Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, by Ruth Emmie Lang

33574161I was utterly charmed by Ruth Emmie Lang’s Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, a novel about a reclusive man with strange abilities told by the people who knew him as well as anyone could. From the doctor who delivered him to his foster sister, adopted mother, and his frequently lost love, everyone knows that there’s something odd about Weylyn Gray. It rains when he’s upset and woodland creatures bring him presents. Oh, and he was partially raised by wolves.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance jumps from decade to decade as Weylyn touches other characters’ lives with a mix of good and bad luck. Weylyn’s abilities are never fully explained, which I think adds to sense of sustained curiosity as people meet and lose him over time. For the most part, Weylyn and his ad hoc family and friends treat him like a secret. No one else will believe them anyway about the weather and the animals and the shockingly verdant plants that follow in his war. Further, there’s something about Weylyn makes people protective.

What saves this book from being tritely inspirational—Weylyn often reads like a socially anxious Jesus—is the fact that, over and over, things don’t work out according to anyone’s plans. Just like bad weather, animals, and sudden gardens, unintended consequences follow him throughout his life. His friends and family are more than willing to take the risk, but Weylyn is terrified of accidentally hurting someone with his abilities. He’d rather take to the woods and live like a Disney hermit than chance it.

This isn’t a perfect book. There is one misstep at the end of the book, but I chalk that up to the limitations of having the book narrated by characters other than Weylyn. Readers willing to over look this and Weylyn’s more messiah-like moments will find a quirky, fast read for those of us who don’t trust happy, uncomplicated endings. Over and over, Weylyn’s plot arc demonstrates that love and life are often dangerous. The rewards, however, are much better than a safe loneliness.

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

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This week on the bookish internet

Hotel Tito, by Ivana Bodrožić

34013791Ivana Bodrožić’s Hotel Tito closely follows the author’s own life. Like her nameless narrator, Bodrožić was a young girl when Yugoslavia broke up in a bloody civil war. And, like her nameless narrator, she also spent years in displaced persons’ housing, waiting for either a new home in Zagreb or the all clear to return to her hometown, Vukovar. Unlike many other survivor stories I have read, Hotel Tito is not an inspirational or heroic tale. The characters here are resolutely ordinary, fractious, and ineffectual. Such ordinary people do a lot to make this novella a feel more real than those other survivor stories because they create a sense of how disruptive, chaotic, and bloody the Yugoslav Civil War was.

We meet the nameless narrator of Hotel Tito when she is nine and already on the road. She doesn’t seem to really know why. All she knows is that everyone in her family, except her father, had to leave Vukovar. (The family never learns what happens to the narrator’s father, but it is assumed that he died in the Vukovar Hospital Massacre.) After a brief stint squatting in a Zagreb apartment, the family is relocated to the eponymous hotel, a repurposed Holiday Inn that was used to house hundreds of refugees from Vukovar and other embattled places in what would become Croatian territory.

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The Vukovar Water Tower was not repaired after the war so that it would be a reminder of the city’s destruction
(Image via Wikicommons)

Hotel Tito covers the five years the family spent waiting in that hotel. We watch as the narrator’s brother grows into a frustrated young man who can’t help his family. We also see the narrator’s mother succumb to depression. Meanwhile, our narrator, who barely seems to remember her pre-war life, struggles to fit into young teenage life among refugees and locals. She is an almost stereotypical teenager, to the point where I was frequently aggravated by her selfishness and lack of empathy.

As she grows older, the narrator slowly learns to observe the people around her. She never quite loses her self-serving ways, but she tells us more about what others are going through. She also learns to focus so that we readers aren’t bounced around like a pinball as her attention shifts from diversion to diversion. While she eventually gets a good education, the narrator never asks why all this happened to her and her family. The narrator is anything but a reflective person.

Hotel Tito ends abruptly, so that the entire novella feels like dropping into and out of the narrator and her family’s life. For some readers, this abruptness, the narrator’s shortcomings, and the lack of any hint of heroism, will make this a difficult read. But then, I think that’s part of the point. War is not about heroism. Being a refugee is not about being a survivor who inspires others. Being a refugee is about fleeing for your life and losing home and family. This book is about the long, anxious turmoil of not having a home or lodestar anymore.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.

