The Book Smuggler, by Omaima al-Khamis

Compared to the world of Mazid ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi, I live in a paradise. Whenever I have a question, I have access to an incalculable amount of information. I can call up Google, Wikipedia, and the catalogs and databases of two libraries at any time. Mazid, however, has to travel across deserts, mountains, and seas to get to libraries that may or may not have copies of books that can answer his questions. He also has to contend with growing sectarian violence, anti-intellectualism, and fracturing caliphates on his way to those libraries. Omaima al-Khamis takes us to the second decade of the eleventh century and drops us onto a caravan route between Baghdad and Jerusalem in The Book Smuggler, translated with a lovely medieval flavor by Sarah Enany.

All Mazid has ever wanted was to read books and learn. Once he is old enough, he leaves the Arabian desert and travels to Baghdad. Unfortunately for Mazid, Baghdad is no longer the shining city of learning that hosted the House of Wisdom. There are some remnants. Mazid’s abilities as a scribe and his love of learning help him find those remnants, but it isn’t long before increasing fundamentalist violence sends Mazid out into the world again—this time with a precious cargo of books full of translated Greek philosophy and science.

The Book Smuggler chronicles Mazid’s travels across the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Córdoban caliphates, from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Cairo and finally to Córdoba. (At the time, Córdoba was believed to be a haven for science, literature, and the arts). It’s a journey that takes Mazid years to complete as he moseys his way across the Islamic world. I’m not terribly familiar with medieval Islamic writing, but al-Khamis (via Enany’s translation) sounds medieval to me. Mazid interrupts his narration with side stories and the text wanders as much as he does. He also has a habit of falling instantly in love with the women he encounters. He spouts poetry at the drop of a hat and blames any bad health on imbalanced humors. The medieval flavoring takes some getting used to. Once I was in, I was hooked.

Mazid’s physical journey is mirrored by his intellectual journey, which I found almost as interesting. (I love a book that can transport me from my couch in the twenty-first century to a camel in the eleventh.) When we first meet young Mazid, he is in awe of the people and places of Baghdad. It is the city he always dreamed of as a child at his grandfather’s knee. He has complete faith in the Qu’ran and Mohammed. Although he remains a faithful Muslim, he starts to have serious questions about the imams who teach in the mosques and their followers who “police” the streets. The philosophy he reads add to his questions.

It’s never easy to be a questioner, but Mazid has a mission to guide him. Before he leaves Baghdad, he is inducted into a society called the Voyagers. These men shepherd books—especially translations of the ancient Greeks and radical thinkers from around the Islamic world—from city to city. They sell the books to intellectuals who share their questioning values, but mostly they want to make sure that these books will be safe from anti-intellectuals who want to burn anything that might make them question what they’ve been taught.

The Book Smuggler was an amazing read. It was the closest I’ve ever come to time traveling I’ve ever had while reading.

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

Tabula Rogeriana, by Muhammad al-Idrisi, c. 1154 CE (Image via Wikicommons, note that the map is oriented with Africa and the Arabian Peninsula at the top of the page)

The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia, by Max Besora

In the prologue to the descriptively titled The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia, by Max Besora (and brilliantly translated by Mara Faye Lethem), an invented academic explains how he combed through centuries old archival documents to piece together the story of the forgotten conquistador, Joan Orpí del Pou. This academic allegedly found a version of Orpí’s story, as told by a bunch of soldiers during the Siege of Barcelona in 1714. What follows is a madcap adventure through the first half of the seventeenth century, full of anachronisms, literary references, obscene events, and a quest for glory.

Orpí (in this fictional biography) is the kind of kid that makes his parents despair. He’s naive, trusting everyone he meets. He’s curious about all the wrong things, meaning that he’s a terrible student. After failing so many opportunities, Orpí’s father packs him off to law school in Barcelona. Orpí’s smart mouth and inability to keep it close have to be good for something. But a series of wild events lead Orpí to boarding a ship for Spain’s colonies in what is now Venezuela.

