Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

34146925The stories in Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak into crisp British English) offer glimpses into the life of a girl coming of age in the last decade of communist Poland. In the small Silesian village of Herkaty, the larger world barely intrudes into the narrator’s world. There are only the slightest allusions to the Solidarity movement or shortages. The narrator’s family’s Catholic faith and folk medicine, as well as World War II, loom larger than anything that might be happening in the big cities.

Over the course of the stories in this collection, we see our narrator—also named Wioletta—transition from a blissfully clueless child who captures may flies and cries over a lost cat to a tough young woman who has learned to turn her hand to any occupation that might earn the family money and get out of situations with overly amorous neighbors. (The stories in which Wioletta dodges sexual abuse may be triggering for some readers.) By the end of the collection, there is little joy or whimsy left in Wioletta.

One of the stories, “Masters of Scrap,” can be read as the collection in miniature. In this story, Wioletta and her classmates are given the task of collecting scrap metal from all over the town for their school. They start with the easy pickings before escalating to stealing useful bits from people’s houses and properties. In the end, they lose it all in a mishap with a cart, a quarry, and a friend in jeopardy. The story swiftly moves from good dutifulness to apathetic resignation.

“Unripe” affected me the most of all the stories. This story captures the sorrow Wioletta and her family feel after Wioletta’s father, Rysiu, dies of a heart attack. His death leaves a large emotional hole in the extended family. After returning from camp, our narrator reaches out to hold her father’s hand one more time and sees his life in flashes. These flashes show Wioletta how a life of hardship, physical labor, and war shaped Rysiu.

A reader might have expected “Neon Over Jupiter,” the last story, to include a sense of hopefulness. After all, coming of age narratives usually end with a sense of leaving the past behind to move into the bright future. This story has none of that. Instead, Wioletta is tempted to run away with her glue-huffing sort-of boyfriend before changing her mind when she sees him passed out at the bus stop. She ends up slouching home, back into the past.

By the end of this collection of short stories, I was left with an impression of a young girl who has learned to shift for herself in a little town without resources. I’ve been left with a melancholy impression of a dead end life for our narrator. We have no clue what Wioletta will do in her adult life. There are certainly few opportunities for anything other than a life of the hardscrabble poverty she, her parents, and her grandparents grew up with. Wioletta’s life can almost be read as a rebuke to the narrative of hope after decades of communist rule. Far away, things are happening that might make life better for Poles—but very little of those changes have touched our narrator’s life or the lives of the rural poor.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

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Riverworld and Other Stories, by Philip Jose Farmer

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Riverworld and Other Stories

Philip José Farmer was one of the leading lights of mid-twentieth century science fiction and his Riverworld series is considered some of his best writing. Unfortunately, mid-twentieth century science fiction has not aged well and this collection, Riverworld and Other Stories, contains only two Riverworld stories and a bunch of previously unpublished and unfinished standalone stories. I was disappointed in this collection.

I asked to read this book because it had Riverworld stories. I’ve been fascinated by the premise ever since I saw Syfy’s pilot episode/movie of Riverworld in 2010.  The Riverworld is a seemingly endless river valley where billions of humans have been resurrected. The world contains little metal or biodiversity, but everyone’s needs are taken care of through alien technology. No one knows why they’ve been resurrected or what they’re supposed to do now, which makes a great setting for philosophical stories about the meaning of life. While characters like Yeshua and Doctor Faustroll advocate personal reflection and improvement, most of the Riverworld is organized into kingdoms and empires run by violent warlords like Árpád the Hun or Kramer the Hammer, a German religious fanatic. This is what I wanted to read about. I got a little of it, but not enough.

The two Riverworld stories bookend a series of stories that I did not like. One of them contained a surprisingly pornographic scene in the middle of an interesting premise. I’ll admit to skimming them because I was disgusted or uninterested in the content. I only stuck around for the Riverworld stories. This collection is clearly not Farmer’s best work.