The Last Best Friend, by George Sims

35869521Few people would do what Ned Balfour does in George Sims’ The Last Best FriendAfter Balfour’s friend, Sam Weiss, falls out a window and dies, Ned drops his sunny holiday in Corsica and heads back to London to find out why. It doesn’t make sense that Weiss would commit suicide. Plus, there is the telegram he sent Balfour about a “terrible decision” he had to make. The best clue that Weiss didn’t kill himself comes later in the book, when Balfour is beaten up. Every mystery reader knows that that the detective is definitely asking the right questions when someone beats them up.

Balfour, at first, is the kind of man I don’t like much. He’s a cheater and still has a lot of maturing to do even though he’s well into middle age. But the more time I spent with Balfour, the more I started to admire his loyalty to his friend, Weiss. The police are treating Weiss’ death as an accident or, more probably to their way of thinking, as a suicide. The inspector in charge of the case asks Balfour a few interesting questions, but doesn’t seem to be pursuing the few leads the police have. Balfour takes those leads and runs—well, moseys in a good suit while also taking in the occasional auction and drinking good wine.

To be honest, I didn’t think there was much to the case until a few more clues surfaced linking Weiss and a few other members of their antiques, manuscript, and art dealing circle with art looted at the end of World War II. Balfour is an unlikely detective but he seems to have a knack for asking the right questions. He’s also got the right kind of stubbornness to keep going in spite of all the close calls with various thugs and villains.

The Last Best Friend was originally published in the 1960s and is now being rereleased by Poisoned Pen Press. Between Poisoned Pen and the British Library, there’s been a little renaissance of mid-century mysteries that I’ve been very much enjoying. The only problem is that these rereleases have made me start to wonder how many books are languishing, waiting to be read again. So many books, so little time.

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

The Problem with Hype; Or, I refuse to take your word for it

After many years, I think I’ve finally tuned into the right trade publications and book blogs to keep myself supplied with reviews and recommendations for books I will genuinely enjoy. And yet, I still shy away from personally reading books that get a lot of buzz. I’ve had this curious aversion for a while. It wasn’t until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out that I started reading the series. The only conclusion that I can come up with is that I read a buzzy book that turned out to be so awful I’ve blocked it from my memory.

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Mosè Bianchi

I suspect that the problem (apart from my book trauma theory) is that expectations play a huge part in how I approach books. I expect books to follow or creatively break genre barriers. I expect literary books to devote a lot of time and beautiful language to exploring emotions we don’t have words for in English. And if I learn that there’s a twist, there better damn well be a great twist. When a book fails to live up to expectations, I end up disliking the book even more than I might have without all the hype in the first place. Being a book reviewer, I strive to judge books on their own merits and not my inflated expectations.

I clearly don’t worry about fear of missing out, but I am competitive about discovering books. This is as big a problem for hype-avoidance as managing my expectations. If I wait long enough, I feel like I’m discovering a book on my own instead of following the buzz.

The only thing that gets me over my avoidance of hyped books is time, lots of time. It took me thirteen years to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I might be making progress; I got around to Homegoing after only a year. I have no problem being behind the curve. Once enough time has elapsed and I’m no longer surrounded by people talking about how great the book is, only then do I feel like I can give the book a fair shake.

Displaced, by Stephan Abarbanell

34217691Lilya Wasserfall is a soldier in the fight for an independent Jewish state when she is drafted to finish up some unfinished business from the last war in Displaced, by Stephen Abarbanell. Her mission is to find the lost brother of Elias Lind. Lind left Germany in the 1920s while his brother remained in Berlin to further his research on chemical warfare before disappearing into the Nazi forced labor system. There are a few leads for Lilya to follow, the most curious being that the British reported the elder Lind’s death in 1941.

After a quick trip to London during which she discovers some scientific skullduggery, Lilya’s quest takes her to the refugee camps of post-war Germany. It quickly becomes apparent that Lilya and Elias aren’t the only ones who want to know if Raphael Lind survived the war. Lilya picks up on more than one man tailing her in London and in Germany. The more she learns about what Raphael did during the war, the more it makes sense that certain parties are very interested in his current whereabouts.