“A series of wild events” is a good way to sum up this version of Orpí’s life. Highwaymen rob him. Women wind him up in their schemes. No one gives the Catalan a chance. Enemies plot against him constantly. But this summary barely scratches the surface of the sheer wackiness of what happens in this book. Every page had me gasping in surprise, laughing out loud, rolling my eyes, or gripped by the action. The summary also doesn’t reflect how well Besora captured the idiom of seventeenth century literature. Cervantes and Rabelais are name dropped more than once. Plus, Besora’s dialogue is full of period and anachronistic speech that made me chuckle at the way it wandered through centuries of linguistic evolution. Translator Mara Faye Lethem deserves all kinds of awards for her work on this book. She is pitch-perfect at translating all kinds of voices, dialects, time periods from Catalan, Spanish, and other languages into English. She’s so good that I genuinely thought this book was originally written in English, by someone who knows the history of the language from the 1600s to the present.

The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí is a remarkable book, even though some of the events mentioned in the book (especially the sexual ones) are hard to take. Thankfully, these are brief and, I think, only included because they were the kinds of things that would have been included in period literature. I mention them because they hold me back from unreservedly recommending this book to fans of historical metafiction and pastiches. I feel like I would need to warn a reader about the orgies and racism while I was talking up this truly outstanding book.

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

Mouth of the Unare River, Venezuela. New Barcelona was founded some miles up the river in 1671 (Image via Wikicommons)

Homeland, by Fernando Aramburu

In 2012, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) announced a ceasefire that, so far, appears to have finally ended decades of violent conflict between Basque separatists and the Spanish government. Just because there’s a ceasefire, however, does not mean that everything is peaceful. Fernando Aramburu’s monumental novel, Homeland, explores the lingering conflicts between families who were friends once but were then torn apart by violence.

Homeland drifts from character to character as it reveals the deep conflicts between the two central families. It also drifts back and forth and time, circling around important events and revealing secrets each time, and covering about twenty-five years. One family, headed up by the increasingly bitter Miren, appear to be firmly on the side of ETA and independence. Miren’s son, Joxi Mari, joins up with the organization as soon as he can. The rest of the family show up for demonstrations and willingly shun people who run afoul of ETA. The other family, under matriarch Bittori, were the victims of the ETA when a cell that included Joxi Mari gunned down Bittori’s husband. The families were once incredibly close. Miren and Bittori’s husbands were like brothers. Even Miren and Bittori had a friendship, even if it was a bit contentious. Their children got along well. But when Bittori’s husband ran afoul of ETA and, later, when he was murdered, an insurmountable wedge was driven between the two families.

Bittori’s husband’s murder is just one of the awful things that happen to the families’ members. A stroke, divorces, unhappy children, homosexuality, and more test the families for nearly 700 pages. (Seriously, this book is like a soap opera.) When I started reading the novel, I thought that the characters had a lot of emotional baggage that they could eventually reconcile, if they put in the work. As the novel continued, more emotional baggage appeared—so much so that I was surprised that any of the characters were able to grow past their traumas. My favorite character, Miren’s daughter Arantxa, is a quiet hero. Where other characters have taken immovable stances (diehard support for ETA and Basque independence, a determination to check out from everything, a desire to reclaim one’s place in the familial village), Arantxa is able to maneuver people slowly towards some kind of reconciliation.

There’s so much in Homeland that I could talk about it for ages. I am fascinated by stories that feature the toughest of ethical challenges. How do people in villages that have been torn apart by extreme violence or long sectarian struggle managed to live together once it’s over? Can it ever really be over? What principles are worth dying and causing misery for? Is violent struggle the only way to achieve cultural and political power? This book is an amazing achievement.

One quick word about the translation: there are some places where I detected missteps. Some of the word choices in the dialogue felt a little awkward, but I liked all of the Basque words that were scattered throughout the text. I struggled with some places where pronouns switched between first and third-person within the same paragraph and I lost track of who was thinking/speaking. I’m not sure if that’s what was in the original text or if they were translation issues. Apart from these little problems, I thought Alfred MacAdam did a terrific job.

