A Bookshop in Berlin, by Françoise Frenkel

Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano explains in the preface to A Bookshop in Berlin that the memoir was written shortly after the author, Françoise Frenkel, escaped to Switzerland and survived the end of World War II. The memoir was originally published as Rien où poser ma tête. The French translates to “nowhere to rest my head,” a fitting title considering that the book catalogs Frenkel’s efforts to stay ahead of the Holocaust. With the help of brave French citizens who hid her and helped her eventually escape to Switzerland, Frenkel travels over the course of 1939 to 1943 from Berlin to Paris, to Nice, to Grenoble and Annecy, near the Swiss border. Unlike so many millions, Frenkel survived.

What drew me to A Bookshop in Berlin was Frenkel’s life during the 1920s and 1920s, when she ran Maison du livre français in Berlin. The Maison was the only French language book store in the city. At first, Frenkel was told that no one would want a French book store in a German city in the aftermath of World War I; the bookstore instead becomes a surprising success. It becomes a city institution among French speakers and I enjoyed reading as Frenkel sang the praises of various French authors whose work she sold. I couldn’t help but contrast Frenkel’s experience with that of Shaun Bythell at The Bookshop, in Wigtown, Scotland. Frenkel’s life as a bookseller is a lot more intellectual than Bythell’s sparring with odd and sometimes belligerent customers.

After Kristallnacht, Frenkel flees Germany. The next four years are a blur, at least as Frenkel wrote it. It seems that she hardly finds a place to rest her head when something happens that sends her into danger: changes to residence and identity papers, round ups, informers, collaborators. Thankfully, Frenkel has good friends. These friends help her hide, organize papers, and get her to the border. But, because the book’s pace is so rapid, it’s hard to get to know any of these amazing people. It’s hard to get to know Frenkel, to be honest.

As a recovered memoir written at the close at World War II and the Holocaust, A Bookshop in Berlin is a remarkable historical find. But as a work of literature, I found it lacking depth. There are moments when Frenkel pauses to appreciate the beauty of Avignon, for example, that provide a little detail. This book left me unsatisfied but, I can’t fault Frenkel too much. This was her first and only book, one that I think she might have written to help process everything that had happened to her since Kristallnacht. I would recommend this to readers looking for a unique story about the Holocaust, one that lets us see the experience of a woman who was persecuted but managed to avoid deportation to the death camps.

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

Two people repair damage after Kristallnacht, Berlin, 1938, while pedestrians look on.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The Sacrament, by Olaf Olafsson

Trigger warning for references to child abuse.

Sister Johanna Marie is one of the most reluctant investigators I’ve ever read about. She’s only looking into accusations of abuse at a Reykjavík Catholic school for two reasons. First, she’s one of the few people in the bishop and the cardinal in charge know who speaks Icelandic. Second, the cardinal who put her on the case thinks he has dirt on Johanna and can push her to make the “right” report when she’s done. But surprising things happen in The Sacrament, by Olaf Olafsson. Maybe this time, the pressure to maintain the status quo won’t be strong enough to allow a predator to keep doing his evil work.

Johanna was once known as Pauline. As a young girl, she felt a strong faith in God and the Catholic Church, one that led her to study theology at the Sorbonne. But, in 1960s France, Pauline’s sexuality is socially unacceptable even if it feels like she’s found true love with her Icelandic roommate. When her priest finds out about their growing love, he breaks them up. The roommate goes back to Iceland. Pauline takes vows and becomes Sister Johanna. She walls off her homosexuality, taking refuge in her roses and prayers.

In 1987, Johanna is pulled out of her French convent and sent to Reykjavík. The Bishop of Iceland has received a letter reporting terrible abuse at a Catholic school but, rather than act on it himself, the bishop passes the letter up the ladder. The very priest who ruined Pauline’s chances of happiness with another woman dispatches the now middle-aged nun to “investigate.” This priest, now a cardinal, knows that Johanna won’t stand up to him or the bishop if they push her to paper things over. Johanna is just supposed to be a token, to be there so that the cardinal and the bishop can say that someone looked into the accusations against the school’s headmaster, Father August Franz. In the early 2000s, Johanna is once more taken from the convent and sent to Iceland. A young boy who was at the school has asked her to come back, so that he can finally share his last secrets.

