Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander

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Dinner at the Center of the Earth

There are a lot of people trying to escape in Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth. In some cases, characters are trying to escape problems of their own making. In others, they’re trapped by someone else’s will. Watching these characters run as fast as they can and, mostly, get nowhere was a simultaneously frustrating and educational reading experience.

There is one man at the center of this novel: the General. The General is never given any other name but we know that he is a major figure in recent Israeli history and politics. After he suffers a stroke, his mind drifts through his past victories (as he would call them) and his sorrows. The General’s exploits include the Qibya Massacre and the Sabra and Shatila Massacres. As we learn more about the General, we also learn about the plight of Prisoner Z, the irritations of his reluctant guard, the stubbornness of the General’s almost-like-family-assistant, and—later in the novel—a waitress and a mapmaker who got caught in the ripples of the General’s actions.

This book might have been a thriller, but it has a more literary feel. The plots move slowly and focus more on what the characters’ feel. There’s also a very hazy feeling to the scenes that made me feel like I was drifting with the General as he recalled his life or with Prisoner Z, who is slowly losing his mind in his prison cell somewhere in the Negev desert. This haziness and focus on emotional development creates an experience where I ended up thinking more about the unintended consequences of the General’s and Prisoner Z’s actions than about the original actions.

The theme of unintended consequences is reiterated by the waitress, the mapmaker, and Prisoner Z. The history of Israel and Palestine, even before Israel became a state, is full of tit for tat retaliation. An action was later avenged, which then itself had to be revenged by the original actor. For more than fifty years, Israelis and Palestinians have been killing each other. People are avenging and fighting over things that happened before they were even born at this point, including some of the characters in Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Over and over in this book, characters have the opportunity to meet each other in the middle—literally and metaphorically—only to fail to reach detente.

Which leads me back to my original observation that the characters in this book are all attempting to escape something. They are invariably trying to feel the consequences of Israel and Palestine’s long conflict, as embodied by the General. And they can’t do it. They can’t escape because their entire world is built on perpetuating the fighting.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that I didn’t understand at first. (I have my doubts that I actually got what these stories are trying to tell me.) Only later did the various plots and scenes started to make sense. This is the kind of novel that one has to sleep on (though I did appreciate the waitress’ role very much as I was reading). This is a sneaky novel.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Tiffani Willis has reading rituals. (Book Riot)
  • I can never get enough of articles about recovered ancient and medieval texts, like this one involving sixth century writing in a book from 1537 held at Northwestern University. (mental_floss)
  • Nick Mafi rounds up some of the most beautiful university libraries in the world—including some I haven’t seen before. (Architectural Digest)
  • Laura Sackton writes against star-ratings for books. (Book Riot)
  • Read about the bookish life of Carla Hayden, first African American, first woman, and first actual librarian to be Librarian of Congress. (The New York Times)
  • Anna Solomon reflects on women on book covers and what it means when the woman on the cover is not looking wistfully away from the viewer or doesn’t have a head at all. (The Millions)
  • Dystopias are more obviously products of our time, but Danuta Kean writes about the recently emergence of books about empathy and kindness as an antidote for what ails our societies. (The Guardian)

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

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The Round House

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is one of the few perfect books I’ve ever read. I have nothing to complain about. I would change nothing about this heartbreaking, but satisfying book. Instead, I have only praise—so you’ll all need to bear with me while I gush about how stunning this book is. The Round House has so many of the things I love: explorations of justice and ethics, revenge, broken histories, and subtly beautiful writing.

We tend of think of the law as a stable thing. Laws against murder, assault, theft, and so on are always illegal. The truth is much messier than that, especially on Native American reservations. American law (like everyone else’s, I expect) is cobbled together, full of oversights, mistakes, and loopholes. When people get caught in one of these gaps, the results can be devastating. Such is the certainly the case in The Round House. The novel begins with our protagonist, Joe, and his father arriving home to discover that Joe’s mother, Geraldine, has be been brutally attacked and raped. In the first third of the book, Joe and his father, Judge Coutts, pursue the case because it’s not clear who’s jurisdiction Geraldine’s case belongs to. Once they do discover who did it, things get worse because Geraldine doesn’t know if the attack happened on tribal, state, or federal land. Because no one knows where the crime happened, no one can try the criminal.