There are parts of Displaced that were deeply affecting: the fight to restart the lives of displaced refugees and Holocaust survivors, pre-war romances gone awry, a detour into stolen books. But, after a while, it all seemed like a bit too much. Clues from the first part of the novel turned out to be either red herrings or simple McGuffins. The action sequences, which added a bit of spice to the book, were over far too quickly to be effective. Displaced is a messy novel.

I did enjoy Lilya’s journey. At the beginning of the novel, Lilya is very much a forward-looking sabra. Her life is all about helping to create an independent Israel (and about setting aside her grief for her fallen adopted brother). Being a native of British Mandate era Palestine, Lilya is not entirely sympathetic to European Jews. But the more time she spends with survivors in Germany, the more she gets wrapped up in their collective story and the fight to help them. So, in spite of its problems, I was hooked by this book—partly because I had no idea where it was going.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.

Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

34466659Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields (translated by Allison M. Charette) took me to a place I’ve never been before in fiction: nineteenth century Madagascar. The novel follows the trials and tribulations of Tsito, a slave turned craftsman, and Fara, a villager who always wanted to be rich, as they get caught up against Queen Ranavalona I‘s attempts to restore pre-encounter traditions and beliefs.

Spanning nearly twenty years in the middle of the nineteenth century, Beyond the Rice Fields opens with Tsito being purchased by a zebu (cattle) trader. The trader leaves Tsito with his unofficial third family in a central highlands village. Even though he’s a slave, Tsito is raised alongside Fara by her mother and grandmother. Tsito eventually resigns himself to his new life and begins looking for opportunities to make money to buy his freedom. Meanwhile, Fara enjoys her privileged life as a rich trader’s daughter. Someday, she plans to marry a rich man after making her name at the fampitaha (yearly dancing competitions).

Over the course of the novel, Tsito and Fara’s statuses reverse. Tsito makes brilliant connections and acquires marketable skills. Fara, on the other hand, begins to suffer from the first waves of the queen’s policies to stamp out Christianity and other European influences in the country. After her father’s zebu trade is taken away from him, Fara loses her mother to one of the first waves of tangena trials—ritual trials by poison for Christians, sorcerers, and others who piss off the wrong people. Following Tsito and Fara gave me a sense of the deadly chaos that gripped the country.

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Antsahatsiroa, Madagascar, 1862-1865
(Image via Met Museum)

There was one thing that bothered me about this book, even though I really enjoyed the setting. I’m not sure if it’s the translation or if the code-switching was part of the original text. At times, characters would make speeches with what seem like traditional phrases and oaths. Then, sometimes in the same section of dialog, switch to phrases straight from modern English. The weird blend of high and low speech didn’t work for me at all. This translation preserves some Malagasy terms and phrases for flavor, which redeems the book’s dialog a bit.

Apart from the issues with dialog—which might just be my hang up—I was fascinated by Beyond the Rice Fields. Once I stopped switching between the book and the relevant articles on Wikipedia, I settled in for a long read about life, work, love, tradition, belief, revenge, and survival in a place that hasn’t been written about much. I’d love to read more books about the island.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. It will be released 31 October 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • I feel so vindicated after learning that Marcel Proust paid for good reviews about Du côte de chez Swann. I knew there had to be some kind of scam to explain why À la recherche du temps perdu took off. I know people love it, but it sounds dreadfully boring to me. (The Guardian)
    • Pair with Emily Temple’s roundup of eight attempts to game the New York Times‘ bestseller list. (LitHub)
  • I’m not sure how I feel about Tramp Press‘ policy of rejecting submissions with letters addressed to “dear sir(s),” but I totally agree with their rejection of authors who proudly declare that they don’t read women. (The Guardian)
  • The fight for Manhattan’s libraries continues, although the 42nd street library (home of Patience and Fortitude) has been saved. (The Nation)
  • Alison Flood writes one of the more even-handed reports of the Melania Trump book donation debacle. (The Guardian)
    • My take: Only 10 books? Extremely skimpy donation. Every library has Dr. Seuss. Ms. Trump’s donation was a paltry offering and Soeiro is right in telling the first lady to do something more substantial for libraries and communities with greater needs. As for Seuss being racist, well, this is what the media have fixated on unfortunately. I don’t agree with Soeiro on this point.
  • For some reason, many readers conflate writers of color with their characters. Bryan Washington explores problems this creates. (The Awl)
  • Britain’s National Poetry Library is collecting poetry in endangered languages. (The Guardian)
  • I loved following Rowan Hisayo Buchanan down a research rabbit hole after discovering that a London library had once housed a mental asylum. (The Paris Review)

