The Seed Detective, by Adam Alexander

Have you ever wondered, when you visit the produce section of a grocery store or encountered an unusual dish at a new restaurant, how our ancestors ever worked out how to take the wild things growing around them and turned them into giant pumpkins, lethally hot chillis, or the stunning variety of Brassicas? I certainly have, but not to the extent that Adam Alexandar has. In The Seed Detective, Alexander discusses the wide variety of heirloom and heritage varieties of vegetables he’s collected on his travels around the world and now grows in his garden. By the end of the book, Alexandar will have taken you on a global tour of peas, beans, tomatoes, nearly all the Brassica species and varieties, lettuces, alliums, corn, and chillis—and will probably have you wanting to make a quick trip to the store to stock up.

Bookended with an introduction about one of the first plants Alexander collected the seeds of and a conclusion about the dangers of monoculture agriculture, The Seed Detective is divided into two major parts. The first covers plants of the Old World (Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa, and Asia). The second goes over plants from the New World (North and South America). The distinction has to do with place of origin but, as Alexander shows us over and over again, a tasty plant will grow legs. The story of chillis is proof enough of this. Plants in the Capsicum genus are native to southern Mexico and Central America. They proved so popular (partly as a replacement for expensive black pepper and partly because a lot of people really like challenging the fortitude of their tastebuds) that folks started growing them everywhere. What would Indian, southeast Asian, Chinese, and Korean food be like without the system-clearing fire of chillis? North American tomatoes, too, are so popular in Italy that it’s almost impossible to imagine Italian food without them.

Alexander is not just a seed collector and gardener; he’s also a student of botany and the etymology of plant names. All of the chapters about the plants Alexander has collected over the years include histories of how the plants came to get their names, botanical and common. To be honest, these were some of my favorite parts of The Seed Detective. I was delighted to learn how many indigenous names are partially preserved in their English common names. For example, the Nahautl name tomatl is where we got “tomato” and the name for squashes can be traced back to a Narragansett word (entirely separate from the etymology of the verb “squash”). Garlic, it turns out, has been with English speakers so long that its name is an Old English word that hasn’t changed much in over a thousand years.

Botanical illustration of Capsicum annuum, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897 (Image via Wikicommons)

The only place that Alexandar’s book falls flat is when he talks about how any of these plants that he gushes over actually tastes. He has a strangely limited vocabulary when it comes to flavor. Alexander mostly talks about plants as being either tasty or bland. We can get a bit more detail when he compares varieties, although he mostly just declares one variety as tastier than another. Some types of corn are described as nutty or sweet, but that’s about as detailed as it gets. This flaw is very noticeable given that Alexander can vividly describe the appearance of seeds or growing plants. I understand that flavor is a difficult thing to describe as it’s such a subjective sense and Alexander is not a chef. Still, I was annoyed that Alexander would sort plants into the tasty or bland categories after waxing lyrical about verdant foliage, the length of the seed pods, or the vibrant colors of tomatoes and chillis.

In spite of Alexander’s apparent inability to talk about flavor, I think gardeners and self-taught botanists will enjoy The Seed Detective. There’s a lot to learn here about not just the origins of plants and how they came to be cultivated over the centuries but also small bits of advice about growing a global array of plants on a couple of acres in Monmouthshire, England. I might suggest that, if you don’t have access to a garden full of dewy fresh vegetables at hand, you might want to make up a batch of your favorite bean casserole or some ratatouille before you open up The Seed Detective.

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

Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s magnificent, devasting novel, Our Missing Hearts, is the perfect book for our times, in the best possible way. It’s like Ng took all of my worries about the world and validated them without offering false hope (change is going to take work). This book is one I’m going to be pushing into readers’ hands for months (if not years) to come.

Bird Gardner lives in New England, sometime in the not-too-distant future. He once had a mother but now only lives with his dad, who constantly repeats rules meant to keep the shrunken family together: don’t talk about his poet mother to anyone, avoid trouble at all costs, and don’t question the PACT (Protect American Culture and Traditions Act). These rules are troubling, of course, but what’s even more troubling are PACT’s ripple effects throughout American society. Bird isn’t the only one trying to avoid trouble because the powers that be have figured out how to control all dissent. To keep people quiet, take away their children.

In her afterword, Ng points to historical precedents for governments taking children away from parents who are, somehow, a challenge to the majority’s status quo. Governments in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other places took indigenous children from their parents to “civilize” them. The Trump administration separated children from immigrant parents. It is a terrifyingly effective tactic. In Our Missing Hearts, Bird slowly learns why his friend, Sadie (who was taken from her activist parents), burns with fury at the adults around her who keep her from going home, why everyone seems so afraid to voice their thoughts, why so many books have been removed from the libraries and schools, and, above all, why his mother had to leave.

