Keep Saying Their Names, by Simon Stranger

Trigger warning for torture and rape.

In a narrative that strongly reminded me of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, author and narrator Simon Stranger dives into the history of his Jewish Norwegian family and into the story of traitor Henry Oliver Rinnan. Stranger dramatizes conversations and scenes that are based on actual history. The title of the book, Keep Saying Their Names, comes from an old Jewish saying that the dead are only truly gone from us when we forget them. By recounting the stories of the dead, we ensure that they live on in some fashion. But what does it mean when saying the names of long-gone family members also means saying the name of the person who killed them?

Stranger frames his historical narrative as an alphabet. Each letter provides a quick entry point to themes, historical events, dialogues, etc. The impressionistic way that Stranger tells his stories is part of what reminded me of HhHH, which remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. The other part comes from Stranger’s fascination with Rinnan. Like Binet’s fascination with Reinhard Heydrich, Stranger’s initial portrait of a man who I can only describe as a monster runs the risk of making us feel sympathetic to Rinnan. Rinnan did truly terrible things to a lot of people while he was given the run of Trondheim and the surrounding area by the occupying Nazi forces. Stranger admits to feeling sorry for the bullied, short child, who would later become a monster. To me, I saw a child who was always going to be attracted to positions where he might be able to bully others unless someone intervened. It’s all too easy to see why Rinnan became a force for evil—very depressingly easy to see.

Stranger marries into a family that has two connections to Rinnan. Stranger’ wife’s grandfather, Hirsh Kommisar, was arrested by Rinnan, before being tortured and killed in a villa that—in the second link to the family—became the home of Hirsh’s son, Gerson. It should have been inconceivable that anyone would stay in the villa at Jonsvannsveien 46, especially a Jewish family, especially a Jewish family that lost a relative to Rinnan and his gang. And yet, Gerson, his wife, and their two daughters lived in the villa for a few years around 1950. They heard all kinds of terrible stories. They even found bullets and bullet casings.

Feder Family Stolperstein, Kolín, Czech Republic (Image via Wikicommons)

To me, Keep Saying Their Names subtly tackles the idea of how the family history of good people can be closely entwined with the history of evil people. Go back far enough, I suppose, and you can find all kinds of skeletons in closets that you have some claim on. For example, so many American family histories cross paths with chattel slavery and/or the theft of land from indigenous people. How do we come to terms with our connections to evil while at the same time celebrating our family’s survival? At the beginning of Keep Saying Their Names, Stranger discusses the Stolperstein. In 1992, Gunter Demnig began installing brass plates with the names and dates of Holocaust victims in places where they lived and worked before they were killed by the Third Reich. The name means stumbling stone, recalling something small that we can trip over at any time. Most of the time, we can walk past them–the same way we can ignore historical events. But when we trip over them or notice them, the Stolperstein cause emotional (and possibly physical) pain as we recall those who are were taken from us during the Holocaust. Like Stranger and his family, we’re not thinking about the past and our losses all the time, but we should periodically contemplate our pasts—good and bad alike.

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

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Everyone can agree that the storm came from no where. On Christmas Eve, 1617, just as the men of Vardø, in Norway’s extreme north, were setting out to begin the day’s fishing, a terrible storm appeared and drowned them all. The women, children, and a few old men, are left to fend for themselves in the aftermath. The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is set in the years that follow the storm, as paranoia and racism conspire to kick off the deadliest wave of witch-hunting Norway ever experienced.

Maren Magnusdatter, one of two narrators of The Mercies, offers an insider’s view of life in Vardø. The village is poor, but it is an important outpost for whaling and fishing and keeping an eye on the Russian Empire. After the 1617 storm, a village of women has to wrestle with their grief at the same time that they have to learn how to fish (purely a man’s job) before they starve. Some of the women of Vardø grow more independent. Kirsten Sørensdatter, for one, seems to relish the freedom and space that allows her to be a leader. Others, like Toril and Sigfrid, turn to the church and begin to believe that the devil and witches and especially the local Sámi people are to blame for the loss of the men. Maren is torn between the two groups. On the one hand, Kirsten’s practicality keeps the lot of them from starving and gives them a direction. On the other, Maren’s mother sides with the women who mutter about witches.

Ursula Cornet, our other narrator, is an outsider. She is the daughter of a formerly wealthy shipowner in Bergen, who suddenly finds herself married to a Scotsman who is on his way to Vardø to work for the local governor. It’s only much later that Ursula learns, to her horror, that her husband has been hired as a witchfinder. He’s been summoned because of his expertise at torturing confessions out of women who’ve been accused of being witches. While Maren’s perspective shows us a village tearing itself apart, Ursula’s view provides context for what’s happening in the somewhat wider world. Unfortunately, both seem equally powerless to stop what’s happening.