The biggest issue I had with these stories was the depiction of women. There are no female leading characters. The few prominent women seemed to have been written in solely so that the male characters would have someone to have sex with. They either have highly charged libidos (and are scorned by male characters as sluts or Jezebels) or are “good” girls who are willing to have sex with the male leads. Only the male leads and secondary characters—with two exceptions—get any kind of character development. The two women who get some development are only seen through the eyes of males who either despise or disrespect them. There was barely enough interesting content to keep me going through this collection.

I doubt that I will give Farmer another chance, no matter how much the Riverworld interests me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 August 2017.

An Unrestored Woman, by Shobha Rao

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An Unrestored Woman

In An Unrestored Woman, Shobha Rao tells a series of stories about characters that brush each others’ lives over the course of a century. Not only do characters from various stories meet, the plots share themes of love and betrayal, revenge and violence. The various stories, taken as a whole, offer different perspectives on what people are willing to do to each other to try and find their own happiness—and the prices they have to pay for their manipulations.

Some of the standout stories include:

“The Imperial Police” – Though several other stories feature downtrodden and abused women, this story struck me as the saddest one in the collection. Jenkins is a British officer in the Anglo-Indian police force just before the 1947 Partition (a pivotal event in many of the stories in An Unrestored Woman). He has been posted to the frontier town of Rawalpindi for behavior that becomes clear over the course of the story: Jenkins is attracted to men. He has fallen in love a few times in his life, but has never been able (or allowed) to express his feelings. In “The Imperial Police,” Jenkins accidentally causes the death of his latest object of affection in the growing sectarian violence in the city and now has to inform the man’s widow. As I read this story, I thought about what might have been for Jenkins if he’d lived in another time and another place.

“Such a Mighty River” – This might be my favorite story in the entire collection. Alok Debnath (who appears briefly in another story) is a retired man fading into Alzheimer’s. At 84, he’s making the most of what he has left—mostly the companionship of a woman he pays to spoon with him for a few hours. She serves as a reminder of Alok’s beloved wife. One day, Alok decides to go looking for the woman only to become lost in his memories of a day when his wife went missing early in their marriage. Time becomes a blur as Alok wanders the streets asking for his companion and his wife in turns. This is a moving story with a surprisingly violent ending.

“The Road to Mirpur Khas”- This story is a good example of what one can expect from most of the stories in An Unrestored Woman. The story begins with a disruption to the status quo. In the case of this story, it’s the Partition. Arya and her husband are headed for the orchards of Mirpur Khas, intending to work as pickers, before the unnamed husband’s naiveté means they are repeatedly robbed. The husband (and narrator) watches as his more practical wife becomes a prostitute to earn money. She grows more cynical as he comes to loathe himself. Their initial love for each other dies away because the husband emotionally betrayed his wife at a critical moment; he failed to fight for Arya when she needed him to.

The stories of An Unrestored Woman focus instead on emotional damage (which, for some reason, I can handle better than physical violence). And even though many of the stories are about betrayal and love, they offer different perspectives on what constitutes betrayal and how the victim of that betrayal can respond. The characters can either move on (as many of the female characters do) or let it destroy them (as many of the male characters do). This book is a grim testament to the motto “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

When I finished the collection, my honest reaction was “These stories could have been a lot more awful than they were.” I was relieved. I’ve read some terrifying, difficult stories this year. While An Unrestored Woman is not an easy read by any means, it is not as violent as it might have been.

Verklempt, by Peter Sichrovsky

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Verklempt

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.

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. 

Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enríquez

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Things We Lost in the Fire

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.

Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel

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Odessa Stories

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 CavalryOdessa 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.

The Female Detective, by Andrew Forrester

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The Female Detective

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.


* Andrew Forrester is the pseudonym of James Redding Ware.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours

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.

The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari

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The Best Place on Earth

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 Lies yesterday 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.