Our Missing Hearts is narrated by Bird except for a middle section in which Bird’s mother, Margaret, gets to tell her story. She takes us back to an economic collapse so awful that it eclipsed the Great Depression. The collapse—called the Crisis—was blamed on China, where Margaret’s parents emigrated from. People of Asian descent (Chinese or otherwise) were attacked or shunned by white Americans. (Ng references the racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin in the afterword.) Margaret tells us how she survived the Crisis and found Bird’s father. Their love story is beautifully told and had my heart aching long before Margaret gets to the part where she explains how one of her poems became a flashpoint in the anti-Asian/anti-PACT movement.

One thing that really jumped out at me about Our Missing Hearts was the use of art to protest PACT and the complacency of white Americans. Because the fear of losing one’s children is so strong, activists have gone underground instead of staging mass protests or more forceful responses to oppression, people will create guerilla works of art that can’t be traced to anyone but that remind anyone who sees them that children are being stolen. Margaret’s eponymous poem is often quoted. Librarians also get a shoutout as part of the resistance, which pleased me greatly.

This book was an incredible read. Ng plays the emotions like a virtuoso and I was close to tears more than once because of the beauty Ng invoked for the power of art, Margaret’s love for her family, and Bird’s awakening to the world around him. It also had my clenching my hands in fists at the way that PACT stole so many freedoms in the name of a little security against future economic and social turmoil. Ng does all of this without making anything too easy and without preaching. It works as fiction unlike a lot of books I’ve read that have sᴏᴍᴇᴛʜɪɴɢ ɪᴍᴘᴏʀᴛᴀɴᴛ ᴛᴏ sᴀʏ. This book is phenomenal.

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

Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran

Xuan would be first in line to argue back with Cassius of Julius Caesar, who declared that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Act I, scene III). This survivor of the Vietnam War fervently believes in the Vietnamese zodiac and its authority over everything from the events of the lunar year to everyone’s personality. Every year at Tết, Xuan purchases a new alamanc so that she can find out what is in store for her family. As Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran, opens, Xuan is hurriedly trying to send messages to her three daughters with urgent advice about how they can ward off bad luck for the coming year.

Daughters of the New Year moves backward in time from that frantic early 2015 Tết to show us what really shaped Xuan and her daughters. Where Xuan interprets everything through the lens of everyone’s zodiac signs (she is a Metal Tiger who should never have married a Metal Dragon, because they will always fight, for example), we instead see the long shadow of the Vietnam War in how Xuan hordes food and belongings and how she and her explosive husband relentlessly work to earn as much money as possible against future calamity. Their daughters—Trac, Nghi, and Trieu—however, are thoroughly American. They grew up in New Orleans and don’t understand why their parents don’t act like other parents in their community. They don’t get why their parents don’t buy them the cool new thing so that they can’t fit in. And because neither Xuan nor her husband will talk about their past, the three girls are left bewildered and frustrated. That much parental trauma pushed them all out of the nest, in directions that Xuan and her husband are baffled by in their turn.

After establishing the characters, Daughters of the New Year starts jumping further and further into the past. We see Trac and Nghi as young girls, then Xuan as a young mother and a younger bride, before sending us back to Vietnam. Before the war and right up until the end, Xuan and her single mother were a member of the privileged class. They might not have been rich but they were very comfortable. Xuan’s shining moment—and her moment of greatest disillusion—is when she competes in a beauty pageant to be Miss Saigon in 1973. Xuan’s mother, Quynh, is not a nurturing, motherly figure. Although she provides almost everything Xuan could want, she, too, is also constantly working to earn as much as possible. Briefer jumps take us further back into the family’s past and that of Vietnam.

The Chinese zodiac, the basis for the Vietnamese zodiac (Image via Wikicommons)

It’s hard not to read Daughters of the New Year without bringing out a Western psychoanalytic lens to examine the repeating trauma in the family. None of the characters, except for perhaps the Americanized trio of daughters, seems capable of reflecting on their feelings or behavior. They can recognize the bad things that happened to them—Hurricane Katrina, the fall of Saigon, a rape—but they all barrel ahead with their lives without ever stopping to realize that they are now harming others with their afloofness, lack of empathy, and rigidity. That said, I was fascinated by the use of the Vietnamese zodiac as Xuan’s way of understanding people and conflict around her. It’s funny how, sometimes, someone’s zodiac sign seems to fit their personality perfectly. (I don’t believe in astrology but I am a textbook Virgo a lot of the time.) On the one hand, Xuan is a product of extreme loss and deprivation. On the other, her metal nature is what makes her stubborn, and being a Tiger leads her to be independent, anxious, argumentative, and entrepreneurial. She sees herself as unchangeable and she’s not wrong (not without a lot of therapy). If someone can’t or won’t change, why not just learn the best way to work with a Metal Tiger?