The Mercies is a highly atmospheric novel. As I read it, I felt the cold and almost smelled the heather, damp, and unwashed clothing of Vardø. This is a big part of why I seek out novels set in places and times I haven’t read about yet. I want a small walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how bleak it is. This novel is also the first time I’ve been able to read more, in fiction, about the Finnmark witch trials, which I’ve only heard about in passing until I listened to a recent episode of The Dollop, one of my favorite irreverent history podcasts. Having listened to that episode, I knew that Maren and Ursula were about to witness something terrible. I felt dread for most of the book, just waiting for the hammer to fall. What I didn’t know before reading The Mercies was that the Sámi were one of the chief targets of the witch trials and of assimilationist policies that strongly resembled the way that Americans suppressed the culture and traditional life of indigenous people in the United States.

I can strongly recommend The Mercies for readers who seek well-told stories about darker periods in history, in places that rarely feature in fiction. This novel has a lot to say about how grief can turn to anger and fear, conflicts in border spaces, colonialism, and how hard life can be on the edge of the known world.

Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, Finnmark, Norway (Image by Bjarne Riesto, via Wikicommons)

The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken

38657796The Hills, a very old restaurant in Oslo, Norway, is an institution. The walls are covered in art from and portraits of old guests. Layers of food smells and smoke are baked into the walls. The staff wear traditional uniforms and scurry around with crumbers. The ones who’ve been there a long time, like our narrator, have a second sense for when they should appear table side to take an order or present a bill. In The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken and translated by Alice Menzies, gives us a few days in the life of The Hills while the eponymous server’s routine starts to spin off its axis. Menzies perfectly captures the subtlety of Faldbakken’s prose.

It’s clear from the first chapter of The Waiter that our narrator is used to routine. He worries when his regulars don’t arrive on time and gets flustered when they bring or fail to bring their usual group. He likes nothing more than saying the same things, hearing the same responses, and fetching the same drinks and dishes. Things start to go awry when Graham, a regular know for his good taste but known as the Pig, asks for a table for four but only two additional diners join him. A young woman who becomes known as the Child Lady is absent. When she shows up the next day and the day after and the day after that, the wheels of the narrator’s routine start to come off.

While the Child Lady starts to break boundaries that really only exist in the narrator’s mind, bring together groups of regulars who the waiter does not want to see come together, another problem is brewing. His friend Edgar, another regular, starts to take advantage of the narrator’s good nature and essentially has the staff mind his daughter while he flirts with the Child Lady.

As The Waiter continues on its microcosmic way, the narrator starts to lose his grip on himself. He gets overstimulated and is increasingly unable to stop himself from making mistakes or gushing the trivia that has collected in his head over the years. If we were outside of the narrator’s head, I think we would have seen a bunch of regulars and members of staff spending time in The Hills with occasional interruptions from an odd waiter.

I asked to read The Waiter because I was chasing some of the Old World charm that filled A Gentleman in MoscowThe are moments where I got that. My favorite moment occurs when two of the regulars via to be the most discerning patron of fine food and drink. But the overall book has more in common with a strange little story the narrator tells early in the book, about a farmer whose operation breaks down due to sudden mental instability. To me, The Waiter is a brief novel about a character who suddenly loses his emotional equilibrium but still tries to fulfill his function as a waiter in a venerable Continental restaurant.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

The Dark Blue Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón

36417302The stories in The Dark Blue Overcoat are written by authors from every Scandinavian country, including the Faroe Islands. At least two of the authors are indigenous. They are also translated into English by a complement of translators. Under Icelandic author Sjón’s direction, the stories take us across the north from remote villages to cities, ethnic Scandinavians to immigrants—all with a distinctly un-hygge sense of fractures in culture and society.

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

“Don’t Kill Me. I Beg You. This is My Tree,” by Hassan Blasim and translated by Jonathan Wright. This story features an Iraqi refuge in Helsinki who now works as a bus driver. We know him only as the Tiger and it isn’t long before we learn that he received asylum under false pretenses. In this story, the Tiger is haunted by what may be the ghost of a man he murdered in an orchard before he fled the country.

“May Your Union Be Blessed,” by Carl Jóhan Jensen and translated by Kate Sanderson. What I love most about this odd little story set in the Faroe islands is that the main text of the story—a gossipy family history full of sex—is immediately contradicted by corrective footnotes full of academic references to what “really” happened in the Ryggalt-Hermanson family. I could feel the amused smirk on my face the entire time I was reading it. Also, I am always a sucker for archly written footnotes.


Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

“San Francisco,” by Naviaq Korneliussen and translated by Charlotte Barslund. This story moved me most. Here, Fia, a Greenlander, makes her way across the United States on a mourning journey after the death of her lover, Sara. This one of the longer entries in the collection, giving us plenty of time for Fia to reveal the shame she feels about her sexuality and her overwhelming guilt at possibly causing Sara’s death in a motorcycle accident. When Fia arrives in San Francisco, a place she knows as a safe, open city for LGBTQ+ people, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Fia might be able to become confident in her sexuality.