The Bone Mother, by David Demchuk

31944708David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is the kind of story collection that left me wanting more. Each chapter is a grim fairy tale that, together with the other chapters, builds up a disturbing world centered on three towns in the Romanian-Ukrainian border. The towns are full of people and creatures inspired by Slavic myths and, sometime during World War II, something happened to shatter this community. For added atmosphere, each chapter begins with an image from the Costică Acsinte Archive, a collection of photos from an early Twentieth century Romanian photographer.

While there are only a few characters who appear in more than one story, a narrative about the three unnamed towns coalesces before long. There were three towns in Romania and Ukraine where people were born with strange abilities, hungers, and traditions. Somewhere in the middle of it is a porcelain thimble factory with royal customers. Then the war came, along with violent men (it’s unclear who they are) who killed their way through the towns. Survivors scattered around the world, taking their abilities and hungers with them.

Most of the stories are only a page or two long; a few get a little longer. The stories are so spare that I had to read deeply into the subtext and scrape up what I know about Slavic myths to feel like I had a handle on what was happening. This book was best when I let go of my need to know what was actually happening and let things wash over me. The Bone Mother turned out to be a terrific book to herald the beginning of October. It is delightfully creepy and packed with mystery to think about after the last story ends.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

27071490The multi-award winning family saga Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, deserves all the praise it’s received. The story follows the separated halves of one woman’s family throw almost three hundreds years of Ghanaian and American history. It begins in the 1760s with two sisters (who don’t know that they’re sisters) who are separated. One sister becomes the wife of a British slave dealer. The other is sold into slavery and sent to the American colonies. Over the next centuries, the family is continually disrupted. Generations are torn apart and children are lost. I think this book is going to continue breaking reader hearts for a long time.

No one in Maame’s line has an easy life. Even the privileged members of the family have to wrestle with their consciences about how their parents make money (during the slave-trading days). There is a moment much later in the book when a grandmother tells her granddaughter a little story to explain her actions and her family. Akua says:

When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. (242*)

For hundreds of years, each generation has to start over. Most have to start over because they’ve been kidnapped and enslaved (or murdered). Others because they need to hide from their pasts. A few members of the family reach their absolute limits and refuse to live in misery.

The breaks in the generations mean that each generation is completely cut off from the past. They have to create new traditions. But it also means that their support networks are fragile or non-existent. One of the characters in the last generation has a moment with his immediate family where he thinks about who was lost:

In that room, with his family, he would sometimes imagine a different room, a fuller family. He would imagine so hard that at times he thought he could see them. Sometimes in a hut in Africa, a patriarch holding a machete; sometimes outside in a forest of palm trees, a crowd watched a young woman carrying a bucket on her head; sometimes in a cramped apartment with too many kids, or a small, failing farm, around a burning tree or in a classroom. He would see these things while his grandmother prayed and sang, prayed and sang, and he would want so badly for all the people he made up in his head to be there in that room, with him. (290)

For us readers, there are themes and motifs that repeat across the generations. The motifs keep the branches of the family linked through their fears of water and fire, fertility issues, black stones, finding and losing religion, mothers’ love, and more. At times, what happens to one branch of the family are mirrored in the other. There are also Akua’s dreams of her family’s past, which bring a satisfying symmetry to Homegoing.

As I read Homegoing, I had to wonder if the family would ever come back together—until I realized that this story wasn’t really about continuity and reunion. It’s about keeping going, whether one wants to or not. It’s about recognizing the sensation of being lost, apart from community, and yet someone finding peace or at least equilibrium in spite of it. It’s about creating identity from the ground up and trying not to collapse under the weight of history. In the midst of all the heartbreak, I marveled at the strength of the woman and men in Maame’s line. Homegoing really is a masterpiece.


* Quotes are from the 2016 hardcover edition from Alfred A. Knopf.