A Sportsman’s Notebook, by Ivan Turgenev

A Sportsman’s Notebook (also called A Sportsman’s Sketches) contains short vignettes and stories by Ivan Turgenev, written in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of the Russian classics we’re familiar with in English, this collection is not packed with Sturm und Drang. Rather, Turgenev’s narrator takes along on his travels around the Russian countryside, from forests to marshes to meadows, inviting us into his conversations with the strange people he meets while hunting.

The “stories” in A Sportsman’s Notebook are rarely complete stories in the way we’re used to. Most of them center on a conversation the narrator has with landowners and serfs. (The stories are all set before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.) As the narrator rambles around the Orel Oblast in western Russia, he is frequently invited into the ramshackle manors of down-at-their-heel gentry. Sometimes darkness or bad weather lead him to seek shelter in sheds and offices with the lower classes and serfs. These are some of my favorites in the collection because the narrator often pretends to be asleep, so that he can listen in. My absolutely favorite story in the collection is one where the narrator “sleeps” under a bush near some teenaged serfs as they swap knowledge, half of which is folklore but treated as useful woodlore by the group.

While the narrator provides a bit of authorial distance, the introduction to this republished edition of Turgenev’s stories explains that they are based on the author’s own life at Spasskoye, where he lived with his tyrannical mother. It’s not surprising, then, that many of these stories show the bleakness of serfdom. Many of the serfs the narrator meets have been subject to bizarre acts of autocracy: sudden transfers, dictated clothing, refusals to allow them to marry, constant attempts to change how they work and farm with disastrous consequences. And yet, the narrator only finds one person who is willing to help right wrongs in the hinterlands—and he’s only willing to do so for a fee. Everyone else the narrator talks to falls into two camps. There are the ones who are, if not content, unwilling to change things. The others, thankfully more rare, take advantage of the stagnation and bewildering bureaucracy to make little kingdoms for themselves where they can skim off any profits. The system is so broken in rural Russia it was no surprise to me how fatalistic everyone was.

I can understand the affection that this collection still has for readers, even more than a century. Unlike so many of those Russian classics that we know of without having read them, with their high drama and philosophy, A Sportsman’s Notebook is a slice of life in a vanished world. As I read it, I was charmed by the descriptions of the wild places the narrator visits. It’s clear that the narrator and Turgenev loved nature. I was less charmed by the people, who are rarely shown to their advantage, but I feel like I learned a lot about the conditions that lead to the terrible upheavals of the twentieth century. The men that the narrator meets are the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of revolutionaries. There’s so much more that can be said about A Sportsman’s Notebook, but I don’t want to blather. I’ll simply say, if you’re looking for something that will show you the real, vanished Russia of the Tsars, give this book a try.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Illustration by Peter Petrovich Sokolov for one of the stories in A Sportsman’s Notebook (Image via Wikicommons)

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is this month’s reading group book for The Guardian. I’ve passed on a lot of the books they’ve picked—mostly because I wasn’t terribly interested in their choices—but I was intrigued by the inaugural article about this book that described its blend of Victorian pastiche and postmodernism. I love Victorian pastiche; it’s the extremely broad vocabulary and psychological tension that gets me. What that article didn’t prepare me for was just how funny this book could be, as the author-narrator takes constant potshots at the characters’ frequent hypocrisies.

Although the title of the book leads us to think that Sarah Woodruff is the subject of the novel, we spend most of our time with Charles Smithson. Charles is the epitome of his time. He’s a gentleman of means who can indulge in his love of travel and paleontology. His manners made me think of a Victorian version of the “Well-Respected Man” that the Kink’s sang about in the 1960s. When we meet him, he’s about to take the next big step in his life: marrying a girl who is the female epitome of the time. They’re a perfect couple—at least at first glance. The narrator clues us into some important problems that the couple are not aware of. Charles worries about his more animalistic feelings. (He has a libido.) Ernestina worries that her fiancé will find out that she’s not as reluctant to have sex as she’s been taught women should be. There’s also the fact that the couple barely know each other. The match is good on paper and that’s the most important thing.