Daughters of the New Year is a fascinating look at a dysfunctional family who are much more likely to claim that the fault is in their stars rather than themselves.

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

Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty

My family still cracks jokes about why on earth anyone would want to invite Jessica Fletcher or Hercule Poirot or any of those other detectives anywhere. People die almost as soon as they arrive! That’s certainly the problem for talented but reluctant detective Mallory Viridian in Mur Lafferty’s highly entertaining novel, Station Eternity. From a young age, murders just seem to happen wherever Mallory goes. It’s so bad that Mallory actually moves onto an alien space station to get away from the chaos. Life is good there, until she gets word that a delegation of humans are on their way to the station.

We meet Mallory when she’s in a bit of a tizzy. As soon as she hears the gossip about the humans on their way, Mallory starts beating down doors to argue against letting more humans aboard the Eternity. Told no, she starts asking friends for rides off the station. As Mallory races hither and thither on the Eternity, we not only find out why she is so very terrified of having any more humans aboard (really, just about everywhere she goes, someone dies) but also about the fantastical galaxy of aliens who live and work on Eternity.

The mystery in Station Eternity is of the kind I particularly like. Seemingly unconnected events slowly coalesce over the course of the novel into an ending that ties up every loose end. Everything that happens in this book happens for a reason, to the extent that re-reading it would be a treat. Since you’d know the ending, you can slow down to savor all of those important events and details, like a great in-joke. What I loved most about Station Eternity, however, was the thought that Lafferty must have put into creating a space station that initially wasn’t designed for humans and inhabited by species who think that humans are volatile and primitive (we are). For example, Mallory had to spend some time when she first came aboard Eternity to find out which of the foods served at the various cafes wouldn’t kill her or make her sick. She had to make do with furniture that wasn’t built to her scale. Most of all, Mallory constantly has to answer questions about why humans do the things we do. We are a weird species, biologically, socially, and psychologically, when you start to think about it.

Station Eternity isn’t a perfect book. Mallory’s fretting got on my nerves more than once and some plot threads were dropped a little too long before being picked up to wrap into the conclusion. (Why is no one concerned when the ambassador disappears near the beginning of the book?) But these quibbles are minor when considered against the elaborate mystery and Lafferty’s imagination. Lafferty also brings a lot of humor to this book, causing me to chuckle more than once as I read about Mallory and her friends misadventures on Eternity.

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

All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse

Between April 7 and July 15, 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Twa people were murdered by the Hutu majority of Rwanda. The Rwandan Genocide is the kind of event that people who survived it will never fully recover from. It’s the kind of horrific event that forever stains the name and history of a country. In All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse (pitch-perfectly translated by Alison Anderson), we see how the long shadow of the Genocide still smothers Rwandans decades later through the eyes of Blanche and her mother, Immaculata. Mairesse also shows us the stark divides between black and white, speech and silence, healing and long death.

Blanche is well aware of the irony of her name. In France, she goes by Barbra. Even though Blanche is half-French, through her father, she will never been anything other than an African to the French people she lives among. Blanche left her hometown of Butare, in southern Rwanda, near the start of the genocide. Her mother stayed behind and narrowly managed to survive. Immaculata stayed because her son, Bosco, joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front. All three family members manage to physically survive the violence, but all suffer deep, emotional scars that leave them forever changed.

As the narrative switches back and forth between Blanche and Immaculata, we learn more about their lives before and after the genocide and Rwandan Civil War. Before their world ended, Immaculata was torn between her two children. Blanche represents Immaculata’s desire to rise above the limitations placed on her by poverty, by expectations of her gender, and by the lingering racism of colonial rule. For a long time, Immaculata would only speak to her daughter in French and briefly forbid her family from teaching her Kinyarwanda, one of the official languages of Rwanda. Blanche does learn Kinyarwanda eventually, but her mother’s drive to Europeanize her daughter leaves Blanche feeling like a perpetual foreigner in the country where she was born. Immaculata’s other child, Bosco, was fathered by a Tutsi population, a man who was Immaculata’s first love. We don’t learn much about who Bosco is. We only know what happens to him through Immaculata’s reports to Blanche. Unlike Blanche, Bosco is never pushed into anything. Instead, he seems to represent for Immaculata her authentic, Tutsi Rwandan self, or perhaps her self-destructive choices.