San Sebastián-Donostia, Basque Country, where part of the novel’s action takes place. (Image via Wikicommons)

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry

Every now and then, I’ll pick up a book and it feels like I’ve gone to the movies instead of sinking into a book. Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier is one of the most cinematic stories I’ve read in a long time. From its opening scene of the two protagonists in a waiting room at a Spanish ferry terminal to their complicated backstory with drugs and get rich quick schemes, this book is an absorbing ride with some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read.

At first, Maurice and Charlie reminded me of a rougher version of Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot. Their elliptical discussion ranges from their objective (to find Maurice’s daughter Dilly), to their past, to their regrets, and to their thoughts about death. The two men have been partners in crime for years, running hash and heroin from North Africa to Ireland since the early 1990s. They are not men to mess with. So when they decide to track down Dilly, they are very good at leaning on people to get information out of them. (Maurice bites one of their informants at one point.)

At first, we don’t know why Dilly ran away. I got the impression that Dilly was following her bliss to Algiers. But as Maurice begins to reveal his increasingly tragic history, I was less and less surprised that Dilly cut ties and left Ireland. Maurice and his partner, Cynthia, were a mess—a dangerous mess. Dilly was an accident. She was neglected when her parents got lost in drug addiction. When Cynthia died (not a spoiler), there was nothing to keep her in Ireland. Maurice and Charlie, however, want to make amends.

Night Boat to Tangier is an incredible read. The dialogue is brilliant. The characters are beautifully drawn. And the story has so many layers that I kept falling deeper and deeper into it. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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.

Petra’s Ghost, by C.S. Cinneide

Growing up as a Lutheran, my religious education was very no frills. No saints. No transubstantiation. No relics. No pilgrimages to see said relics. But C.S. Cinneide’s novel Petra’s Ghost, gives me a glimpse into what motivates a person to undergo physical hardship to travel miles, to visit a holy site. This novel shows us a variety of those motivations: a grieving husband who is looking for the perfect place to put his wife’s ashes, a woman running away from her past, a Dutchman who really wants to make it all the way this time, and dilettantes who are not in the most pious mood and really just want to visit the wineries and clubs along the way.

The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela has been in use for centuries. (I learned from Petra’s Ghost that the Christian route is superimposed on a pagan route that used to go all the way to Finisterre, on the Spanish coast.) The sign of St. James, a seashell, appears in hundreds of places along the route to guide pilgrims who walk kilometers a day. Daniel Kennedy is there because he and his wife (before she died of uterine cancer) planned to walk the route one day. Now that she has passed away, Daniel is carrying her ashes along the route, trying to find the right place to disperse them. While this sounds like a worthy errand, this mission is a delaying tactic. Once accomplished, Daniel has promised to return to the family farm in Ireland. He has to resume his life and he really doesn’t want to.

One of the seashell route markers along the Camino. (Image via Wikicommons)

Daniel runs into several more possible procrastinations. One of them, Ginny, turns into a huge delay—through no fault of her own. Ginny brings out Daniel’s protectiveness. No matter how much she protests that she can take care of herself, Ginny just can’t seem to shake Daniel along the trail. Not only does Daniel cross paths with Ginny, he keeps bumping into a sweet Dutchman, a lecherous Englishman…Oh, and a woman who is missing her eyes and appears to be actively rotting. Petra’s Ghost begins normally enough. The longer it goes, however, the more Daniel starts to lose his grip on what’s real and what’s not. By the end of the book, Daniel’s holy errand/procrastination turns into a full blown horror.

Even though the book ends up being a horror story, Petra’s Ghost never loses touch with people’s motivations to do big things, like pilgrimages. Perhaps, above all, the reason why people do big things like this is that physical hardship keeps our bodies occupied so that our brains can really work on whatever emotional, spiritual, or intellectual issues we’ve been wrestling with. There must be something about blisters and slight dehydration that sets our brains drift, just enough, to make real progress.