The eponymous French Lieutenant’s woman, Sarah, appears early in the novel. She is dressed in black and standing on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, staring out to sea. Shortly after, Charles and Ernestina learn her story of seduction, loss, and shame. The story—and her eyes and auburn hair—fascinate Charles. He risks his reputation to meet Sarah and talk with her. In the end, Charles’ attraction to Sarah tests him. His vague worries about worthiness and propriety catch fire into a full blown existential crisis. He does not want to be a hypocrite like the other men of his station. He doesn’t want to be the man who travels back and forth between wife and mistress. Part of the tension in this book comes from watching to see if Charles can master himself or if he decides to give in to his lust.

What entertained me most about The French Lieutenant’s Woman was the narrator’s voice. I chuckled more than once as the narrator says what it thinks about the various hypocritical characters it introduces to us readers. (The commentary about Mrs. Poulteney is priceless.) I also appreciated the narrator’s interruptions as it discussed the self-created dichotomies of the Victorian psyche; it brilliantly muses on the psychological knots the Victorians created for themselves. These interruptions reminded me of the narrative essays that Hugo and Dickens would add to their novels.

Fowles’ narrator, however, has the advantage of a century’s worth of psychological distance. This distances allows it to be a lot more blunt about what is wrong with these characters. At least, it can be blunt about Charles, Ernestina, Mrs. Poulteney, and everyone except for Sarah. Sarah herself says, more than once, that she doesn’t understand herself. I was irritated by the way the narrator and Sarah failed to create believable motivations for her actions. I didn’t see her as a psychologically realistic character so much as a living symbol of female temptation that haunted the Victorian mind. She inflames Charles, teases and tempts him. It would be easy to blame her for everything that happens to Charles in this book—except that Charles’ problems are really all caused by Charles.

I’m glad I took a chance on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, even though it took me longer to get through it than I expected. Fowles brilliantly recreates the voice of the era and gave me so much entertaining snark that I really did enjoy reading it for all its challenges. I would definitely recommend it to other fans of Victorian pastiche; it is one of the best examples of the subgenre I’ve ever read.

The Murder of Harriet Monckton, by Elizabeth Haynes

Trigger warning for rape.

Elizabeth Haynes took her inspiration for The Murder of Harriet Monckton from actual historical documents about an unsolved murder from 1843. Haynes scoured archives to try and find out if the case was ever solved. It wasn’t, but Haynes uses all of the available information about the crime scene and the suspects to create a solution to Harriet’s murder. She does an absolutely incredible job of taking the scant information gleaned from newspapers, court documents, and letters to bring Bromley of 1843 back to life. This book is an amazing piece of historical fiction; Haynes definitely shows us how to do this right. Seriously, the talent on display in this book floored me.

Three narrators tell their stories, all drawn from the available documents, but brought back to full life by Haynes’ imagination. There’s George Verrall, the preacher of a flock of Congregationalists, who has more than one secret he’s hiding. Then there’s Tom Churcher, who loved Harriet but was never able to tell her. And, lastly, there’s Frances Williams. Frances is a “spinster” teacher who, like the other two narrators, is in love with Harriet. That love is very different for each, however. Tom’s love seems the purest; he simply loves Harriet for who she is. Frances knows that Harriet doesn’t feel the same way, but she takes the bits of affection that she can as her friendship with Harriet develops. Verrall, though. It’s hard not to hate Verrall. The man is a terrible hypocrite. He claims to be a man of god, but he can only really get inspired if he has sex with a woman who is not his wife. Harriet was just the latest in a string of women Verrall has taken advantage of.