What fascinated me most about All Your Children, Scattered was the role that speaking or not-speaking play. After Bosco’s death, Immaculata stops speaking. She goes silent. Meanwhile, Blanche switches between French and Kinyarwanda to try and express everything. She uses both languages to try and teach her own son where she comes from. Yet, for all her words, Blanche fails to reach Immaculata in Immaculata’s profound grief over her lost Bosco. How can words ever express that kind of sorrow? Or the fear that Immaculata felt while she was hiding from Hutu forces that wanted to kill her and everyone like her? I was reminded of all the books, articles, and documentaries that have been created about the Holocaust. There’s an ocean of words out there that can teach us what happened but they all seem to fall short of fully capturing the experience of being hunted and murdered simply because one group of people believes that your group should be exterminated.

And yet, for all that, life does carry on. Immaculata’s family lives in her daughter and her grandson. The fact that we see the characters slowly heal over the years gives this book—which like I said is about one of the most horrific crimes in history—a hardwon sense of hope. Somehow, it is possible to find peace. Somehow, it is possible to find the words to connect with others and the world. I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand all of the choices Mairesse made in this book (I’m frankly baffled by the allegorical story near the end) but I will say that it was a harrowing and beautiful read.

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

Ghost Eaters, by Clay McLeod Chapman

Grief is one of the hardest things we can go through. We have to find a way to make peace with the absence of someone from our lives. Throw in grief and things get even more complicated. Add in hallucinogenic mushrooms and the whole mess gets weird, as we see in Clay McLeod Chapman’s Ghost Eaters. Protagonist Erin winds up on a long strange trip after the sudden death of a friend who stirs up all kinds of complicated emotions.

Silas is the kind of person who raises the hackles on my neck. They are supremely persuasive, able to talk people into doing things against their own sense of self-preservation, and they appear to have no conscience, because they regularly convince people to do dangerous, damaging things. Erin has been under Silas’ spell for a long time. While hanging out with him is an adventure, it’s also emotionally draining. He asks his friends for more and more of their time, money, and resources until his self-destructiveness reaches a point where Erin, Amara, and Tobias—who have been friends since they were teenagers—finally decide to have an intervention about his drug use. It goes spectacularly wrong when Erin loses her cool and says everything she’s been holding in. The next thing, Erin et al. know, Silas is dead of an overdose.

The death breaks Erin. She is wracked with guilt over the things that she said to Silas. The emotional torment makes her susceptible to Silas’s last request, delivered by Tobias: a drug-fueled seance in an abandoned, unfinished house. And that’s where things get weird. The drug Tobias talks Erin and Amara into taking literally haunts Erin. She starts seeing ghosts. This would be horrifying enough for anyone, but Erin lives in Richmond, Virginia. There are a lot of angry dead there who want to devour the living.

Ghost Eaters oscillates between horror and emotional exploration of grief. The ghosts really are out to get Erin, and yet they also very much represent the unfinished business we have with the dead. Some of us want to make amends or say a proper goodbye or get justice. Some of us just can’t let go. The mushroom-based drug promises a connection with the dead to do those things; it’s no wonder that word of it spreads across Richmond to the point that a small cult starts to form. Unfortunately, that promise is a false one, a horrifically false one. This book stokes up a lot of tension as we watch Erin to see if she’ll be able to find a way through her grief instead of disappearing into it. Because there is so much emotional depth in Ghost Eaters, as well as sheer hair-raisingly scary writing, I think this one will stick with readers for a long time.

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

Days Come and Go, by Hemley Boum

Trigger warnings for brief depictions of domestic violence and rape.

Some families seem cursed. Whether you believe that it’s divine retribution or a supernatural haunting or epigenetics, some people just seem doomed to follow the same path as their ancestors. The reason we read about families like the one depicted in Hemley Boum’s Days Come and Go and other literary family sagas, I think, is in the hope that one of the family’s scions will find a way to break the curse. The women of the sprawling Cameroonian family at the heart of Days Come and Go seem to be cursed in love. Three generations in a row, we see women get caught up in relationships at a critical moment in their young lives. The early promises of those relationships—love, belonging, social status, financial security, parenthood—are broken early, leaving Anna, Abi, and Tina to rediscover their solitary selves. Days Come and Go is skillfully translated by Nchanji Njamnsi.