I ended up liking Petra’s Ghost a lot. I would recommend this book to readers who like meaningful literary fiction that breaks the rules. I would also recommend it to readers who like horror stories that have more to offer than jump scares and crazed killers.

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

The Map of Knowledge, by Violet Moller

In The Map of Knowledge, Violet Moller traces the transmission of knowledge from the ancient Mediterranean, via the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates and centuries of scholars and translators, from 500 CE to the European Renaissance. This summary might sound a little dry, but Moller’s semi-conversational style and the content made her overview of a thousand years of history highly readable. Outside of academia, I don’t know that many people know how much of a debt we Westerners owe to the ancient world. The ancient Greek and Graeco-Egyptian scholars gave us (again, Westerners) our start on the scientific method, philosophy, geometry, medicine, and so many other topics. We would have lost so much if it hadn’t been for medieval Arab scholars and translators. At the same time, however, I lament what we lost anyway to time and deliberate destruction.

Moller was inspired to write this book while working on her dissertation. She visited the library of Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan polymath, who helped create an English translation of a hugely influential book: Euclid‘s The Elements. She started to think about the long journey the text had taken for the centuries and dug into the historical and bibliographic history of The Elements; The Almagest, an astronomical text by Claudius Ptolmey; and the physician Galen‘s enormous body of work. Even though Ptolemy and Galen have been subject to heavy revision since the Renaissance, these three books represent the ancient foundation of a lot of Western science and thought. Moller begins her chronology in Alexandria, an early center of scholarship and learning—as well as a particularly aggressive book acquisition program that makes me, as a librarian, blush.

From Alexandria, which collapsed as a place of scholarship by 500 CE, Moller begins her historical journey around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. She charts the rise and fall of what she begins to call, Houses of Wisdom, after the name of a loose confederation of scholars and scientists in her first stop after Alexandria: Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Moller takes us from Baghdad to Córdoba, the Umayyad capital; to Toledo; Salerno, Italy; Palermo; and finally Venice. As she jumps time and place, Moller gives us the names (as far as we know) of the people who made it possible for us to have as much as we do of our ancient texts. She finishes up with the European invention of moveable type and printing, a critical innovation that helped fuel the Renaissance.

As she makes her way through time and space, Moller develops her thesis of what is needed to create new knowledge on the scale of ancient Alexandria. She argues that tolerance, political stability, and a strong support for learning are vital to create communities like what is now called La Convivencia, a period of time when Córdoba flourished under the Umayyads. Sadly, these convivencias seem to last shorter and shorter periods of time (at least in this account) as outside invaders or internal strife tear it all down. I wondered more than once where we would be now, as a species, if these cultures hadn’t been interrupted all the time or if later translators hadn’t erased the new knowledge and corrections Arab scholars had added to the ancient texts.

The Map of Knowledge may not be for everyone. For bookish folk with a historical bent, however, this is a wonderful read. Even for me, who fits that bill, I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I appreciated that Moller doesn’t talk about these texts as objects for book hunters—who tend to value books because they are old or rare. Instead, she very much keeps her focus on the value of the content. It shouldn’t matter what language they’re in or if they in a beautiful binding or not; the words are the most important thing because they are what transmit knowledge through time and make it possible for us to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”*

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

The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain (Image via Wikicommons)

*Quote attributed to Bernard of Chartres.

The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson

In 1491, Fatima’s world is coming to an end. She is the slave of the last sultan of Moorish Granada and a party of Spaniards have just arrived at the Alhambra to negotiate the sultan’s surrender. But even though it’s the end of one world, Fatima is about to go on a great (albeit dangerous) adventure. The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson, is an amazing journey, full of heroism, sacrifice, battling religions, and magic. I loved every minute of it.