Joe, at thirteen, burns with outrage for most of the book. He sees his mother suffer terribly in the aftermath of her rape. Then he sees his father rendered helpless by the laws that he is sworn to uphold. Joe doesn’t understand, deep down, why no one is ensuring that Geraldine gets justice. The novel makes it clear that White justice won’t work. That said, the narrative contains many hints that there are other paths to justice.

Early in The Round House, Joe and his father are reading over case files to try and find Geraldine’s rapist. While they do that, Joe thinks of the 1883 case, Ex parte Crow Dog, a curious Supreme Court ruling that established that people who had been tried by a Native American tribe could not be re-tried in another court. There are also stories, told by Joe’s grandfather, about how the Ojibwe would deal with wendigo, people who had gone so far to the bad that they needed to be killed for the safety of others. The book is so subtle about the theme of sanctioned vigilantism that it snuck up on me. When I finally understood what The Round House was trying to say, I had to marvel at the skill that went into this book.

While this theme is emerging, we see Joe and his life on a South Dakotan reservation is such rich detail that I could feel the heat and dust of summer. I’ve only been to South Dakota once, but my memories of the state and of the reservation just north of my hometown came roaring back as I read. But the reservation in The Round House is not the desolate, poverty-stricken place that we normally see in fiction and on the news. It helps that Joe has a lyrical mind:

Now the crane my mother used to watch, or its offspring, flapped slowly past my window. That evening, it cast the image, not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from their slender body. Then the feathers took fire so that creature was consumed by light. (157*)

Joe’s reservation feels like home, as if there’s no other place that he could live and be comfortable. Joe’s exploits with his friends and his grandfather provide much needed doses of levity in an otherwise very somber book.

The Round House is one of the best written books I’ve read in a long time. The writing is so simple and gorgeous that I’m still glowing But what really made this book for me was the way that it dealt with the idea of thwarted legal justice and justified retribution. I wish I had read this with my book group because I want to get into a long discussion with someone about the outcome of Joe’s quest.

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Undated photo of Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota

* Quote is from the kindle edition by Harper.

The King of Fools, by Frédéric Dard

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The King of Fools

Jean-Marie Valaise should have listened to another king at the outset of Frédéric Dard’s The King of Fools (translated by Louise Lalaurie). One year before this book was published in 1962 as La Pelouse, Elvis sang that “Wise men say only fools rush in.” Valaise certainly rushes in. His holiday on the Côte d’Azur turns, in a matter of days, into a nightmare of murder and accusations that might send him to the hangman’s noose. And it’s all because Valaise fell in love at first sight.

Valaise was having a mediocre stay in Juan-les-Pins, without his girlfriend, when he spots a woman sitting in his car. The woman, who turns out to be an Englishwoman named Marjorie Faulks, is embarrassed by her mistake, which she later compounds by leaving her bag in Valaise’s car. Their relationship carries more than a dash of awkwardness. Valaise tries to be suave, but frequently overreaches. Marjorie is married and very uncomfortable about everything. Valaise finds this endearing and he quickly adopts a protective role.

Marjorie has to leave the day after they meet, but they agree to exchange letters—though Marjorie insists on using a general post office address rather than her real one. A wiser man would start hearing alarm bells at this point. Valaise is not that wiser man. After one impassioned letter from Marjorie, he packs up and follows her to Edinburgh. The Scottish turns out to be the perfect gloomy setting for a journey that becomes more like film noir with every hour. Valaise gets rapidly in over his head, the dope, as he chases Marjorie around the city and tries to figure out what on earth is going on with her husband.

To say more at this point would ruin the rest of the book, so I will close this review by saying that The King of Fools is a perfect example of a page-turner. It’s so short and tense that I read it in one sitting. It’s is a perfect beach read—especially if one is lucky enough to be traveling to a French beach and have some Elvis on an iPod.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.

