The Nameless Ones, by John Connolly

I’ve been dipping in and out of the Charlie Parker series for years, ever since I picked up the first book in the series, Every Dead Thing. Since that book came out in 1999, John Connolly has been building on the complexity of his haunted private investigator’s world by adding supernatural elements of pure evil beneath the more ordinary human variety of evil. Connolly has also created an amazing cast of characters with complex ethical codes that push them to eliminate both types of evil wherever they find it. In The Nameless Ones, the nineteenth volume in the series, we go on an international journey of revenge with two of Parker’s best friends and allies. Louis, an assassin known as the Grim Reaper, and his partner Angel, a thief, travel to Europe to take out a group of Serbians who took their own revenge so far that they must be put out of commission.

The Nameless Ones brings in a full complement of previous characters (although Parker himself and the always entertaining Fulci brothers only have a brief scene). Sadly, a character introduced in a recent installment of the series meets a grisly death—along with his family—in the first quarter of the novel. He and his family are tortured and killed by Spiridon Vuksan and his henchmen. Spiridon and his brother, Radovan, are evil men. They, unlike some of the other villains tackled by Parker et al., are motivated by greed and prejudice against anyone who isn’t a pure-blooded Serb. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Vuksans participated in the massacre at Srebrenica and countless other atrocities. After the war, they used Serbia and people still loyal to them to create a criminal empire that no one would touch. At least, that’s what they thought. Their act of bloody revenge in Amsterdam not only draws down the wrath of Angel and Louis, it also makes a lot of governments decide that the Vuksans are too dangerous to be protected anymore.

As Louis and Angel track their quarry from Amsterdam to Vienna, Connolly treats us to snippets of history about Josip Broz Tito and the terrible wars and atrocities that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia, how much it costs to get new passports and guns, high-level human smuggling in Western Europe, and some interesting tidbits about Serbian folk beliefs. There are also some amazing set pieces as Louis has to get creative with his methods when his targets seem to be completely safe in their hotels and when there are showdowns in dramatic corners of European cities, like the Friedhof der Namenlosen (German) or a once quiet restaurant in the Skadarlija district of Belgrade. The Nameless Ones is the kind of book I adore: entertainment mixed with history and travel.

If you’re looking for a mystery series that is completely original, deeply affecting, and never disappointing, I highly recommend the Charlie Parker series and this latest entry—as long as you have a strong stomach for violence.

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

Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura

At one point in Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura, the protagonist describes her job as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court in The Hague as trying to make the space between languages as small as possible. She knows that it’s impossible to create one-to-one translations. This poetic definition captures part of the reason I am in awe of interpreters. Most of us (Americans at least) operate in one language. Depending on how much caffeine I have on board, there are moments when my tongue trips over itself or I can’t find the right word or I even try to say two things at the same time. While I have studied a bit of Spanish and German, I never got anywhere close to fluent in anything other than English. How much work it must take to not just be able to converse or read another language, but to be so fluent that one can smoothly and simultaneously translate from one language to another. But Intimacies is not just about language. Rather, it’s about moments when we connect or fail to connect with another human being through misinterpretation.

Interpreters are meant to be invisible, to a certain extent. Unfortunately for our narrator, she seems to have extended her professional inconspicuousness into her personal life. She has a friend and a boyfriend, but none of them seem particularly close. The narrator appears to drift around the city from work to occasional meals with the friend or boyfriend in between spending a lot of time alone. The only times the narrator really seems to come alive are the moments when she is in court, translating for people accused of war crimes and their defense teams. There is a small plot arc involving the narrator and her boyfriend that, because it mostly consists of the narrator thinking about whether or not her boyfriend loves her or his ex-wife more, lacks drama. An even smaller plot sees the narrator’s friend trying to help her make another friend that also doesn’t really go anywhere.

In the same way that the narrator drifts through her days in The Hague, Intimacies touches on a lot of potentially interesting topics before gliding on to something else. There are references to why the International Criminal Court seems to go after Africans more than any one else. There are also references to the changing demographics of The Netherlands and Europe and resistance from Dutch who refuse to mix with new immigrants from Africa, Asia, and South America. I picked up this book because it takes place partially in the ICC, something that has interested me for a long time. I think the development of war crimes and how they are adjudicated is amazing and complicated and full of unrealized potential for good. So it was disappointing that Intimacies also glossed over this, apart from some discussion about how disturbing it can be when an interpreter slips out of simultaneous translation enough to realize what they are actually saying.

I’ve put off reviewing Intimacies because I can’t make up my min about how I feel about it. It’s not the book I was hoping for, but I try not to fault books for that. (I tend to blame book blurb writers who fail to adequately describe a book’s content.) There were moments I liked–just not enough to make me really like the whole book. Because of the way this book just breezes along and never really settles into any of the themes or characters that appear, I felt frustrated by this book more than anything else. There’s also a good possibility that I missed what Intimacies was trying to tell me. How ironic for a book about translation, especially for one written in a language I am fairly proficient at reading.