Fatima is a willful woman. Her privileged position lets her get away with a lot, even though she was born a slave and is one of the sultan’s concubine. She has enough leeway to make friends with the miraculous map-maker, Hassan, who has a knack for finding hidden ways around obstacles. Fatima is not particularly concerned about the end of the Emirate of Granada—until the Spanish discover Hassan’s secret and want him handed over to the Inquisition to find out how he does it. Fatima will not let that happen. Her anger and stubbornness, as much as the Reconquista, kicks off this brilliant and exciting tale.

When she was a bit younger, Fatima read the first pages of The Conference of the Birds, a twelfth century poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. The poem tells the story of a bunch of birds who, after much squabbling, decide to fly across the Dark Sea to look for the Bird King. The Bird King will fix things, they believe. This poem inspires Fatima and Hassan’s mad plan to also sail across the Dark Sea (the Atlantic) to seek the land of Qaf, where the Bird King lives. It’s a wild, incredible plan and Fatima would never have considered it if it hadn’t been for the appearance of other supernatural creatures from Middle Eastern myth and Hassan’s own talent for creating impossible maps.

Peacock, from a seventeenth century copy of The Conference, illustrated by Habiballah of Sava (Image via Wikicommons)

The journey across the Dark Sea to a place that may or may not exist would have been hard enough, but Fatima and Hassan are being pursued by Luz, a lay nun who would have been an Inquisitor if it weren’t for her gender. Luz is terrifying. She tortures at the drop of a hat, using her faith as license to do anything to “save souls.” She also knows things that she shouldn’t and has an uncanny knack for finding our protagonists even when they set sail. There are so many close calls in The Bird King that I could barely put the book down once I’d picked it up. I just had to know how things would turn out.

The ending of The Bird King is spectacular and beautiful, with a dollop of redemption to make things even better. I loved how Wilson used The Conference and djinn together with actual history to create this tale. Her characterization is excellent, too. Even with everything else going on, we learn a lot about Fatima’s psychology and her abiding friendship with Hassan, who is gay and all too willing to sacrifice himself when things get hard. I loved this book so much that, if I go on, I’ll just gush and ruin things for readers. Run, do not walk, to pick up this book!

I received a copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee

When I was a library school student, I recall learning about faceted classification and the complexities of organizing large amounts of information. The more information in the pile, the harder is to organize them in a way that makes it easier for others to find information. For example, if you have a group of novels, do you organize them by subject, mood, alphabetically, chronologically, by size? We learned about librarians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who tackled these problems and gave us the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System. But, as I read Edward Wilson-Lee’s deeply erudite book The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, I learned that none other than the son of Christopher Columbus wrestled with these very questions in his quest to create a universal library in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Hernando Colón (better known in English, if not in Wilson-Lee’s book, as Ferdinand Columbus) was the illegitimate younger son of Columbus and, among other achievements, is the author of a lost biography of his father that did a lot to shape his father’s image and legacy for centuries—at least until historians and indigenous advocates reminded us of the terrible, genocidal toll* of Columbus’ actions. The beginning and the end of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books focus on Colón’s efforts to build his father’s reputation as a hero of exploration and secure the riches and titles that were promised to himself and his older, legitimate brother as a result of Columbus’ discoveries. Though Colón helped his father with the bizarre Book of Prophecies—a collection of quotations from religious and literary works that somehow proved Columbus’ divine destiny but mostly reveals Columbus’ loosening grasp on reality—he later worked to create a rigorously documented biography.

Undated portrait of Hernando Colón (Image via Wikicommons)

This may sound dry and only possessing a niche appeal for librarians, especially cataloguers. But I found it fascinating as a history of ideas. During Colón’s time, book collectors and researchers are highly selective. They tended to only collect works of theology in Latin and Greek, possibly Hebrew. Others might collect books about medicine or the natural sciences but, again, usually only books deemed canonical and orthodox. These libraries were easy to organize. Colón’s library, however, was a blizzard of paper. Because he couldn’t classify it using traditional schemas, Colón had to think of something new. Edward-Lee describes Colón’s thought process in detail as the collector wrestled with issues that we librarians are only just now starting to solve using algorithm-based search engines. Colón’s big problem was how to find a piece of information when the reader is not sure where it is or even if it exists—a question that is very familiar to librarians.