The historical record shows that, after Harriet’s body is found in the privy of Verrall’s chapel, Verrall was very involved in the coroner’s investigation. How can one not be suspicious of a man who shoves his way into a murder case and insists that victim committed suicide, when there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that conclusion? And yet, there isn’t a lot of physical evidence to definitively point to any culprit. No one found the bottle of Prussic acid that killed Harriet. Her body was moved after she died. This is well before DNA evidence and even fingerprinting. The coroner—and the London detectives who came along later—had to rely on witnesses. Sure, all of these witnesses swear to tell the truth and one would hope that they would. We readers know that these witnesses have all kinds of agendas that lead them to bend (or outright break) the truth. Churcher’s sister wants to protect her brother. Tom promised to keep other people’s secrets. George wants to keep his dirty secrets quiet. Frances wants to squelch the rumors about her relationship with Harriet. Absolutely no one wants to see what’s under the veneer of respectability in Bromley.

Part of an article about Harriet’s murder in The Colonial Times, Hobart, Tasmania, September 22, 1846 (Image via Trove, National Library of Australia)

There are works of historical fiction that are hampered by their author’s reliance on documented facts. For example, Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy fizzles at the end because that’s what happened in the actual Dreyfus case. Because what really happened to Harriet Monckton is unknown—and because so much of her life remains a mystery—Haynes has the space to make a really exciting, interesting story. In her notes at the end, Haynes says that she wanted to tell Harriet’s story because the real Harriet never got justice for what happened to her. We’ll never know, not after so much time and so little documentation. But I feel that Haynes did Harriet right in The Murder of Harriet Monckton. Harriet has a voice after all these years.

The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee explains in her notes at the end of The Downstairs Girl that she took inspiration from learning that, after the Civil War, Chinese workers were brought into the South to do heavy labor as a “replacement” for the recently freed Black people. Her protagonist, Jo Kuan, is the daughter of one of those immigrants, born into a deeply racist society where people of Chinese decent aren’t even allowed to own property or start businesses. Jo has always had a mind—and a voice—of her own and this novel is the story of her finally getting the respect she deserves. (This book would make a great choice for a book club.)

I am a sucker for novels about advice columnists (see Dear Mrs Bird); this is what drew me to The Downstairs Girl in the first place. After being fired from her job as a milliner for being Chinese and facing the possibility of losing the hideaway that has always sheltered Jo and her guardian, Jo volunteers to be “Miss Sweetie” to dispense advice to the women of Atlanta in the Focus. The job allows her to finally say the things she’s always wanted to say to the overbearing, the shy, the racist, the overworked, and the downtrodden. If Miss Sweetie can keep the Focus afloat, the family that runs the newspaper won’t have to return north—and no one will discover the hidden basement (built as part of the Underground Railroad) under their house. Meanwhile, Jo takes a job as a maid for the Payne family, with whom Jo has a long, troubled history.

The Downstairs Girl moves as a fast clip. As Jo bumps into institutional racism and sexism at almost every turn, she also uncovers secrets about the Payne family and about the menacing “fixer” who’s after Jo’s guardian. If Jo hadn’t been such a determined, resilient character, this book would have been really hard to read. As doors slam in Jo’s face (sometimes literally), she always seems to find a window to crawl into. It seems as though her alter ego as Miss Sweetie also helped Jo overcome her last reservations about ruffling feathers. By the end of The Downstairs Girl, it’s hard to imagine a challenge that Jo can’t overcome.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

There are always questions when a soldier returns home. The questions range from the obvious “how are you?” to the inevitable and dreaded “what did you do?” John Lacroix is typically tight-lipped about his experiences in the failed Peninsular War against Napoleon in Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. He returns to his lonely family estate with bloody feet, partially-deafened, and aimlessly depressed. He takes off for the north shortly after his homecoming. At first, he is only fleeing his terrible memories of Spain. What he doesn’t know is that he’s also being pursued by two men with murderous intent. What John did during the war is a very important question and the answer will decide whether he should live or die.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also a book about journeys. John’s purported reason for going to the islands north of the Scottish mainland is music. His father collected songs. But as a partially deaf man, this reason is a little thin. No one really tries to stop him. It’s clear that he’s not happy and needs something to do—also, going north will him him avoid the re-assembly of his regiment. The only thing worse than the memories of war would be going back to make more.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for John; he was clearly not meant to be a soldier. And I did feel sorry for him until I met the other travelers. Calley is a soldier through and through, which makes him the perfect man for the job of hunting John down. Calley testifies at a tribunal that John was the leader of a group of British soldiers that committed an atrocity against innocent Spanish civilians. To avoid bad press, Calley is dispatched to Great Britain—with a Spanish officer as a representative of the Spanish government—as a witness to John’s execution. From there, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free becomes a curious mix of slow sections about John finding himself again with tense sections about the determined Calley and the amiable gentle Spaniard, Medina.