Cultivating My Bookish Garden; Or, Is My Library Woke Yet?

Every couple of weeks, I run a report in my library’s integrated library system* that shows me how many times books in the browsing collection have been checked out. This collection, which I am in charge of buying books for, is the home of current fiction and popular non-fiction. Reading the report has become a curiously emotional experience. On the one hand, I get a thrill when I see books that I liked get checked out. On the other, I am saddened by good books that languish on the shelf for months, waiting for their readers to come along.

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Silvana Cimieri

My library’s browsing collection has duelling goals. First, it’s supposed to encourage our students to read for fun. Second, it’s supposed to supplement my budget for literature** so that I don’t have to buy just to usual suspects***. This leaves me with a very small path to tread because people (including me) like to read crap. We need our brain candy every now and then. The brain candy doesn’t have a lot of staying power, literature-wise. In a public library, fiction moves in and out of the collection as its popularity waxes and wanes. This is kind of a problem in my library, an academic library, because we are supposed to be building a collection for the long haul. Personally, I err on the side of purchasing books that I’m fairly certain people will read.

Even though I push toward the popular end of things and buy the odd volume of brain candy, I also stock my collection with books that critics (and I) think are important. I buy books about immigrants. I buy books about racial and sexual issues. I buy books set in other countries and times to try and broaden the horizons of our somewhat homogenous student population. The problem with doing this is that I start to fall into the mindset of buying more books that people should read instead of books people will want to pick up and read. Consequently, there many books I end up putting on my own to-read shelf rather than on my to-buy-for-the-library list.

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Carl Christian Constantin Hansen

I am fully aware that my tastes in books are much darker than most people’s. Part of the reason I read so widely because I want to be able to recommend books no matter what a person’s taste in books is, even if a reader isn’t up for something like Preparation for the Next Life, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, Kindred, or Americanah. My hope is that someone will come along and challenge themselves (or I can talk them into a challenge) every now and then. Until then, I can give them something a little lighter to keep them coming back.

I push so hard for challenging books is because I genuinely believe that well told stories can wake people up to the experiences of others, people they might never meet. A well told story can take a reader inside the head of someone who lives a completely different life. Seeing through someone else’s eyes is more effective, in terms of gaining empathy, than a mountain of statistics. I want my collection to be, at least, a little bit woke, as well as entertaining.

 


* An integrated library system stores all of the information about a library’s collection and patrons so that we can keep track of where things are.
** I am incredibly lucky to be in charge of buying all of my library’s fiction. This is very rare. Usually, you have to wait for an elderly librarian to die at their desk before literature becomes someone else’s responsibility.
*** Damn you, Joyce Carol Oates, for sucking up so much of my budget!

 

Impossible Views of the World, by Lucy Ives

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Impossible Views of the World

Perhaps the only immutable rule of writing is not wasting the reader’s time. Lucy Ives broke that rule in Impossible Views of the World as far as I’m concerned. I requested this book from NetGalley because the description had tantalizing elements of a mystery set in a museum, possible corporate conspiracy, and nineteenth century utopias. I’ll be frank: all of this fizzled, due mostly to a narrator that I found so scatterbrained and non-confrontational (with one spectacular exception) that I could barely tolerate her. I hung on because of those plot elements but, now that I’ve finished, I feel that my time has been wasted.

Stella Krakus is a self-described functionary for the Central Museum of Art in New York. CeMArt specializes in American decorative objects and Stella works on whatever projects her boss sends her way. She has a difficult mother, is in the middle of a divorce, and frets about her affair with a coworker and her lingering feelings for him. When Stella’s sort-of work friend, Paul, disappears and is later found dead of an apparent overdose, she starts to investigate what he was working on.

Paul’s work leads Stella on a research bender into a pseudonymous nineteenth century author and a long, kind-of interesting family history. Being a librarian, the parts of the book in which Stella scoured catalogs and diligently googled and compulsively read obscure books were catnip to me. If I were a different reader, I might not have been so annoyed when Stella would get derailed by her personal life. If Stella were a different narrator, there’s also a good chance I would have been less frustrated by this book.