The Sacrament moves back and forth between the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s. Like the young Icelandic boy, this book gives up its secrets reluctantly. I didn’t know exactly what the accusing letter contained until about halfway through the book. There are hints here and there about what happened in 1987, but we don’t understand why things are happening until Johanna actually meets the sinister Father August Franz. The man terrifies whoever he can’t browbeat into compliance. August Franz thrives in an environment where he not only rules absolutely but also has the protection of the church, which doesn’t want a scandal.

Although this book deals with a difficult subject, I enjoyed The Sacrament a lot. Johanna is an amazing, unusual character. She seems compliant to her church, but we find that her compliance masks a deep anger at the injustice she sees. I also liked that the book’s focus is on the investigation rather than dwelling on what August Franz did to his students. I’ve never understood how people with a duty to care for children, their communities, can be so afraid of what happens when abuse comes to light that they’re willing to cover it up. While The Sacrament doesn’t answer that question, it does give us an astonishing example of what one person can do if they feel like they have take matters into their own hands.

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

The Cheffe, by Marie NDiaye

Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe (translated beautifully by Jordan Stump) is billed as “a chef’s novel” but it is not a typical novel. Some of the people who read this book and rated it on Goodreads didn’t like it because it didn’t follow the typical genre rules. These readers found the book boring. That wasn’t my experience at all. Once I got the hang of The Cheffe I found a lot of things that I love in fiction: a very unreliable narrator, writing about food, and a thorough psychological portrait of a contradictory chef.

An unnamed narrator tells the story of the great Cheffe, who ran the legendary La Bonne Heure and Gabrielle in Bordeaux, France, to an equally unnamed source. We learn about the Cheffe’s first meals, created when she had to suddenly fill in for a cook during the long summer vacation. We see how the Cheffe got her first official job as a chef’s apprentice, and then how she opened La Bonne Heure and later Gabrielle.

This is what one would expect from a story about a chef. What makes The Cheffe light years ahead of a typical novel about a chef is the layers of psychology piled on top of that story. Our unnamed narrator does not hide his deep, abiding love for the Cheffe. He desires the Cheffe and her friendship, but he also seems to view her as some kind of secular saint. The Cheffe lives an ascetic kind of life. She has equally ascetic views about food. At times, the narrator sounds like they’re writing a hagiography of the Cheffe instead of a biography. That’s what hooked me on The Cheffe.

When someone is in love with another person, the lover will do a lot to excuse any bad behavior by the beloved. The Cheffe isn’t a bad person, but her complicated relationship with her daughter is completely misunderstood and misreported by our narrator. The narrator has no apparent sense of self-awareness about how his feelings have caused him to turn into the Cheffe’s first unintentional disciple. He also seems to have no clue that his utter devotion to the Cheffe wasn’t returned. She never saw him as anything more than a colleague and maybe a friend who would listen to her talk about anything.

The deeper I got into The Cheffe, the more I—well, enjoyed is not quite the right word—was hooked on the story. This is not the kind of book you can sink into. It requires a reader who is always on guard, always looking for clues as to what’s really going on instead of the narrator’s almost religious version of events. For readers who like picking books apart, The Cheffe is a great choice. Readers who want a book they can sink into, however, might get as annoyed as some of the others on Goodreads.

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 Philosopher’s War, by Tom Miller

The adventures of Robert Canderelli Weekes continue in The Philosopher’s War, by Tom Miller, sequel to The Philosopher’s Flight. After training hard in Texas, Robert has finally achieved his dream: active duty in the Sigil Corps as a Rescue & Evacuation hoverer, just like his legendary mother. Traditionally, only women are members of the Sigil Corps; it’s believed that men just aren’t talented enough or strong enough to handle the work. (There’s a lot of very satisfying gender reversals in this series.) Robert is the first man to join R&E. But on his very first day in France in 1918, Robert learns what it really means to fly into the aftermath of a battle to evacuate wounded and dying men. He has to do a lot of growing up fast…and not just because war demands it, but because there are people high up in both the German and American armies who want to unleash doomsday weapons to break the stalemate and win the war.