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

Two Blankets, Three Sheets, by Rodaan al Galidi

I’m glad that I read The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri. before I read Rodaan al Galidi’s Two Blankets, Three Sheets (brilliantly translated by Jonathan Reeder). Al Galidi’s protagonist, Samir, lives through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to become a designated refugee in the Netherlands, after fleeing Iraqi to avoid being drafted into Saddam Hussein’s army. Without the background of Nayeri’s memoir, I would have been a lot angrier than I was as I read about Samir’s misadventures. I was still angry, but I better understood what was happening on both sides of the counter at the refugee center. Everyone in this book desperately needs to learn and experience empathy and kindness.

Samir’s journey takes eleven years. The first three years were spent trying to get out of Asia on stolen or forged passports. After those three years, Samir has the money to get all the way to Europe. He only learns later that he could have picked countries that are more welcoming of refugees than the Netherlands. (Later, he tries to make breaks for Germany and Norway.) The Schengen agreement and other laws make it very hard for refugees to try and get asylum. People have only once chance to be awarded asylum and they have to ask for it in the first Schengen country they land in. If they don’t get asylum, they are immediately deported. It’s no wonder that most of the people Samir meets spend most of their time collecting information and trying to work out strategy for getting asylum.

Samir takes us back and forth through his journeys, with plenty of detours to tell the stories of his fellow detainees. (A lot of these characters and stories are based on the author’s own experiences.) Some are funny. Many, however, are heartbreaking. Being kept in the refugee centers with no idea of when their detentions will end and having no idea how the bureaucrats are making their decisions drive the refugees to unhealthy, dangerous, unsettling behaviors. More than one commit suicide. Others develop obsessive behaviors. Still others discover phobias and paranoia. We readers can only hope that the detainees will finally find a same home.

Seeing things from the refugees’ perspective just reminds me of how bewildering it would be for someone from another culture, who doesn’t speak the local language, to understand what the bureaucrats want. The Dutch Samir encounters are so exasperated by the refugees. Why can’t they just do things the proper way? They never seem to understand that their “charges” don’t know what the proper way is. Even the sympathetic ones get flustered by the desperation of the refugees.

Even though this book is so full of heartbreak, I loved reading Two Blankets, Three Sheets. Samir is a deeply affecting narrator who knows when to leaven things with a funny story when they start to get too heavy. The tone never reaches the picaresque; too much hilarity would steal the seriousness of what Samir is trying to tell us. Samir tells us a story of incomprehensible rules, weariness, anger, sadness, desperation, and struggle. The kicker of it all is that Samir’s story is absolutely true, with only the names changed. This is the kind of book that I hope is widely read, because it has the possibility of leading readers to demand better for refugees seeking asylum in their countries…because the people Samir tells us about absolutely deserve better.

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

The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri

Trigger warnings for discussion of rape and suicide.

When she was eight years old, Dina Nayeri’s mother began to be harassed by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and morality police. It wasn’t long before thing got so bad that she packed up her two children and fled Isfahan. The Ungrateful Refugee is a blend of memoir and nonfiction that recounts Nayeri’s experiences as a young refugee, with additional narratives from other refugees from Iran who looked to Europe and the United States as safe havens only to go through years of brutal hardship and callous bureaucracy. It should come as no surprise that this book is full of righteous anger at the way refugees are treated by the Western world. This is absolutely a book for our times.

As Nayeri relates her experiences as a refugee and, later, naturalized American citizen, she frequently returns to the same ideas. First, there is the fear of being displaced and the shame of having to beg for food, shelter, and safety. Nayeri shows us how humiliating and confusing it is to be a refugee. Many refugees have to navigate not only different languages they may not know well, but also completely different ways of looking at the world. Which leads to the second themes: fundamental misunderstandings and casual cruelty by the bureaucrats who handle requests for asylum. Lastly, Nayeri calls out Western nations who compound the misery of refugees by making things as difficult as possible in a time of growing global instability and rising nationalism.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the plight of refugees will be familiar with the stories told by refugees seeking asylum. They are fleeing not just police harassment, like Nayeri’s mother, but also torture, rape, and death threats. I would have thought that anyone with a heart would immediately open the gates for people who cannot “go back.” Nayeri, however, raises a point that had never occurred to me. One of her contacts, an asylum “fixer” in Amsterdam, talks to Nayeri about how refugees (especially Iranian and Middle Eastern refugees) communicate in very different ways from the Dutch, the British, and the Americans. Where the Westerners want facts, dates, and documents, refugees are often unable to provide these for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are because of trauma. There is ample research on how trauma can affect memory that apparently has not reached the bureaucrats in the asylum offices. Some of these reasons are cultural. Nayeri notes that Iranian culture and language are high-context cultures (though she doesn’t use this terminology). In high-context cultures, there is a lot more subtext, layers of meaning, an indirect communication. Western cultures tend to be the opposite; everything has to be said to be understood. The fixer spends most of his days coaching Iranians in how to talk to Westerners in order to be understood and win their asylum cases. It was heartbreaking and fascinating all at the same time.