The chase plays out over months. In fact, things get so tense—especially once John learns that he has people after him—that the ending was almost anti-climactically brief. So much so, that I’m actually a little puzzled by this book. Miller built up a lot of wonderful dramatic tension, with well-timed revelations that made me wonder who the real villain was. There are also some undeveloped characters and settings that I wanted to know more about. One of the things that draw me to books set during the eighteenth century or the Regency is their lush descriptions of sights, sounds, and tastes. There is detail in Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, but not nearly as much as I wanted.

I enjoyed John as a character, as well as his budding relationship with Emily, one of the women who shelters him on their remote Scottish island. This book is also an interesting example of a soldier’s mental struggles in a historical setting. I just with that this book had more: more set pieces, more description, more character development for the secondary and tertiary characters. Sadly, this book was a little disappointing for me.

The Girl with No Face, by M.H. Boroson

After the events of The Girl with Ghost Eyes, Li-lin has set up shop as the Daoshi—a Daoist priestess—for a rival tong in 1890s San Francisco. She has plenty of work settling ghosts and serving as a bodyguard, enough to keep her mind off of the fact that her father disowned her at least some of the time. At least she has the ghost of her father’s eye to keep her company. In The Girl with No Face, by M.H. Boroson, Li-lin runs across a problem so big, so awful, that she has to reach out to her stubborn father for help before they are all doomed.

It starts with a small mystery. Li-lin is presented with the body of a young girl who died under strange circumstances. When Li-lin begins to prepare for the girl’s funeral rites, she discovers that the girl’s soul is gone. From there, Li-lin ends up on the trail of someone who is abusing Chinese folk magic for their own ends, a vampire tree, some old enemies from deep in her past, and a spirit who wants to set itself up as a god in San Francisco.

What I loved about this entry in the Daoshi Chronicles is the further development of Li-lin’s character. She has always been pushing boundaries. In the first book in the series, she pushed because she knew she could be more than just an apprentice to her father…and because she couldn’t bear to destroy the ghost of her father’s eye. Mr. Yanqiu became more to her than a tool; he became an entity in his own right, deserving his own existence. In this book, Li-lin’s feminist sense of justice comes to the fore. She lives in a very sexist place and time. Even her own father, who loves her, tries to limit her abilities and actions. Women are regularly treated as pawns. It turns out that is something Li-lin cannot abide. So, not only is Li-lin fighting monsters (human and otherwise), but she also fights (verbally, for the most part) to change people’s views about the rights of women.

In the author’s note at the end of The Girl with No Face, Boroson explains the amount of research that went into creating Li-lin and her father’s Daoist magic, as well as the beliefs of Chinese people at the end of the nineteenth century—and reveals the liberties that were taken to make the magic come to life on the page. Because of all the research (this book comes with a recommended reading list), there are some parts where the characters deliver mini-lectures about what they’re doing and what’s going on. In any other circumstances, this might have annoyed me. Because I know so little about the time, the place, and people, however, I didn’t mind at all. It also helped that there are some spectacular fight scenes in this book. The ending is a showstopper.