You can almost divide The Philosopher’s War into two parts. In the first part, we see Robert having to adapt himself to life on the edge of the Western Front as a man in the middle of a woman’s world. Robert’s mantra is to keep his head down and work hard while the women who’ve been in France for years tease him and try to wear the newbie shine off of him. Eventually, he and his comrades settle into a working relationship (still with a lot of teasing, but friendlier) as they evacuate thousands off of the battlefield. The man plot of the book kicks off about a third of the way in, when Robert is approached by their division commander, General Thomasina Blandings, tells him about a plot to hit the Germans back with a terrible philosophical weapon if they use one first. Using these weapons, she says, will kills millions and she can’t abide them; then she asks him to join a mutiny. From that point on, Robert isn’t just rescuing soldiers, he’s also working unofficially for Blandings—until he reaches a moral crisis about who he should be fighting with and what he should be fighting for.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in reading The Philosopher’s War read the first book in the series. This book just doesn’t have time to explain how philosophy works in this world. There’s so much plot that this book is basically cover-to-cover adventure, once the main plot kicks off. Miller doesn’t sacrifice characterization for plot, thankfully. Where Robert was very much a boy-hero in the first book and at little bit at the first book, he matures a lot in this book. Like many soldiers in many other genres, Robert struggles with what he’s been told about war and why they’re fighting. All he can see, from his vantage point as a philosophically-powered ambulance, is a lot of bloody, painful, tragic waste. If nothing else, The Philosopher’s War is a book about how comradeship develops and how strong it can be under pressure. Robert, who had idealized the Corps (mostly because of his mother’s reputation), finds that the people you can trust the most are the people you work and bleed with and not necessarily the people handing out the orders.

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

The Snakes, by Sadie Jones

Few things can tempt like money. Money makes life easier. It removes all our worries about our future security and comfort. And we rarely think about what strings might be attached when someone offers us money because, with enough money, maybe we can escape the strings. But, as we see in Sadie Jones’ The Snakes, money is a temptation that we need to be as wary of as a venomous snake we suddenly find about to bite us.

Bea has cut off all ties from her toxic family and does her best to live as ethically as possible with her husband, Dan, in London. She works as a psychotherapist; Dan works as an estate agent (real estate agent) at a foundation where the agents only take a one percent commission. Bea doesn’t mind scrimping and saving, especially since it means that she doesn’t have to ask her toxic, awful parents for money. Dan, who grew up poor, chafes at their self-imposed limitations. To him, being poor is not virtuous, especially when you have a choice to not be poor. It’s taken them a long time to save up enough money to go to the continent for a holiday—though they can’t get too crazy.

Their first stop on their holiday is the failing hotel run by Bea’s troubled, alcoholic, possibly drug addicted brother, Alex, near Dijon. The hotel is clearly not what either of them expected but, since they plan to leave soon, they just grin and bear it while Alex cycles from manic to morose (and always mysterious). Unfortunately for their holiday and everyone involved, Alex and Alex’s parents suddenly descend upon them and then Alex dies under strange circumstances. Once that happens—fairly early in the novel—everything starts to spin rapidly out of control. Bea and Dan might have been able to escape if they had cut ties with Bea’s parents and run as far as they could. And they might have been able to escape if Dan hadn’t been tempted by all that money Bea’s parents want to give them.

