She remembers getting drunk and arguing with a few people, but that’s it until she goes to help her brother fix her niece’s playhouse. He tells her about two men and some pictures. Her brother keeps downplaying what must have happened as our protagonist grows more and more alarmed and disturbed. There’s a particularly good metaphor—a physical wound that hurts the protagonist but that no one except the specialists see—that makes this story the perfect rebuttal to, “What’s the big deal?” and “Why didn’t you tell them to stop?”
“Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.” This story is all internal monologue. Our protagonist has been rendered mute by a stroke. Her daughter grudgingly cares for her as she reflects on her hard, hard life. Unlike Susanna in “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” later in the collection, this protagonist’s life was full of hard work and the misery of bad (sometimes abusive) relationships with men. If only her daughter could hear her words as our protagonist tries to explain why she did the things she did. Our protagonist thinks:
All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand and water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes. (91*)
The women—battered and worn—live on after the men die. Maybe that’s all the reward women like our protagonist can hope for: a little more life.
“Blood Work, 1999.” The cliche tells us that the more we give, the more we get. For Marika, the more she gives, the more she just keeps giving. Her family is annoyed with her for giving away her inheritance to charities. They just don’t understand why she gives without getting any other reward than warm fuzzies. We don’t often see stories about saints. We could stand to see a few more.
“The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.” I adored this story. Unlike many of the others in this collection, the protagonist Susanna is not broken. I’m glad it was the last story in the collection because I needed to read it after all the misery that came before. Susanna is a tough, hard-working woman in her 60s. For most people, one’s 60s are when one slows down and turns over work to younger people. But Susanna has grandchildren to watch, a baby donkey to nurse, a broken tractor and central heating system, and just too much to do. But she carries on because she wants to. She could kick out the grandchildren and get rid of the donkey. She could sell the farm. But she doesn’t. She worked for it and gets to keep her patch of earth and her family. And, as a bonus, she meets a man who loves and admires her for all of this.
That said, I am glad I read it. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s discussion. I do wonder if I’m the best audience for this book. This is a book that’s going to appeal to women, because it talks about our struggles. But I feel it needs to be read by men who don’t understand. Some of the stories, “Playhouse” in particular, are all about how women are discounted when we try to speak up. I recall a few months ago, when I spoke up about some of our female student workers being flirted with by male student who wouldn’t leave, my male colleagues didn’t see what the big deal was. It took some explaining to make them see the problem. I was angry and frustrated with them. How could they not see what I was trying to show them? If I had had Bonnie Jo Campbell in my arsenal, I would have made them read a few of the stories.
In summary, the stories in this collection are hard to read. They’re supposed to be. They’ll linger in my brain for a long time as I try to puzzle out all their layers of meaning. I highly recommend Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.
* Quotes are from the 2015 kindle edition by W.W. Norton & Co.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to male readers who don’t see what women cope with.
I’ve been waiting for something new from Anthony Marra since 2013, when A Constellation of Vital Phenomenacame out. The book was so moving, so beautifully written, that I just wanted more. The thing I loved most about that book was the way that each character’s life would touch other characters’ lives unintentionally. One person’s betrayal would cause another character’s tragedy. Objects would change ownership, almost of their own volition. The stories in The Tsar of Love and Techno are connected in the same way, but they span more geography and longer periods of time than in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (I’m fairly sure I caught a reference to Constellation in one of Tsar’s stories.) The stories cover 1937 to 2013, Moscow to Siberia to Chechnya. The same thing happened to me at the end of The Tsar of Love and Techno that happened when I finished A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I had to put the book (iPad) down and just breathe for a while. Once again, Marra floored me with his writing.
The stories in The Tsar of Love and Techno are arranged in two sections, Sides A and B, with an intermission in between. The stories are less disparate than usual for a short story collection. The longer I read, to be honest, the more I saw the book as a loose novel. Side A begins with the story set furthest back in time. In 1937, a man visits his sister-in-law and nephew. He only has one purpose for his visit: to make sure that the sister-in-law destroys all images of the man’s brother. That brother was denounced as part of Stalin’s Purges. The man, Roman Markin, has the job of rewriting history in the censor’s office. He started by inking out the faces of people who were named enemies of the people from pictures. Later, blotting out faces wasn’t enough. The disappeared were replaced with new faces. When Roman was ordered to put in new faces in crowds, he started painting in his brother’s face. This isn’t what got Roman in trouble. What got him was a ballerina’s hand. At the end of his chapter, Roman is accused of being in league with Polish spies; the hand was a secret signal.