I strongly recommend this novel for fans of historical fantasy who are looking for something from a non-Western European tradition. Even if that’s not what you’re looking for, I would still recommend this book because it’s an absolute hell of a read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Oracle of Cumae, by Melissa Hardy

Melissa Hardy’s hilarious novel, The Oracle of Cumae, is set up as a story, within a story, within a story, and sometimes within yet another story. It begins with a very old woman sending for a priest. She doesn’t want to confess. Mariuccia Umbellino is very clear about that. She just wants to tell her story before she passes away. Her story is later transcribed, a generation or so later, by a woman who tells us she doesn’t believe a word of it.

Before Mariuccia became the 99-year-old matriarch of the Bacigalupo clan and business, she was a young girl from the mountains of central Italy. Her family raised goats and harvested olives. They had a good life, considering they never really left their mountain. Part of their good luck came from the fact that the ancient Oracle of Cumae (yep, still alive) fled to their mountain caves over a millennia ago. The Cumaean Sibyl dispenses advice and wisdom to the women of the mountain, though it doesn’t always work out the way it should.

Mariuccia’s comedy of errors begins when a cranky priest and a pompous merchant show up at their farm, with orders from the pope to dynamite the Sybil’s cave and exorcise the elderly oracle. Of course, the family and the villagers can’t allow this…but Mariuccia’s mother also sees the arrival of outsiders to marry off her eldest daughter, Mariuccia’s sister. And that’s where things start to go sideways. Terribly and hilariously sideways.

The Oracle of Cumae is one of the funniest, most unexpected book I’ve read in a long time. If you’re looking for a bit of goofiness with a wonderfuly down-to-earth protagonist, I strongly recommend this book. I read it yesterday afternoon and I’m still grinning.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah’s novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, is based on the true story of David Livingstone‘s last (posthumous) journey. When Livingstone died in Ujiji (in what is now western Tanzania) in 1873, the members of his expedition buried his heart there before preserving the rest of his body and carrying him to Zanzibar so that it can be shipped back to the United Kingdom. Gappah’s narrators are pulled from the pages of Livingstone’s journal and from the journal written by a European-educated African man who joined Livingstone shortly before the explorer’s death. Halima, Livingstone’s cook, and Jacob Wainwright could not be more different—making for a tale that is often as humorous as it is harrowing.

Halima narrates the first third and part of the last section of Out of Darkness, Shining Light. Halima was born into slavery in Zanzibar, passed from one master to another, before she was purchased by Livingstone as a cook and “traveling woman” for one of his male employees. Through Halima’s story, we see the great man in more humble circumstances and at his less glorious moments. When Livingstone dies, her goal is to make sure she gets what she was promised: her freedom and a house of her own, at long last. She has a delightfully wicked sense of humor that I relished. I enjoyed her voice so much that I wished she had a larger part in this book.

An illustration of Livingstone’s body being transported to the coast, from an 1882 biography. (Image via Wikicommons)

Jacob Wainwright is not pragmatic. His goals are impossible (converting the entire continent). Most of all, he doesn’t see things as clearly as Halima. The only exception—and one of the more interesting parts of his narrative, to me—are his views on Livingstone. To white people, Livingstone is a great hero. No one looks too closely at his day-to-day actions. Wainwright is dismayed by Livingstone’s participation in the slave trade and his practice of having women accompany the expedition to keep the men “happy.” Wainwright is more upset, however, by Livingstone’s almost complete failure to evangelize. Wainwright’s deepest wishes to be a missionary unfortunately blind him to a lot of bad behavior.

Halima’s perspective shows us how Africans and African Arabs and Europeans have adapted to each other’s presence, while not glossing over the horrors of slavery and racism. Wainwright’s perspective reads as very European; I would diagnose him with an inferiority complex. Instead of hanging on to his own heritage, Wainwright tried to remake himself and remake every other African he encounters. In her author’s note, Gappah references The Scramble for Africa, a non-fiction book by Thomas Pakenham, that recounts the history of rapid colonialization at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. In Halima and Wainwright, I saw some of the same struggle for hearts, minds, and bodies.

