Will, by Jeroen Olyslaegers

Jeroen Olyslaeger’s Will presents a complicated portrait of a man who was caught between the Belgian Resistance and pro-fascist Belgians during World War II. His refusal to take sides meant that everyone thought he was on their team. In the long shadow of the war, everyone looks at Wilfred Wils askance. When people know you won’t take a stand, they won’t stand with you. Wilfred tells his story to his great-grandson (with us watching over his shoulder) and, while he never justifies his actions, he is brutally honest for perhaps the first time in his long life.

Wilfred, when we meet him, is a poet of very little renown. Back then, he was a policeman. His very average grades in school kept him out of university and had zero prospects. His French tutor, Meanbeard, managed to wrangle Wilfred a job with the Antwerp police (patrol as he’s definitely not detective material). After the Germans invade Belgium, Wilfred learns why his tutor got him a job. Meanbeard thinks that Wilfred shares his sympathies for the Nazis. It’s a mistake that a lot of other people will make. You see, the only person Wilfred really cares about is himself. He has no deep principles he’s willing to die for. I’m not even sure he would put his neck out all that far for the people he calls his best friends. Because of this, Will is one of the strangest World War II books I’ve ever read. Most stories in the genre are all about heroes and villains. There are villains in Will, but I’m hard-pressed to identify any heroes.

Belgian tank on fire during the Battle of Antwerp, May 19, 1940 (Image via Wikicommons)

So, as elderly Wilfred wanders the streets of Antwerp and the apartment he shares with his equally elderly wife, we learn all of his secrets. We see Wilfred accompany Gestapo agents and other Belgian police as the Gestapo rounds up the city’s Jewish citizens. We see Wilfred try to drink his pints while members of the Flemish Legion trash anti-Nazi bars. We also see Wilfred attempt to stay out of everyone’s business as the stake rise around him. Meanbeard and the pro-fascists want Wilfred to spy on his friends in the resistance. His friends in the resistance want Wilfred to spy on the Nazis and the pro-fascists. It’s an impossible position.

Usually, I would be all over the ethical dilemmas of a book like this. Instead, I was more struck by the psychological aspects of Will. I was surprised by all the efforts to try and get Wilfred to turn spy. It was as though none of these people really knew Wilfred. Wilfred appears to have kept his own feelings and thoughts too close to the vest that all anyone else would see was a reflection of their own. Because he never directly contradicts anyone, Wilfred can get away with being cynical about everything and no one really takes him seriously. I was also fascinated by the hints in the latter parts of the book that, even though he believes that he’s finally coming clean about everything, Wilfred might not be remembering events clearly.

Will is not an easy book to read. I had to take some ABBA breaks when things got too heavy for me. But in retrospect, I’m glad I took a chance on Wilfred’s story. Because Olyslaeger’s protagonist is so deeply in the grey between black and white, Will present an opportunity to think more carefully about all of the millions of people who got caught between the Allies and the Axis while they were trying to figure out who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in their lives. The only quibble I have about this book is the occasionally clunky word choice by the translator, David Colmer. Colmer is best when he doesn’t try to do colloquial.

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

Crossings, by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin’s Crossings is the kind of book that I’ve been waiting for, but not because of its content. With the exception of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels—which I was a big fan of when I was younger—we generally read books from page 1 straight through until the end. We might have footnotes to break up our linear progression. Some rare readers might jump back and forth in nonfiction books to read endnotes. I’m surprised that it’s taken someone this long to write a book that capitalizes on the ebook format to give you options as to the order in which you can read it.

An introduction by a modern-day bookbinder sets up the strange journey ahead of us readers. The bookbinder tells us that the baroness who gave him the book to bind dies before he can complete the job. The book binder’s wife reads the manuscript and, together, they tell us that we can read the book either straight from the beginning to the end…or we can read it in the order the baroness presented it in. Being a traditional sort of person—as well as being a little bit paranoid that I might mess up the baroness’ ordering—I read the book from cover to cover. (I did skip around using the links to see what the baroness’ order might be like.)