Nayeri closes The Ungrateful Refugee with something of a resolution to her own identity struggles. Most of her life, Nayeri had to repeatedly transform herself in order to get along in the vastly different environments in which she found herself. She tried to be a dutiful daughter in Iran. In America, she worked desperately hard to get into an Ivy League college and get the hell out of Oklahoma. As an adult, she sought a way to reconcile all of her selves. At last, in the last chapters, she talks about how she has reclaimed her Iranian heritage…but also became a powerful (and published) voice for refugees.

I hope that many readers pick up and share The Ungrateful Refugee, especially in the United States. We have, as Nayeri and others mention, a society that has “gotten ours” and feels a need to close the metaphorical gates behind ourselves. I agree with Nayeri that we should open the borders. I agree with Achebe, whose essay collection, The Education of a British-Protected Child is quoted by Nayeri: “I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety.” And, above all, I hope that the millions of people who are currently seeking refuge can find a safe place to call home at last.

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

All Ships Follow Me, by Mieke Eerkens

Mieke Eerken’s family is in the unique position of being caught in strangely opposing positions during World War II. Her father and his family were interned by the Imperial Japanese Army on the island of Java for almost the entire war. Her maternal grandparents were members of the National Socialist Party of the Netherlands. In All Ships Follow Me, Eerkens tells her family stories and shares her anxieties, concerns, and questions about her heritage as the child of a colonialist and the granddaughter of a collaborator.

The first third of All Ships Follow Me follows Eerkens and her father, Sjef Eerkens, on a trip to Java so that they can both see the places Sjef lived. Eerkens gives a capsule history of her father’s life up until the Japanese invasion in 1942. She then uses her father’s memories and documents from other internees to recreate the three years her father was a prisoner. Conditions were brutal; the internees were treated so badly that some of the Japanese officers at the Javanese camps were convicted later of war crimes. But even though the years from 1942-1945 were so pivotal in her father life and the lives of other Dutch settlers in what is now Indonesia, there are few remembrances of the Dutch dead.

In the middle third of the book, Eerkens shares her mother’s history. Her mother, Else, was born on the eve of World War II, so she has few memories of the war itself. Eerkens has to recreate the past by interviewing her aunts and uncles, and by taking a dive into the Dutch Archives to see her grandfather and grandmother’s trial documents. Else does remember the terrible shunning she and her family received after the war. When the war ended, there was an eruption of vengeance by those Dutch people who weren’t collaborators. Women who slept with Germans had their heads shaved. Children were taken away. Property was seized. Even now, people with collaborators in their families keep silent.

In the last third of All Ships Follow Me (the title recalls a quote famous to all Dutch people: the words of Admiral Karel Doorman, who went down with his ship during the Battle of the Java Sea), Eerkens turns to the legacy of her parents trials. Her parents are hoarders. They all have troubled relationships to food. Else still tries to keep a low profile and seeks affection. Sjef barges ahead in any situation, refusing to admit any wrong. Eerkens also touches on epigenetics, a developing science that has shown that severe trauma can be passed down to later generations. Even though World War II ended 74 years ago, it is still very much ingrained in the Eerkens clan.

It’s clear by the end of this book that Eerkens is still working her way through what all this means for herself. The last third is less focused, packed with questions about how to resolve her colonialist and collaborationist guilt, her frustration with and affection for her parents, how suffering should be memorialized, how to deal with her lack of a true home and food issues, and much more. Some readers may be frustrated by all this questioning, but I found it very human. Anyone who claimed to have answers to the kinds of questions Eerkens is asking is either a liar or very shallow.

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

Women and children at Kampong Makassar camp, near Jakarta (Image via Wikicommons)

Tench, by Inge Schilperoord

35080438Why do people commit crimes? Most mystery novels tell us that the most common motives are money, revenge, or strong emotion. But then there are people like Jonathan, the protagonist of Inge Schilperoord’s Tench (translated by David Colmer), who are probably doomed to be criminals. It’s just a matter of time. This disturbing novel is one of the most troubling books I’ve ever read because it takes us inside the head of a man who has the potential to commit the most abhorrent of all crimes.