Days Come and Go is told in roughly chronological order, after some present-day sections that help establish the relationships between our three narrators. As far as I can tell, the novel spans from the 1950s to 2015. When we first meet her, Anna, the matriarch, is dying of cancer. Her daughter, Abi, is torn between caring for Anna and dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce. One of Anna’s nurses tells Abi that Anna has been talking about her past, suggesting that Abi listen in. Anna’s revelations take us back to her girlhood in a remote Cameroonian village. She tells us how a missionary smoothed the way for Anna to get a French education: all Anna has to give up is her non-European name and work her fingers to the bone to get it. She slowly loses contact with the woman who raised her and reshapes herself into the good subject that the Europeans want her to be. Around the time Cameroon becomes independent, in 1960, Anna means her husband in a whirlwind of youthful idealism and rebelliousness, only to find herself trapped by pregnancy and in-laws who despise her.

When the novel comes back around to Abi’s story, we find her in the last days of her marriage. Her husband discovers that Abi has been having a long-term affair. The betrayal brings out a frightening, ugly side to Abi’s husband and rips their small family into pieces. Just like with her mother Anna, Abi has to confront the realization that people only really show you who they are when they’re under pressure. It might be the pressure to conform to racial prejudices or the dictates of a mother-in-law or humiliation.

The last narrator’s story is the most harrowing. Tina is not a biological member of Anna’s family but, as an orphan, she was informally adopted into Anna’s household. When her dearest friend becomes religious, Tina is so lonely that she joins the local mosque, too. It’s not until far too late that Tina and her friend realize that they’ve been recruited into Boko Haram. By then, it’s impossible for them to escape with their lives. Thankfully, Anna is able to use her husband’s contacts in the Cameroonian government and military to help Tina escape.

The details in the women’s stories vary but they all share the same rough arc. (There are some hints that Tina might be the one to break the family curse.) They all dive deeply into relationships with people they don’t really know. Anna’s husband had a controlling family and a taste for the kind of finer things that only lots of money can buy. Abi’s husband saw her as a possession; he was shockingly misogynist for a man who professed to be a lovely family man. Tina’s friend nursed a deep sense of rejection that led her to a fundamentalist group of terrorists that later killed her.

What are we to make of these stories? Should we stay away from all-encompassing relationships? Do we have to give up on love and kinship and friendship? In spite of all the heartache and pain the women experience in Days Come and Go, I think that the narrators in this story wouldn’t say that we have to give up any of these relationships. Instead, I think they’d say: keep your eyes open. I think they’d also say: you don’t need another person to make you whole. And I think that, in the end, they would say: we are stronger and more resilient than we realize.

The lake in Parcour vita, Douala, Cameroon. Much of the story takes place in Douala. (Image via Wikicommons)

Two Nurses, Smoking, by David Means

In Two Nurses, Smoking, David Means presents us with a series of moments, captured by characters who are transfixed in time for a variety of reasons. Many of the characters are stuck in their grief. Others are trapped in unhappiness. Still others are caught up in lust or mental illness. Readers who read for plots will need to slow down while readers who are in it for characterization may relish these repeated opportunities to reflect along with the characters on moments of perfect recall, last sights, or imagined possibilities.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Clementine, Carmelita, Dog”—Means immerses us in the perspective of a dog. Clementine’s primary knowledge of the world comes through her nose, not language. She smells when her owner develops cancer, but can’t understand why that owner suddenly disappears from Clementine’s world. And she also can’t understand why her next owner, a grieving man, turns her loose in the woods one day. Although she might not know why things happen, Clementine can understand love, family, and belonging. This story will be especially sweet for those of us who have pets.

“Lightning Speaks”—This story features a character, Meg, who appears in at least one other story in the collection. This non-linear story bounces around the disorganized mind of a girl/woman who seeks out love only to end up in an institution. She struggles to communicate with others who dismiss her, by taking the specialness out of her stories or talking over her. By the time her interlocutor realizes that he’s squelched Meg’s efforts to describe transcendence, the moment is lost.

Although I liked the meditativeness of Two Nurses, Smoking, overall this collection kept playing the same note. Many of the (mostly unnamed) narrators were impossible for me to differentiate; they all sounded alike. Means is excellent at capturing fleeting moments of clarity or memory, but I would’ve liked to have seen more variety among the stories. This book is best read over time and not in a single sitting.