Portrait of Baudelaire c. 1844, by Emile Deroy (Image via Wikicommons)

Funny enough, the traditional ordering tells the overall story out of order. (What even is order, at this point?) We’re taken to Brussels in the mid-1800s. Poet and gadfly Charles Baudelaire is down on his luck. He is living at a down-at-heel hotel in a city he loathes to escape his debts back in Paris. After a disastrous dinner with some of the few people who might be willing to lend him a franc, Charles is approached by a woman who claims to be his long-lost lover. The problem is that his lover disappeared years ago and, more importantly, this woman doesn’t look anything like Jeanne Duval. This meeting is our introduction to a strange story that stretches from the eighteenth century in the South Pacific to 1830s New Orleans to Paris on the eve of World War II.

Landragin blends together actual history—Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin‘s deaths, French colonizing in the South Pacific, American slavery—with fiction to create Crossings. I’m not sure what having two orders for the chapters added anything, to be honest, I really liked reading this book from cover to cover and sinking deeper into the mystery of how souls from a South Pacific island jump from body to body to travel thousands of miles and hundreds of years. The first crossing happened by accident when an indigenous man was killed by a French sailor. He and his lover reflexively crossed into two of the French crew. After that, crossing (and displacing resident souls) turns into a means of perhaps reuniting in the future…and as a method for gaining power and immortality.

Readers who like unconventional stories or stories that blend history with fantasy in original ways might enjoy puzzling their way through Crossings.

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

Journeys, by Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s writing seems to be everywhere since The Grand Budapest Hotel came out. Zweig was an essayist, journalist, and short story writer who, sadly committed suicide in 1942 after being exiled from his native Austria in 1935. His sensitive writings don’t have quite the quirkiness fans of the Wes Anderson movie, but I have found them to be an incredible view into European life before World War II and World War I. In Journeys (excellently translated by Will Stone from the collection, Auf Reisen). I think this is the third or fourth collection of republished Zweig writings I’ve seen since 2014.

In Journeys, Zweig takes us along on his travels around western Europe from 1902 to 1939. The earliest essays (although feuilleton might be a better description of these short pieces of nonfiction) show us Ostend, Bruges, Avignon, Arles, Seville, London, and Antwerp before World War I, when the cities were summer vacation spots for the upper classes. Zweig attempts to capture the character of each place (Bruges felt isolated and somewhat melancholy, apparently) or reflect on how its history brought it from a major city to a backwater (Avignon).

After a gap from 1915-1917, the tone shifts. In one piece, “Requiem for a Hotel,” Zweig laments that an inn that has run since medieval times in Zürich has been turned into a tax office. In the next one, “Return to Italy,” Zweig grows even more nostalgic that the old ways of traveling and vacationing have been industrialized and lost much of their charm. While Zweig seems to find a few remaining pockets of local individuality in places like Dijon, he seems saddened by the fact that people are going to these amazing places simply to have been to those places rather than to experience them in the moment. Visiting the Louvre or the Leaning Tower of Pisa are seen by these tourists as box to tick rather than objects to marvel and ponder.

In the last two pieces, both sent in London and written in the late 1930s, Zweig gives us something completely different. Where the first essays were focused on relaxation and enchantment, it’s clear that war is not just coming to change everything again: war is already here. Reading from almost 80 years remove, we know what’s going to happen and can lament with Zweig that whatever vestiges of old Europe still remain might not last another terrible conflict. These pieces were also tough for me to read because I knew how Zweig’s own journey would end.

After reading Journeys, I think I would have loved to stroll the streets of pre-war Arles or look for medieval remnants in Antwerp or Seville with him as he occasionally pointed out a bit of history or asked a question about a city’s mood. Zweig never struck me as a lecturer. Instead, he’s a thoughtful man who sees cities as alive as he travels through them. I would definitely recommend this collection to readers who wonder what life was like in Europe before the wars. Even limited to paper, Zweig is a wonderful guide.

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

A postcard of Ostend (“The beach and the grand hotels”), c. 1915 (Image via Wikicommons)

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who are looking to practice mindful reading. This book is perfect.