The Snakes is full of warnings of danger that the characters keep missing. We see them, because we have a broader view than the characters do. Even Bea, who should now better, starts to re-think her stance about taking money from her parents. What interested me more than these motifs were all the questions the characters wrestle with in terms of the ethics of being incredibly wealthy, class divisions, the conflict between strict ethics and personal comfort, obligations to toxic family members, and so on. I felt for Bea throughout the book as she struggled with her doubts about Dan. Does he only love her because she could make him rich? She tries so hard to be good, as good as she possibly can, but she is unappreciated by everyone and mocked by her father as St. Bea. Saints never seem to get the credit they deserve when they’re alive.

The Snakes is a tragedy. There are plenty of places where Bea and Dan could have escaped, their own flaws and circumstances conspire to drag them down. Readers who love a good tragedy will enjoy this one, I think, right up until the ending. The ending is abrupt. I am pretty sure I know what happens right after the curtain went down, but I wish there had been a bit more closure—mostly because Bea doesn’t deserve what happens to her in this book. However, readers who want a happy ending should give this one a miss.

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

The Electric Hotel, by Dominic Smith

The Silent Era of film has always attracted me. I love stories set around the myriad innovations that were needed to create the movies that we know now—though I also pity the people who got left behind and were forgotten. Dominic Smith shows us both of these sides of the story in The Electric Hotel through the biography of a fictional director, Claude Ballard. When we meet him in 1962, at the open of the novel, he lives in a Hollywood hotel that has become the home to other silent film relics. The arrival of a film student sends Claude back down memory lane, to the days when he first started working for the legendary Lumière brothers.

The bulk of The Electric Hotel spans the late 1890s to the end of World War I. After seeing some of the short reels created by the Lumières, Claude knew that he had to make films. Something about the medium let him create beautiful, truthful things. By the turn of the twentieth century, Claude was working with his own little outfit of a budding producer, a stuntman, and an actress who wants nothing more than to be a perfectly natural actor. (As I read her dialogue, I remembered a story I once heard about Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier when they were making Marathon Man. Hoffman asked a question about how Olivier prepared to play a Nazi; Hoffman was a method actor. Olivier replied, “My dear boy, it’s called acting.”) While Claude and the others are interested in creating illusions, Sabine Montrose wants to make something real. Curiously, Claude’s quest for imaginative films makes him more human than Sabine’s for realistic acting.

A cinématographe Lumière, one of the earliest film cameras. (Image via Wikicommons)

Claude falls in love with Sabine, but I didn’t find this relationship nearly as interesting as everything that was going on with film. Claude’s desperate love for Sabine is only one of the major conflicts in the story. The other comes from Thomas Edison, whose rapacious legal battles over patents squelched the nascent film industry in New Jersey so much that a lot of filmmakers and actors fled to Hollywood so that they could create without being threatened with a lawsuit. After Claude and Co., create what will be Claude’s masterpiece, the eponymous The Electric Hotel, they get slapped with a menacing legal letter from Edison’s lawyer that sends them back to the drawing board when they suddenly can’t release it. Have you ever wanted to reach through a book and time to punch a historical figure because they’re being a complete jerk?

In addition to musing on early film history, the novel touches on the double-edged sword of fame; the loss of film history to fires, vinegar syndrome, and other calamities; and perhaps the hope that time really can heal wounds. The arrival of the film student at Claude’s hotel/retirement home is a catalyst for restoration. This student talks Claude into letting him have the director’s stock of film that he has been keeping (hoarding) for decades so that they can be preserved before they’re lost forever. (It’s estimated that most early film has been irretrievably lost, though discoveries are occasionally made.) It’s deeply satisfying to see Claude, his film, and his own history redeemed, even if it seems like there are more lows than highs in his life. This book also makes me hope that there are other film students and historians out there looking for history before it completely disappears.

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

The Life of an Unknown Man, by Andreï Makine

While there are no right answers to the question: what are stories for? There are some answers that are more correct than others. In Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (smoothly translated by Geoffrey Strachan), exiled dissident, author Shutov has an existential crisis about what stories and literatures should be. Are they supposed to be beautiful? Are they supposed to ironically point out the foibles of society? Should they cater to the tastes of the reading public? Are they supposed to document the human condition? What should an author write in the middle of all of these competing questions?