The middle part of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books was the most interesting to me. It deals with Colón’s efforts to build a massive library that would contain as much printed matter as possible and then organize it into a system that would allow researchers to find any useful piece of information in that library. By the end of his life, Colón had acquired more than fifteen thousand books, printed images, and pamphlets. Because there were more books than anyone could remember, Colón himself and his assistants worked on summarizes and a classification system that strongly reminded me of the efforts to create a faceted classification system that I had read about in library school. Colón, we learn, was an iconoclast because he wanted to collect everything he could get his hands on. He didn’t want just the books prescribed by the great collectors and thinkers of his time. He didn’t want just want the big booksellers included. He really did want everything, especially texts printed by smaller publishers.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books—named for a shipment of over 1,000 printed texts bought by Colón that was lost at sea—is great tour of the intellectual world of the late 1400s and early 1500s. Edward-Lee makes a few odd choices, such as constantly calling Colón Hernando instead of Ferdinand Columbus, and once calls Christopher Columbus the first European to lay eyes on the Americas**. But aside from these quibbles, I learned a great deal from this book and have so much food for thought that I know I am already going to recommend this to my cataloguing friends.

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

*New research has shown that so many indigenous people died as a result of European contact that it changed the climate.
**Vikings got to Canada centuries before Columbus hit the West Indies.

Mothers, by Chris Power

The short stories in Chris Power’s collection, Mothers, range across the world, from Sweden to Mexico. Though the settings are varied, many of the stories revolve around two themes: betrayal and unacknowledged traumas from the past. None of them are comfortable to read; some are even a bit frustrating. That said, all of them are interesting portraits of characters who don’t know what they want, who can’t have what they want, or who have to deal with characters like the other two types. 

Two of the standouts from this collection, for me, are:

“The Colossus of Rhodes” – This story has more than one trick up its sleeve. At first, it seems as though the narrator is comparing his present vacation to Greece with his wife and child with a trip that he took when he was a child. But then things take a sinister turn when a stranger assaults the narrator-as-a-child. More disturbing incidents follow, only for the narrator to turn the whole tale on its head. He says he has evidence that these things did happen, even if nothing happened quite like he says it did. In the end, we have to wonder what really happened and why the narrator wrestles so much with that long ago trip.

“The Haväng Dolmen” – Readers won’t have much sympathy for the pretentious academic at the beginning of this story, set in the Swedish countryside near a Neolithic dolmen. He is only there because his archaeologist colleagues said the site was worth seeing, even if it’s not the narrator’s period of interest. Once the narrator sets out to see the dolmen, he starts to feel as though someone is following. There’s no one there whenever he turns around. It’s only near the end of the story that we finally learn what’s haunting this brusque, solitary man. 

Mothers also features three connected stories about a Swedish woman named Eva. We meet her as a child, as a young woman, and as a mother (the last through the eyes of her husband). Taken together, the three stories are a long arc of misunderstandings, lies, betrayals, and mental illness. Eva never seems to know what she wants, frustrating everyone around her with her capriciousness. Curiously, it’s only when her husband takes a turn as narrator that we find out why Eva is the way she is. But, like the husband, we have to ask whether or not Eva’s behavior is forgivable. We have to wonder if it’s possible to reconcile the hurt a person causes with understanding that they can’t not hurt people and that they only do it by accident. Perhaps its only possible with the kind of double-think Eva’s husband develops over the years.

Mothers is a challenging read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that touches the emotional snarls these stories do. While things are resolved (at least somewhat), I still feel unsettled by this book. Readers who like to practice armchair psychiatry will love this collection. Readers with their own unresolved traumas may want to shy away; all of the stories powerfully evoke un-resolvable emotional conflicts that these readers may not want to invite into their brains.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.