Sometimes, I like unlikable characters. The degree to which I like them depends a lot on what makes the character unlikable. I’m fond of curmudgeons, the damaged, the vengeance-seekers, etc. But Stella’s passivity bothered me. She lets other characters—her boss, her mother, and her former lover—take advantage of her good nature. The only character she confronts is her soon-to-be-ex husband. Stella’s narrative style is also incredibly scatterbrained. While some of my best friends and dearest family members are scatterbrained, Stella bops around from subject to subject so much that it was hard to track where the book was going.

Impossible Views of the World is a strange book—so strange that I don’t know what it’s trying to be. I don’t recommend it and I wish I could get back the time I spent waiting for it to get better and for the mystery to start making sense.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 August 2017.

The Tragedy of Brady Sims, by Ernest J. Gaines

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The Tragedy of Brady Sims

It’s rare to find a book that is not only a book that needs to be read widely and right now and is also a masterly work of fiction. I find books-of-the-times to be, usually, too preachy or too worried about conveying a message at the expense of plot and characterization. In The Tragedy of Brady Sims, by Ernest J. Gaines, I found a book that can do both.

This book will grab every readers from the first pages, when Brady Sims stands up in a courthouse and shoots his son right after the son has been sentenced. Sims then tells the men who were escorting his son back to jail to have the sheriff give him two hours before coming after him. Understandably, everyone in the courthouse is stunned. They know Brady. He casts a long shadow in this southern town, especially among the Black inhabitants. So why would he do such a thing?

That’s what our narrator, a Black reporter who lived away from the town for a while before returning. The reporter’s White boss tells him to write up a “human interest” story on Sims—presumably to help the Whites understand what the hell just happened. The reporter goes out to gather information, after telling the sheriff that he doesn’t know what’s going on or where Sims went. When we arrive at the reporter’s source of information (the local barbershop), it becomes clear that he know a lot more than he told the sheriff. The rest of the story unfolds while the men at the barbershop tell Sims’s story.

I said The Tragedy of Brady Sims was a book for right now. What I mean by that is this book is, underneath the surface story of chasing after Sims and getting his story, about how Black people are expected to police themselves in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement has done important work raising the national (especially the White) consciousness about how often Black people are killed by police officers. Young Black children are often taught by their parents how to deal with police so that they reduce their risk of being shot and killed. In this novel, Brady Sims is the one who teaches the Black children of this town to police themselves. He’s a bogeyman who will come after kids if they put a toe out of line and then beat them until they’re too scared to do it again.

As the reporter sits in the local barbershop, the men who tell him about Sims are all very knowing. They know exactly what happened and why. None of them appear saddened or angry. They seem more resigned than anything else. Sims’ story is tragic, certainly, but not as tragic to me as an entire population who can accept the sudden, violent death of a teenager who got in trouble with the law. The Tragedy of Brady Sims says so much in an astonishingly small number of pages.

I hope this subtly instructive book gets all the attention as it deserves.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 29 August 2017.

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend this to relatives who don’t understand Black Lives Matter and/or say racist things at family gatherings.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Tara Cheesman has a pragmatic take on novels-in-translation. (Book Riot)
  • One of my guilty pleasures is reading bad book reviews by good book reviewers (especially when I agree with them and/or they’re taking down an author I think its pretentious and overhyped). So imagine my delight when Anna Silman rounded up a bunch of Michiko Kakutani’s best bad reviews. (The Cut)
  • Nikki Griffith’s briefly shares booksellers’ stories of sticky-fingered customers. (Moby Lives)
    • Pair with Alison Flood and Sian Cain’s longer article on book thievery. (The Guardian)
  • Texting and the internet are doing really interesting things to Arabic (classical and dialect), according to Hodna Nuernberg. (Asymptote Journal)
  • Emily Temple offers and interesting new way of understanding A Midsummer Night’s Dream: by giving it a playlist. (LitHub)

The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde

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The History of Bees

Bees have fascinated humans for centuries, I suppose, because it’s unsettling to see such small insects build such complicated structures and societies. Even after all those centuries of study, bees are still mysterious as we learn in Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. Lunde shows us three characters in three different countries and three different centuries who depend on bees (more closely than the rest of us do). The three seemingly disparate characters also seek to impose order on their families, so that the next generation hums along and maintains the orderly status quo. Of course, this is an engraved invitation for everything to go topsy-turvy.