At the beginning of The Life of an Unknown Man, Shutov has very firm ideas about what stories and literature should be. His girlfriend, Léa, who has just dumped him (rightly, I think) for being a pretentious ass about his opinions and loathing of everything modern, has very different ideas about what makes for good literature. Shutov, raised on the Russian classics (especially Anton Chekhov), wants to write beautiful, moving scenes that can wring tears from his readers. Unfortunately, he was born about 150 years too late and now lives in an age of irony, of cleverness, and of pervasive capitalism that just wants to sell, sell, sell. After Léa leaves Shutov and he wallows a bit in his feelings, he impulsively returns to St. Petersburg. He lived there when it was still Leningrad and he had to flee.

The Russia Shutov finds is very different from the Soviet Union he left. The city is celebrating its 300th anniversary, with a dizzying array of historical/carnivalesque events that reminded me of Russian Ark on overdrive. His old friend, Yana, has no time for him as she is working on building a hotel empire and her son is condescending. Shutov is left to his own devices until the son asks him to keep an eye on an old man who, due to bureaucracy, is living in Yana’s apartment while awaiting transfer to a nursing home. Shutov isn’t given a chance to say no, but the chore turns out to be anything but. The old man, who Shutov was told was mute, possesses a story that encompasses some of the most harrowing years of Soviet history: the Siege of Leningrad and the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Volsky’s story is not just a story of survival; it is also a love story of two people who history seems to want to keep apart but who still manage find each other.

By the end of the old man’s story—and the end of The Life of an Unknown Man—both the reader and Shutov come to a realization. Shutov finds a new mission for his writing. He wants to write the stories of people whose names have been lost to time, to restore them to life, for the sake of their stories. Everyone has a story, he realizes. For my part, I decided that the ultimate purpose of a story, of literature, is to say something true. It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or tragic or ugly or funny or arch or popular. What matters is whether or not a story can tell us something true.

The first third of The Life of an Unknown Man was a little hard for me to get through. Shutov is an almost stereotypical mansplainer who is so convinced of the rightness of his opinions that he takes his anger out on anyone who expresses their own ideas. It’s no wonder that Léa glazes over when he starts to pontificate. But once Shutov returned to Russia and started listening to other people for a change, the entire tenor of the novel changed for me. Even if Volsky’s stories hadn’t been about a period of history I am macabrely fascinated with, I would have been hooked by the their honesty and sharp observations. At the end, I had hope that Shutov would uncover true stories to share.

Walking on the Ceiling, by Ays̨egül Savas̨

As the title hints, a lot of Ays̨egül Savas̨’s Walking on the Ceiling takes place on walks. As a child, Nurunisa (Nunu) takes walks with her mother in Istanbul where they try to reclaim a bit of normalcy in the wake of her father’s death. As an adult, Nunu walks in Paris with M. a writer who published a novel set in Istanbul. In moments of reflection after all of these walks, Nunu slowly tells the truth about her life at last.

Nunu is a damaged soul, but it took a while for me to learn just how much. When we first meet her, Nunu seems as though she has broken away from her sad family life in Turkey to make a new one in Paris. She doesn’t attend classes at the Sorbonne and doesn’t have a job, but at least she’s not walking on eggshells around her depressed mother anymore. But then we find out that Nunu had to return to Istanbul for a year to care for her dying mother. And then we see the flourishing and sudden failure of her friendship with M. Walking on the Ceiling shifts from a story about a girl shaped by her relationship to her mother to a young woman getting a bit of revenge against the people she feels have taken advantage of her.

Nunu sees all her relationships to others as transactions, as performances. With her mother, Nunu is quiet. She stays out of her mother’s way as her mother drowns in grief and anger. With her boyfriend Luke, she parcels out rewritten memories of neglect for him to psychoanalyze. To her classmates (when she does show up for class), she is an exotic expert on Turkey and Turkishness. And for M., Nunu is a source of inspiration and information for his next project. Nunu gives and gives, until she can’t give anymore—at which point she does things that make it hard to see her as a suffering victim.