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

Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka

Suzuki is in way over his head in Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka. But then, it’s true that revenge never goes according to plan…and especially not in an Isaka novel. When we meet him, Suzuki is in a very awkward position. He’s managed to infiltrate the organization run by the father of the guy who killed his wife. Suzuki hopes his plan will get him closer to his wife’s killer. It’s not a bad plan, except that Suzuki is not nearly as good an actor as he thinks he is. His “supervisor” devises an awful test for him and, just when Suzuki has to make a decision, the plot erupts to life. Isaka takes us on a wild ride across Tokyo as plans collide with schemes and get tangled up in last-ditch efforts. It’s an intricately plotted mess involving a lot of very dangerous people.

While Three Assassins begins with a revenge plot stopped in its tracks, it quickly turns into a bunch of narratives bouncing off one another. Suzuki’s bumbling intersects with the efforts of the Cicada (a master with knives who specializes in eliminating entire families) to make his name in the “industry” of killers for hire and with the Whale’s (who specializes in forcing people to commit suicide) attempts to settle scores that have been racking up over the course of his shadowy career. And then there’s the Pusher, who kills people with a timely push in front of a car or train. All three of these assassins are people you never want to meet. Unfortunately for Suzuki, he’s on a collision course with all of them.

I can’t say too much more about Three Assassins without giving things away. Suffice to say, this book is an excellent thriller. Isaka’s intersecting plots and mordant humor are a delight to read. The hints of the supernatural make things even better. Readers who want a fast, fierce read should pick this one up.

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

Come to This Court and Cry, by Linda Kinstler

It’s been 77 years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. We know a lot about what happened but, as Linda Kinstler finds as she tries to track down any information about a grandfather who disappeared, there are things that we will never know. Documents were destroyed. Mass graves were obliterated. We have survivor testimonies but not everyone was willing or able to talk about what happened to them. Now, after so many decades, many of the last survivors and perpetrators have passed on. In Come to This Court and Cry, Kinstler investigates two mysteries. First, there is what might have happened to Boris Kinstler. The second—and the one that ends up being more successful—is Kinstler’s exploration of what Herberts Cukurs did during the war and why Mossad agents assassinated him in 1965. What connects the two men? They both served in the notorious Arajs Kommando, under the command of the SS in Latvia.

Kinstler begins her book in what might strike some as an odd place for a work that spends so much time discussing legal culpability and rules of evidence. She begins in a book store, with a copy of a novel about the assassination of Herberts Cukurs based on actual events. Within a few paragraphs, however, it makes sense to begin this book with a novel. Kinstler repeatedly talks about how we use law, history, and story to organize the bits and pieces of what we know into a coherent whole. For example, there are multiple testimonies from survivors that place Cukurs at the scenes of massacres during the war. Some survivors claim they say Cukurs shoot people. Another survivor, however, explains how Cukurs saved her from the Riga ghetto and helped her escape to Uruguay. There aren’t any documents that definitively prove that Cukurs killed anyone; they only confirm that he was in the Arajs Kommando (which definitely carried out massacres of Jewish people). To make these fragments into a whole that tells us whether or not Cukurs was a perpetrator or a fellow traveler, we have to use what we know about the place, the time, the Holocaust, and so on. Kinstler presents everything she knows, then leaves us to decide on Cukurs’s guilt and if he deserved to be gunned down by Mossad.

The memorial and ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue of Riga, destroyed by the Arajs Kommando and others in 1941 (Image via Wikicommons)

In the same way that Kinstler meditates on the roles of literature, law, and history in determining the truth, she also returns to the questions of culpability and guilt. She references the Nuremberg Tribunal and other trials that sought to assign blame for the Holocaust and punish the perpetrators. So few people were tried. Of those who were tried, some served gallingly short sentences. But what about the people who followed orders? Who turned in their neighbors? Who voted the Nazis into power in the first place? Once you think about it, the ripples of guilt spread out to thousands. And to what end? It wasn’t possible to arrest most of continental Europe after the war. And arresting everyone wouldn’t bring back everyone and everything that was lost.

And what about Kinstler’s grandfather, Boris? Well, there even the best storytelling can’t bring him out of the shadows. It’s so sad that Kinstler ends up knowing a lot more about a probable war criminal than she can know about her own grandfather. She’ll never know if he was a perpetrator or an agent of the KGB or both. She’s like a lot of other descendants in that she will never know what happened to her forebears in the Holocaust. All that’s left are bits of documentation, stories, rumors, and a sense of denied justice.

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