Lunde first takes us to the end of twenty-first century to show us a world without bees. Tao works as a pollinator at a massive pear orchard. Everyone is hungry and poor, yet they carry on because humans tend to be stubborn in Tao’s future China. The same cannot be said for the main character at our next setting. In England in 1852, William has refused to get out of bed for months because of ennui and malaise. He’s lost his passion for everything, until his son happens to leave a book on beekeeping in his room. The book relights William’s interest in science and he returns to life (though he’s irritable and too willing to throw in the towel with things go awry). In between Tao and William is George, who manages a large beekeeping operation in the Ohio of 2007. Until he’s hit with a serious case of colony collapse disorder, George’s greatest irritation is his son, who doesn’t seem to want to take over the farm (bee ranch? I’m not sure what to call it) after he goes off to college.

The chapters alternate between the three characters. Bees are an important part of all of their lives, but I feel that they have more in common as fierce, unbending parents. In each century, the parents face children who—like children often do—want to go their own way. Tao’s young son would rather run around and play than learn math. George’s son wants to be a writer and not a beekeeper. William’s son doesn’t want to do much of anything except carouse. The character’s lives would be a lot more simple if their children behaved like bees, preprogramed to fall into their genetic roles without any fuss.

I found The History of Bees to be compulsively readable, if melancholy. I wanted to yell at William and George and tell them not to be so set in their ways, that they’re making their children miserable. I had more sympathy for Tao because of what happens to her son early in the book. Also, seeing these characters’ dependence on bees made me think more of our general dependence on bees as pollinators. Without them, as we see in Tao’s China, our society would suffer its own collapse disorder as our agricultural system fell apart. We currently don’t know what causes colony collapse disorder and we still don’t know all the hows and whys of bee behavior, yet so much depends on them keeping the status quo. The events of the book make it seem like both the children and the bees are in rebellion.

What I loved about this book was its ending. The ending just shines. When I finished it, I put down my iPad with a big smile on my face.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.

Marathon Man, by William Goldman

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Marathon Man

William Goldman’s Marathon Man wasn’t half bad. Unfortunately, the other half was. I picked this book up because I remember enjoying the film version, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. (Also, I’m a sucker for stories about tracking down Nazis who escaped Europe after the war.) I fell into the trap of expecting the book to be better than the movie because there would be more background and plot. The original novel did have more of both, but it didn’t make for a better tale.

I loathed the first half of Marathon Man. Set in 1973, the book is filled with edgy slang that has not aged well. The protagonist, T.B. Levy, has a motor mouth and is frequently obnoxious rather than amusing. Then there’s the casual racism. With the exception of Levy and one or two other characters, everyone says or thinks horrible things about African Americans and Jews. Instead of making the novel feel “gritty” and realistic, it just feels like paint-by-numbers characterization. It didn’t help that I was waiting for the novel to kick into gear for most of the first half. There’s some action in the prologue and in a side plot that didn’t make sense until Levy gets caught up in the conspiracy at the half-way point.

Once I got to that half-way point, however, my attitude completely changed and I raced through the book. The turning point is when Levy’s brother is murdered. The brother dies in Levy’s arms and Levy is told shortly after that his brother was a courier for Christian Szell, who was Josef Mengele’s (fictional) dental counterpart at Auschwitz. The highlight of the book is the same as the one in the film—which means that this is definitely not a book you want to read before you go to your next appointment with the dentist. The last half of the book is a thrilling, nail-biting race, literally and figuratively.

I would recommend skipping the first half of the book and jumping straight to Part II. Anything that was important from the first half gets referenced in the second and third acts of the book, with the bonus of skipping a lot of obnoxious dialogue and the aforementioned casual racism. Or you could just watch the movie and see Hoffman and Olivier make something interesting out of Marathon Man.