Walking on the Ceiling is a marvel of subtle emotional shifts. These undercurrents of deception, obligation, and eventual honesty run below mouth-watering descriptions of Turkish food, the archaeology of Istanbul, and family stories that run the gamut from funny to depressing. I’ll admit that I read it with a cynical eye, because I thought I knew what was going to happen with M. When it turned out that I was completely wrong about everyone in this book, I fell in love with this book. Normally, I hate being wrong. (Ask anyone who knows me.) But I love being wrong about stories because it means that I have found something original. I love being surprised by endings that turn out to be absolutely fitting but that I didn’t see coming. Readers who enjoy unusual settings, emotional depth, and ingenious reversals will adore this book.

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

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke

It’s a remarkable coincidence that I finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down not too long before I read The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke and translated by Philip Boehm. Both books take place in the intersection of Western medicine and traditional folk medicine. This time, the story takes place more than a century ago, in Japan, France, and Germany. The titular Dr. Shimamura is caught looking for ways to heal his patients and himself from a position square in the middle of that intersection. Even more than The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura brilliantly shows us that the two systems of medicine (at least at the turn of the twentieth century) are not too different from each other.

This short novel drifts back and forth through time from Shimamura’s present to his past. In 1922, in Japan, Dr. Shimamura—retired neurologist—is not doing well. His lifelong fever and neurosis has taken a toll on the poor man. His wife, mother, mother-in-law, and a maid care for him as he whiles away the days lost in his memories. Those memories (which we learn are not always accurate) center on a few critical years around 1890 and 1891, which he was sent by his superior to a remote region in Japan with an epidemic of women possessed by kitsune, fox spirits. His life was never the same after. The time switches and Dr. Shimamura’s mental state are very well translated by Boehm. Even though there are many times when it isn’t ways easy to tell what’s true, I felt like everything was written with brilliant clarity.

Dr. Shimamura believes that he cured the possessed women by taking their foxes into himself. Though he believes firmly in the rationality of neurology and psychology, Shimamura also feels fox spirits inside himself. Sometimes they appear in hernia-like swellings. Most of the time, his possession manifests as a constant, slight fever and an attractiveness to women and animals. After his experiences with the fox women, Dr. Shimamura bolts for Paris, then Berlin. Ostensibly, he’s there to collect information about new techniques and ideas in neurology, but he drifts. His faith in neurology is shaken when he meets Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot at Paris’ Hôpital Salpêtrière, who is in the middle of an epidemic of hysteria. Hysteria looks an awful lot like kitsune-possession in Japan and Dr. Shimamura is completely shaken. It’s only after a series of meetings with Dr. Josef Breuer (Freud’s mentor) that he finds some equilibrium.

Kuzunoha casting a fox shadow, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Image via Wikicommons)

Unlike Dr. Shimamura, I was fascinated by the parallels between hysteria and fox-possession. Both “conditions” only affect women. They involve uncontrollable emotion and physical contortions. There is no real “cure” and there are a lot of doubt about whether it’s all real or not. Some people dismiss it as attention-seeking behavior. Other people see it sympathetically and seriously. Reading about both conditions exposed my own prejudices. I completely reject the idea of hysteria as medicalization of women’s psychology, a means of controlling women’s emotions in a patriarchal society. On the other hand, I have a more open idea about fox-possession because I want to know more about the cultural context. Dr. Shimamura knows a bit more about kitsune-possession because he’s Japanese, but he doesn’t really see a difference between the two; he sees them both either as something fabricated or something masking an underlying emotional trauma.

At first, the tone of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura led me to think that this book would be a tale of arch silliness. There are a few gentle jokes at Shimamura and some cutting snarkiness about the French neurologists he meets. The archness never completely dissipates, but the tone of the entire book changes when Dr. Shimamura is dispatched to see the fox women. The more I read this book, the more I loved it—especially in light of reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This book is strange and intelligent and melancholy and funny. It’s an amazing tale.

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