The Ventriloquists, by E.R. Ramzipoor

There were some moments in E.R. Ramzipoor’s The Ventriloquists when I just had to roll my eyes. Some of the things the characters got up to that are so over the top, so ridiculous that my willingness to suspend disbelief straining. When I got to the Author’s Note at the end—and did a bit of supplemental reading on Wikipedia—those eye rolls turned into the biggest grin I think I’ve ever had at the end of a book. I think my grin would make the actual historical figures behind a forgotten Resistance story glad that they can still make someone laugh.

Ramzipoor frames the remarkable story of Faux Soir with a clever device. Decades later, a researcher contacts someone who was involved with an act of sabotage to get the full history. This researcher explains to the elderly Helene that she has the names of the people who were involved, many of the facts, and knows the fates of the key players, but that she’s missing details that can make the story fully live and breathe again. Helene obliges. She was once the friend and ally of a man named Marc Aubrion, a journalist and attempted playwright, who masterminded the creation of a parody newspaper that contained nothing but absurdist satire (article about the specific kind of satire, zwanze, in French) of the Nazis and their occupation of Belgium. Ramzipoor’s other frame is to create a Nazi effort to co-opt Belgian writers to create a “propaganda bomb,” which will make readers distrust and hate the Allies. Aubrion and his friends and allies use this as cover for their parody newspaper in the novel. (Ramzipoor includes text from the actual Faux Soir in this novel. I’m happy to report that the jokes are still very funny.) In reality, Helene and the Nazi plan didn’t exist. With the exception of a few characters, pretty much everything else in this novel is true or closely based on actual history.

The front page of the real Faux Soir, November 9, 1943 (Image via Wikicommons)

Part way through The Ventriloquists, Marc and one of his friends, Lada (one of the few fictional characters, apparently), have a discussion about what the point of their project is and if it’s all worth it. After all, they might be signing up to die for jokes that might not see the light of day or that might not land with readers. Is a joke worth it? Marc believes it is. He provokes and pushes everyone around him to create Faux Soir. Lada, however, would rather survive the war, thank you very much. She’s been a smuggler and member of the resistance since the beginning of the war. This is an important question. Whenever I read books about World War II or set in World War II, I always ask myself what I would do if I were one of the characters. (I think most other readers do this to.) It had never occurred to me to think about if I would do something as crazy as Faux Soir. This isn’t the only profound question The Ventriloquists tackles. It also spends a lot of time looking at the other side of the coin: how many principles would we be willing to sacrifice in order to live? We might like to think about ourselves as heroes but, statistically, some of us would have been collaborators.

On top of just producing a parody newspaper that could be discovered and shut down by the Nazis at any moment, Marc and the rest of the team have to find ways to fund the paper, get the supplies, get it printed, and get copies out to the newspaper kiosks before the actual copies of the real Le Soir arrive. None of the plans they come up with are small or simple. This was where I rolled my eyes a lot because a few of these plans are so insane that there’s no way they could work. I won’t say anything else because I don’t want to ruin the surprise for readers who are intrigued by this review. This novel and the actual story are the epitome of audacity.

The Ventriloquists is one of the best, bravest, and boldest works of historical fiction I have ever read. The plot is incredible, masterfully written. The characters are outstanding. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who likes World War II fiction, especially for readers who are desperate for something original. You might be able to tell from the hyperbole that I love this book but, seriously, I really loved this book.

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

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs, by Kristien Hemmerechts

Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse.

Odette tells us at the beginning of Kristien Hemmerechts’ The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (translated by Paul Vincent) that she is the most hated woman in Belgium, even more than the woman who murdered all five of her children. We don’t know quite what Odette did to land herself in prison, but it has to be bad. Really, really bad. Before we learn what Odette did, we learn everything about how Odette came to be the person who did those things. There’s a tension the runs all the way through The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is how much we believe Odette, and how much we can excuse her in light of what landed her in prison for sixteen years and her husband, M, in prison for the rest of his life.