We meet Jonathan on the day he gets out of prison. We’re not sure what he’s in prison for. In fact, he is released because there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. All we know is that he is required to see the prison psychologist once a week and work his way through a book of exercises to deal with anger and stress. Jonathan has been methodically working to recognize his stressors and control his impulses. He is determined to do better when he gets out. He’s planned it all out; he just needs to stick with it.

Unfortunately, Jonathan’s little workbook and short time with the psychiatrist are weak tools considering what he is up against. Tench follows Jonathan in the weeks after his release as his plans start to fall apart. The impulses he is fighting against are deeply rooted in his psyche. Once he starts to rationalize, it’s all over. And yet, I still had a little bit of hope for him that things might turn out differently this time.

Tench is a hard book to get through because of the nature of Jonathan’s struggle.  I was tempted into requesting this book because I thought it would be interesting to take a look inside the head of a criminal. I’ve always been interested in motives. But I wish I hadn’t looked under this particular rock. This book is very well written, but the problem is that Jonathan’s thoughts are so taboo that I wanted to stop reading. I’m not sure I can recommend it to very many people. Perhaps I could suggest it to a criminal psychology student who also likes fiction.

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

The Book Thieves, by Anders Rydell

In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (translated by Henning Koch), Anders Rydell takes a counter-clockwise journey across Europe to learn more about the lesser known theft of books by Nazis during the Second World War. Rydell begins in Berlin before heading off to Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, and Vilnius. Along the way, he visits libraries—primarily Jewish libraries—that are still trying to reclaim books that were stolen over 70 years ago. As Rydell depicts matters, returning books to their rightful owners is a nearly futile task no matter how worthwhile.

The Book Thieves is a meandering book. Often, the libraries Rydell visits are just a launching point for a long discussion about the origins of the libraries, pre-World War II Jewish communities, and the evolution of Nazi ideology. Early in the book, Rydell answers questions about why the Nazis were so keen to pack up entire Jewish and émigré libraries and ship them back to Germany. During the 1933s, prominent Nazis like Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg were working to create an environment of total information control. What people would know was what the government would allow them to know. In order to do that, they had to make sure that no one would have access to other points of view. So they would steal libraries and erase the collected histories of entire communities. On top of that, the Nazis deposited many of the books in places like the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, where Nazi “scientists” would alter actual history, culture, literature, and so on to create an entirely new version of reality.

Very little of The Book Thieves is about actually returning books because it’s so difficult to trace ownership. In many cases, librarians working in German libraries would remove owners’ marks when they added stolen books to their collections. Sometimes an ex libris bookplate or some initials would remain that modern librarians could trace back to their original owners. The scenes Rydell includes about owners or the owners’ descendants received a stolen book were truly touching and served as a powerful reminder that, no matter how hopeless it might seem, it is absolutely worthwhile to try and make restitution even after all these years.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 February 2017. 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith

The artist at the center of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith, is based on a real woman—Sara van Baalbergen, the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke. Like her inspiration, Sara de Vos left little trace of her existence part from less than a handful of paintings. Part of this book reveals more about the artist’s life; the rest revolves around two periods in the life of an academic and art restorer. As the novel switches back and forth between the two protagonists, the narrative meditates on the genuine and the fake, honesty and deception.

Sara de Vos in 1637 has recently lost her daughter to plague and is in the process of losing her husband to debt. Both are members of the St. Luke Guild of artists but, unbeknownst to anyone else, Sara is the real talent. For a while, her work keeps them afloat. We see her struggle against her husband’s failures and against a guild that is much more interested in money than in artistic vision.

In 1957, Ellie Shipley is making ends meet as an art restorer. She’s technically a graduate student working on a dissertation about Dutch women painters of the seventeenth century, but she gets more out of her work with old paintings than she does out of the books about their creators. Out of the blue, one of the men who brings her restoration jobs arrives with a set of photos and an unethical request. He wants Ellie to copy the only known painting by Sara de Vos. She takes the job, more out of curiosity than anything else.

In 2000, Ellie Shipley helps set up an exhibition of seventeenth century Dutch women painters in Sydney. Everything is going swimmingly, until two copies of Sara de Vos’s best known work. One came from a museum in Leiden. The other belongs to the man who owned the original back in 1957. This man, Martijn de Groet, holds the key to ruining Ellie. He knows that she painted the forgery all those years ago.

Each shift in the narrative reveals more about Sara, Ellie, and Marty. Sara’s story has the most honesty to it. She wants to paint and she finds a way to do it, eventually, under her own known. Ellie and Marty are not so genuine, but their deceptions are not completely malicious. And this is the problem with The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: the tension never reaches mystery or thriller levels and the stakes never get all that high. I kept waiting for something to happen, but it turns out this isn’t that kind of book. I’m not sure what it wants to be because there’s a little too much going on here to do any of it really well.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 April 2016.