Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Llewyn

Alina and Liviu are not happy people. This is not surprising, given that most people in 1970s Romania are unhappy. The only happy person in Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods seems to be Alina’s mother, who delights in reporting other people to the secret service and in bullying her daughter into acting like an obedient daughter-comrade. From the time we meet Alina, just after her marriage to Liviu, to the time she escapes the country, we see a woman constantly wrestling with her emotional obligations to her family…and to herself.

Nicolae Ceaușescu‘s Romania seemed like a special kind of Communist hell—at least as it’s portrayed in the West. It was a country where abortion was illegal and women were encouraged to have as many children as possible; a policy that lead to orphanages that warehoused unwanted children in horrific conditions. Alina doesn’t run afoul of reproductive oppression, but she runs full-face into Romania’s omnipresent police state when her new brother-in-law defects to France. All of a sudden, all of Alina and Liviu’s prospects for advancement are gone. Liviu can’t get a decent job. Alina can’t publish her math workbook. Worse, everyone is looking at Alina to try and catch her at something. The pressure builds until Alina and Liviu start to plan their own defection.

Parts of Bottled Goods are unbearably tense. Alina is constantly interrogated, even though she’s done nothing wrong. The only thing that really keeps Alina from fully committing to the plan to escape is her overbearing mother. This mother has always been telling Alina what to do, what to wear, how to speak. In any other (non-Communist) country, emotional abuse would be the extent of Alina’s mother’s powers. But in Romania, Alina’s mother also has the ability to turn the entire state against her daughter as punishment for disobeying her commands.

Things get a little weird at the end of Bottled Goods. So weird, in fact, that I think the book could have done without the weirdness. Alina’s story and all it’s emotional torment were more than enough for me. That said, some readers might enjoy the surreal twist at the end of the book, just for the sheer joy of seeing Alina finally get back some of her own.

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

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

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The Bone Mother, by David Demchuk

31944708David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is the kind of story collection that left me wanting more. Each chapter is a grim fairy tale that, together with the other chapters, builds up a disturbing world centered on three towns in the Romanian-Ukrainian border. The towns are full of people and creatures inspired by Slavic myths and, sometime during World War II, something happened to shatter this community. For added atmosphere, each chapter begins with an image from the Costică Acsinte Archive, a collection of photos from an early Twentieth century Romanian photographer.

While there are only a few characters who appear in more than one story, a narrative about the three unnamed towns coalesces before long. There were three towns in Romania and Ukraine where people were born with strange abilities, hungers, and traditions. Somewhere in the middle of it is a porcelain thimble factory with royal customers. Then the war came, along with violent men (it’s unclear who they are) who killed their way through the towns. Survivors scattered around the world, taking their abilities and hungers with them.

Most of the stories are only a page or two long; a few get a little longer. The stories are so spare that I had to read deeply into the subtext and scrape up what I know about Slavic myths to feel like I had a handle on what was happening. This book was best when I let go of my need to know what was actually happening and let things wash over me. The Bone Mother turned out to be a terrific book to herald the beginning of October. It is delightfully creepy and packed with mystery to think about after the last story ends.

Music for Wartime: Stories, by Rebecca Makkai

Though Theodor Adorno once wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” art is one of the few ways to express the inexpressible. In Makkai’s collection, Music for Wartime, characters deal with their collections to the Iron Guard and the Arrow Cross and the Holocaust, betrayal, through music and art and writing. Adorno’s comment goes right to the heart of the struggle to make sense of events when words fail. We usually think of art—paintings or music—as the highest expression of beauty in our culture. But paintings like “Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso, represent horror and shock in a way that no essay or novel or interview can. Not all the stories in Music for Wartime are completely harrowing, but Makkai doesn’t give her readers much of a chance to catch their breaths.

“The Worst You Ever Feel” – This was my favorite story in the collection. In this story, a young boy named Aaron can see ghosts and sense where people have died. This bothers his parents more than it bothers the boy. When his father and one of his father’s old musician friends practice an piece they learned during the war, Aaron learns what happened when they were hiding from the Iron Guard. The music takes Aaron even deeper into the ghosts and the memories.

“Everything We Know about the Bomber” – This story is a perfect representation of how the perpetrators of violence become more bigger figures in the media than the victims of their crimes. The title says everything about this piece. We know about his experiences in third grade. We know what he did right before the bomb went off. Every detail is analyzed to see if we could see it coming, just to try and make ourselves feel a little safer.

“The Museum of the Dearly Departed” – While this story feels a overstuffed, I love what this story says about making art as a way to deal with sudden death and memory and ethics. Is it right for an art student to use the effects of the victims of a gas leak for a thesis project? Is it right for a woman to inherit the apartment of a women her fiance was cheating on her with? Even if we can square our consciences with out own acts, how to do we dare to judge other peoples’ accommodations with their ethics?

There are stories in Music for Wartime that feel barbaric or close to barbarity. They ask hard questions, but I liked thinking them over. Art and music are subjective, which makes them perfect to map tragedy and horror on to. There are no words in them to tell a viewer or a listener what they mean. (And it’s fun to argue with critics who think they know what a piece of art means.) Without words, art and music can help us process feelings by allowing us to just feel.