While I wish there had been more Halima and less Wainwright in this book, I was fascinated by the interplay of their perspectives. I was also hooked by all the historical detail Gappah put into this novel—the names of peoples and places that don’t exist anymore, a novel that gives voice to Africans without a white person taking over. Out of Darkness, Shining Light is an amazing journey.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong

At one point in Monique Truong’s novel, The Sweetest Fruits, one of the narrators tells her interviewer that it’s not enough to just get the story of one person: you have to also get the stories of the people around them. And that’s exactly what we get in this novel based on the life of author Lafcadio Hearn and three of the women in his life. (Technically four, if you count the excerpts from Elizabeth Bisland‘s biography of her friend.) While we learn a lot about Hearn, I was more fascinated by the lives of the women who loved him than I was about a man who often struck me as selfish and fussy. The women tell us about love, sacrifice, abandonment, difficult choices, compatibility, and so much more. This book is an amazing piece of writing that, while it hews very close to actual history, amplifies it in ways that only faction can do.

The first narrator we meet is Rosa Cassimati (Rosa Antoniou Kassimatis), Hearn’s Venetian Greek mother. She is returning to her home island of Kythira after spending unhappy years in Dublin, with her Anglo-Irish husband’s aunt. She tells her story to her maid, to dictate her words into a long letter to her son to explain why she left him in Ireland. Rosa takes us all the way back to her adolescences, when she was a virtual prisoner to a father who was trying to “protect” her from the outside world. Just before she is sent off to a convent, she meets Charles Hearn and the pair fall in love. Things get out of hand and the two are forced into more entanglement than they perhaps wanted. Rosa’s letter to Lafcadio is brutally honest and deeply colored by her regret.

For the rest of The Sweetest Fruits, I wondered if his parents relationship was foreshadowing for the rest of the writer’s life. The second part of the book, narrated by Hearn’s first wife, Alethea Foley, had me thinking that Lafcadio might be the second coming of Charles Hearn. Alethea was enslaved in Kentucky before the Freedom, as she calls it. Afterwards, Alethea moved to Cincinnati and worked as a boarding house cook. Her relationship with Hearn started slowly; I wasn’t always sure if they were deliberately courting or not. Alethea’s retelling of their story—told to a reporter in an effort to help her gain her rights as a lawful wife—also had me wondering if Alethea knew that their relationship was doomed. In retrospect, Alethea can definitely see the warning signs: Lafcadio’s sudden realization of what having a black wife would mean for his social standing, his anger over things like what’s for dinner and how it’s prepared, the stress of living close to the bone, financially speaking. When Lafcadio departs for New Orleans, it feels more inevitable than anything else.

An 1889 portrait of Lafcadio Hearn, by Frederick Gutekunst (Image via Wikicommons)

The last part of the novel, narrated by Hearn’s second wife, Koizumi Setsu, has a completely different emotional tone. Setsu is in mourning, but she doesn’t seem to carry the deep regret or anger of our first two narrators. Where Rosa was fleeing a place where she didn’t fit in and Alethea speaks from a place where Lafcadio couldn’t fit in, Setsu reveals how Lafcadio found a home in Japan. There is conflict between the two, but Lafcadio seems to find whatever he was looking for all his life in this new country, far from where he started in the Mediterranean Ocean. Setsu describes their life together as creating their own country and language. They are not the foreigners or the outcasts anymore; everyone outside their circle is a foreigner. I think this is what Hearn was looking for for so long. In Ireland, he was a half-Greek dependent suddenly dropped on a family that didn’t want him. In the Untied States, he was an Irishman who married a black woman, making him double outcast. In Japan, however, he was welcomed—so much so that he became a Japanese subject.