Some of the stories are stranger than others. Some are distinctly poststructural or supernatural. At the end of the book, I was left with the impression that Hamlet’s Danish rot had spread across the region. There are a lot of broken families here, and a lot of alcohol abuse. Readers looking for comfort on cold winter nights should look elsewhere. But readers for whom Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not unsettling enough should enjoy this collection.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

The Invention of Ana, by Mikkel Rosengaard

35181567I think Mikkel Rosengaard gives us a hint for understanding The Invention of Ana early in the book. As Ana relates the important stories in her life to our unnamed narrator, she frequently mentions that her mathematician father specialized in topology. Topology is, as far as I can understand it, about how a process of transformation can prove that apparently different things are actually the same thing. Wikipedia shares this joke about topologists that I think helps to explain the weird logic of the field:

“a topologist cannot distinguish a coffee mug from a doughnut, since a sufficiently pliable doughnut could be reshaped to a coffee cup by creating a dimple and progressively enlarging it, while shrinking the hole into a handle”

Keeping this in mind, I found that Ana’s strange stories made more sense over the course of the novel. This book is, to me, about how the pressures of time, the past, and off-kilter views of reality can transform (or warp) a person.

Our unnamed narrator meets his muse at a gathering for his brother’s art festival in New York. Our narrator is an intern. Ostensibly, he’s a writer, but he spends a lot of time in close contact with the bizarre world of ultra-avant garde and performance artists. He falls into a conversation with Ana Ivan, a Romanian artists with a piece called The Time Traveler, which points out the gaps between perceived time, astronomical time, and clock time. Her past and her ideas about time capture our narrator’s imagination. She encourages him to use what she tells him for short stories, though she never reveals why she shares such intimate details with someone she just met.

Over the course of The Invention of Ana, we learn more about her parents, the influence of her mathematician father, and how she has traveled in time throughout her life. I’m not sure how much of Ana’s story is “real” or just her version of reality. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter because veracity is not the point of her stories. Instead, I interpret this book as a fictional take on topology—or a topological take on fiction. Later in the book, Ana worries about sharing certain parts of her story with our narrator, because it has “ruined” people in the past. Ana’s story, like Ana her self, exerts its own pressure on whoever hears it because it is infectious; we just can’t stop trying to make sense of it and the potent ideas about time it contains.

I liked The Invention of Ana the further I got into it. At first, I worried that it would be another novel in which a woman’s unique voice is co-opted by a male narrator. That turned out not to be the case, as the hearing of Ana’s story is an important part of the experience of this book. I also loved the way this book plays around with lost time and identity. This book is stunning.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 February 2018


The Sunlit Night, by Rebecca Dinerstein

The first thing I do when I start writing a book review is to categorize the book I’ve just read into one more more genres, to help future readers browse this site and more easily find the kind of books they want to read. The only category I had for Rebecca Dinerstein’s The Sunlit Night was literary fiction, because there’s no sub-genre for “finding oneself.” Literary fiction comes the closest to accurately representing what this book is. The Sunlit Night is a melancholy book, revolving around two young protagonists whose worlds have just fallen apart. Frances has just graduated from art school and learned that her parents are divorcing. Yasha has just lost his father and is struggling to find a path through life that hasn’t been drawn out by his parents.

We meet Frances after she is dumped in the most callous fashion by her boyfriend. Coming home to regroup isn’t really an option as Frances is abruptly told on her arrival by her parents that they’re divorcing. Frances feels that her only option is to accept the apprenticeship offer she’d previously rejected and spend the summer painting a barn and a mural in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. We never really get to learn much about Frances-as-artist. Instead, we learn about Frances through the eyes of Yasha. Yasha has arrived in Lofoten to bury his father, who’s last wish was to be buried as far north as possible. Yasha had lived with his father above their Brooklyn Bakery before they took what turned out to be a last trip back to Moscow.

I feel much more sympathy for Yasha than for Frances. Being 17-about-to-be-18 is hard enough without trying to figure out how to support oneself. On top of coping with his father’s passing, Yasha has to contend with his mother’s attempts to barrel back into his life after leaving him 10 years earlier. In his eyes, Frances is steady, quiet, someone to lean on while he deals with his now un-pent up emotions. There is some tension when the characters misunderstand or just miss each other, raising The Sunlit Night above the usual sober literary/finding oneself plot. All that said, I feel the most sympathy for the Norwegians and other people Frances and Yasha stir up in Lofoten. They were just quietly living their lives—painting barns or running the Viking Museum—when the two Americans crash-landed among them with all their feelings.

Even after reading this book, I still wonder why young middle class white people fell the need to travel to the ends of the earth to figure themselves out. Towards the end of The Sunlit Night, Frances reflects:

I had come to get out of the city, and away from the family to who I belonged. I had found a country covered in sour blueberries, foxes, rocks, and one-land roads that were drawn in the same shape as the shoreline. I had met Nils, Yasha, his mother, a few make-believe Vikings. I didn’t belong to any of them, and they didn’t belong to me…The waves rolling out said: Nothing here is yours to keep. (180*)

The facile answer is that these young’uns are running to the ends of the earth to escape all ties to their past. When they (and we) say “finding oneself,” what we really mean is that someone is finally creating their own identity without parents’ or siblings’ or friends’ expectations limiting that someone. But that doesn’t seem like what’s happening in The Sunlit Night. The characters remain a little too opaque for the easy answer. They develop a little over the course of the book, but there are too many things about them—Frances’ painting, for example—that are left by the wayside.

* Quote is from the 2015 kindle edition, published by Bloomsbury.