Roman Markin’s work plays a small part in the events that follow. The ballerina in the picture plays her part, too. She was sent to the gulag. Her descendants now live in a polluted nickel mining town. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ballerina’s granddaughter, Galina, falls in love with Kolya. There’s not much future for them. To make some money when Galina gets pregnant, Kolya joins the army and is shipped to Chechnya. Without Kolya, Galina has an abortion and, via the Miss Siberia contest, becomes involved with one of Russia’s new oligarchs.
In other stories in The Tsar of Love and Techno, we learn what happens to Galina and Kolya, Kolya’s brother, the woman who became famous for denouncing her own mother during World War II, what happened to Roman’s nephew and great-nephew. One of the joys of reading Marra’s work is watching how objects and events coalesce to show you all the whys behind the whats—that’s the best way I can explain it. Marra’s stories demand that one pays attention. Everything matters in these stories. But they’re not just about piecing together the puzzle of the larger story. Marra’s stories are about humanity in extremes. Innocent people keep getting caught up in violent history, in policies they didn’t create and fights they didn’t start. They endure in spite of everything, but they are always marked with the invisible scars of loss.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 October 2015.
There was a passage from The Merchant of Venice that played on a loop in my head as I read Sara Taylor’s The Shore:
If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (Act III, Scene I)
The Shore is a series of interconnected stories about a group of families who live on three barrier islands in Virginia between 1876 and 2143. With one exception, characters are wronged in each chapter. Some character bide their time before taking their vengeance. Others flee and start over on the mainland. For the most part, there are more villains than heroes and lives are hard—harder than they should be. But there’s always the slight hope that tomorrow will bring an opportunity to get one’s own back.
It takes a while to get one’s bearing in The Shore. The stories are not arranged in chronological order. Character names and family stories come up more than once, establishing the connections between the narrators in the various chapters. To make things more difficult, one story is narrated in first person. Another is in second person. Fortunately, most stories are told with a limited third person perspective. All this is by way of explaining how hard it is to summarize The Shore.
If I resort events chronologically, we see a story of a group of people—most related to each other, but some not—who’ve stolen what they have more often than not. Medora, the character furthest back in time, took advantage of a con man who was hoping to use her father as a mark to get away from her abusive parent. She has the con man set up a new plantation for them on Parksley Island. Things turn violent, but Medora gets the best of the scheming con man. Decades later, a segment of the family sets up shop distilling apple brandy just before Prohibition takes effect. Fifteen years or so after that, the family sees a repeat of Medora’s “two husbands” play out before the family splits into more and less respectable branches.
By the 1980s, poverty, drugs, and sex have stripped away most of the families’ pretensions. The stories set in the 1980s and 90s are the hardest to get through, emotionally speaking. The women are abused by so many of the men around them it’s a wonder they don’t all give in to despair. One of the few characters who has more than one chapter, Chloe Gordy, is one of my favorites. Chloe grew up with a meth-addicted father and learned quickly to beg, borrow, or steal to keep herself and her younger sister fed. When she takes her own rough vengeance on the men who would hurt her, I felt like applauding.
Two stories in The Shore take us into the future, in which a sexually transmitted disease becomes an apocalyptic pandemic. I wasn’t expecting these chapters at all. Most of the book is firmly in the literary and historical fiction genres. The two stories set in the future catapult us into alternate history and speculative fiction. They are, strangely, the most hopeful chapters. In them, characters aren’t seeking revenge. Instead, they are looking to start a new, better life. (On a side note, I loved the regressive language that Taylor used in the story set in 2143. The vocabulary and grammar hark back to the earliest stories and have a beautiful rhythm.)
Through all the stories in The Shore, the islands are more than a background. Their isolation makes the human community its own society by necessity. One gets the impression that the islands are all there is and the mainland might as well be on Mars. Perhaps that’s why the characters seem to have no one else to turn to and must shift for themselves as best they can. The psychological scars the characters bear are echoed in the ecological depredations the islands suffer. And, given enough time, all wounds can be healed.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 May 2015.