Odette was probably destined to be the unwitting (possibly unwitting) accomplice to a predator. Her mother was desperately attacked to her, to the point of threatening to harm herself if Odette wanted to go away to camp, sleep over at a friends, or express her sexuality. When Odette meets M, who excites her so much sexually, that it doesn’t take much for her to adjust from her mother’s prickly neediness to M’s more violent, unpredictable, controlling ways. From the outside, both of these relationships are very clearly abusive. Odette’s lawyers and some of the more sympathetic journalists portray here as a weak person, who was manipulated by M. Odette’s version of events belies this, somewhat, because she constantly shows herself to be as fierce a mother as she can be to her three children. 

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs confronts the idea that knowing more about a criminal can mean excusing their behavior. Over and over, Odette excuses M’s behavior and her mother’s behavior by expelling why they are the monsters that everyone else can see that they are. But, even before I learned what M and Odette did, I knew that I could never excuse their behavior. M’s actions are so beyond the pale that it’s a marvel to me that Odette still feels the need to try and rationalize his abuse and his crimes. But she needs to rationalize M’s behavior because that rationalizes her behavior. If M’s parents hadn’t been a nightmare, M might have been able to be satisfied with a monogamous relationship. Because M is not and because he has “trained” Odette to always try to get him what he says he wants, Odette aids and abets M’s crimes. There is a chain of logic there. It’s a terrible logic, which a healthier person would never have to work out for themselves. And yet, to a warped personality like Odette’s, it’s baffling that other people can’t understand her. 

Odette blames her fatigue, her mental health, her need to care for her children on scant resources, and M’s abuse for everything. And yet, Odette lets slip things that make her less of a victim that she might want us to think. Later in the book, she tells us that she knew what was going on in the cellar of her husband’s house. (This is where the title is explained at last.) She chose not to do something for which she is down being punished because she says she was tired and overwhelmed. But I think that the prosecutors and the journalists who condemn Odette are right: her excuses wear thin when we examine them. 

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is a hard read, even though it’s only briefly graphic. M’s crimes are referred to just enough to let us know what landed the pair of them in prison. Thankfully, Odette doesn’t give us any more. Paul Vincent’s translation perfectly captures her voice and her inconsistencies to give us Hemmerechts’ disturbing meditation on abuse and culpability loud and clear. I enjoyed this book a lot, even though the subject matter is very dark, because it’s one of the best psychological portraits I’ve read in a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 Junary 2019.

Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

35087548One of the firmest rules I follow in my reading is that I do not read books about pets. I don’t read these books because the pet almost always dies and I can’t handle that. But I have broken this rule for Damian Dibben’s Tomorrow, because the dog in the book doesn’t die—even after waiting for his master to return for him after two hundred years.

Our canine protagonist has been with his master for a long time. His earliest memories are of roaming the castle of Elsinore and going oyster digging with his master in the early 1600s. His master is a chymyst (he serves as the model for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, but has issues with his portrayals). They travel from court to court, where the master offers his services as a natural philosopher, doctor, or other profession that helps fund his personal researches. Our hero and his master are not the only immortal beings wandering around Europe and their happily peripatetic lifestyle is disrupted when Vilder blows into town to make demands.

One of those interruptions separates dog and man in the late 1600s in Venice, though our hero doesn’t know it until later. Our poor narrator spends almost two hundred years waiting for his master in Venice, following his last instructions to stay put if they get separated. In 1815, however, he has enough and decides to start actively looking for his master, along with his companion, an ordinary street dog named Sporco.

Tomorrow moves back and forth in time from the 1600s to the 1800s. Unlike other books about immortal characters, we’re not inside the worldweary head of a human. Instead, we are off to one side while humans wonder what their purpose is and whether it’s a bad thing to be immortal. Because we’re in the head of an extremely loyal dog, Tomorrow is more a meditation about what we might do for the people (and animals) we love. Without the love of another, we learn, life is pretty pointless. It was a surprisingly sweet book, with plenty of interesting history to keep it all from getting too saccharine.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 30 March 2018.