After reading The Sweetest Fruits, I don’t have any desire to learn more about Hearn. His lifelong need to make the world around him just so bothered me, especially as so much of it came through unacknowledged emotional labor from the women who tell this story. I had much more sympathy for the narrators. So much so, that I loved getting their stories as they made room for Lafcadio in their homes and lives. This book is so rich in the ideas and themes that come up that I think a literary-minded and/or feminist book club would also devour it. Truong’s writing is also beautiful as it gives each narrator her own distinct voice, motivations, and experiences. The Sweetest Fruits is an astonishingly great read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, by Ayşe Papatka Bucak

The stories in Ayşe Papatka Bucak’s collection, The Trojan War Museum, are the kind that force readers to pay close attention—but in a good way, I promise! These stories allude to Ottoman and Turkish history, mid-nineteenth century French art, death customs, Melungeons, the meaning and symbolism of the body, Orientalism, the Trojan war, the Greek gods, terrorism, and so many things. In addition, a lot of the stories interrupt themselves to go off in different directions that are later shown to be directly relevant or, in one case, turn into a snowball of connected ideas. This collection challenged and pleased me. I can’t say that I was entertained, as such, but I feel like these stories made the old mental gears turn a little faster.

Here are some of the stand out stories from the collection:

“The Trojan War Museum.” This story definitely deserves to be the title story because it has so much to say. This story revolves around the way that wars are always accompanied by narratives. There’s a story about how wars start. There’s a story (or stories) about what they mean. There are stories about soldiers’ experiences. The problem with all of these stories is that they never quite capture the truth of what happened. This theme plays out through the efforts of the Greek gods and others to create museums to keep the memory of the Trojan War alive. These museums always fail because they’re just not right. Sometimes the museums are downright fraudulent. Other times, they are too grim to attract visitors to contemplate their artifacts. After reading this story, I have two thoughts. One is that it’s futile to even trying to create an all-encompassing “story” for war. The other is that we can’t help ourselves when it comes to stories; we need them to make sense of everything.

Two Musician Girls, by Osman Hamdi Bey–an artist referenced in this book and who I rather like now. (Image via Wikicommons)

“Little Sister and Emineh.” This story starts by reflecting on Orientalism and exoticism. People from around the world were essentially imported to be gawked at by visitors to the Chicago World Fair, in 1893. Here we follow a Turkish teen, Emineh, whose job is to demonstrate weaving an authentic Turkish carpet. To make the wool last longer, she has to unweave it at night (just like Penelope, in an unvoiced allusion). Emineh’s beauty, especially her hair, mean that she is the target of a lot of unwanted propositions from men and unwanted touching by people who want to touch her hair. Emineh’s kind heart leads her to start looking out for Little Sister, an orphan girl in disguise as a boy. Everyone else in the Turkish party is casually cruel to Little Sister, a distain which Little Sister seems willing to return. To get people to change their minds about Little Sister, Emineh starts to tell stories in which a quirky orphan turns out to be a hero, or at least useful. On top of all this, this story has a gut-punch of an ending.

“A Cautionary Tale.” This story appears early in the collection and, I think, contains important clues about what much of the collection is about. This story is told in two threads. In one, we learn about the rumors and partial history of the “Terrible Turk,” a nineteenth century Turkish wrestler who briefly rose to fame before drowning in a shipwreck. In the other, an unknown person is interrogated by an unknown official. It’s not until the end of the story that we learn why one person is being grilled by another. The interrogator, for most of the story, seems to be curious about what their subject thinks about the tales of the Terrible Turk. Does the subject believe the stories? How do the stories make the subject feel? They refuse to answer “proper questions.” This focus on the subject’s response to the story got me to thinking seriously about what stories can achieve—as well as how rumors can mess with our memory of actual events. These themes come up repeatedly throughout this collection.

If you haven’t spotted it by now, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories is a gold mine for readers who like to look under the hood and think about what makes stories tick. This review doesn’t even scratch the surface of the other themes that come up in the book (mentioned in the first paragraph of this post). I could write a whole series of posts full of my attempts to explicate the stories. But! I will leave that to other readers who are intrigued enough to pick up this collection. I hope there are lot of you out there. This book is absolutely worth the time and mental effort.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.