Love Letter in Cuneiform, by Tomáš Zmeškal

26196562Tomáš Zmeškal’s Love Letter in Cuneiform (translated by Alex Zucker), I’m sorry to report, was a frustrating read for me. The publisher’s description—which is what attracted my interest in the first place—only covers a small part of this weirdly constructed novel about betrayal, love, family, forgiveness…and immortality, of all things. While this book does contain a plot thread about a family caught up in the Communist legal bureaucratic nightmare, it takes a lot of tangents. I didn’t get the book that I was expecting. This isn’t the book’s fault; I just wish I had been better prepared.

The novel opens with a family about to celebrate a marriage in 1968. Alice and Maximilian are going to get married. Only Alice’s parents and their few friends are in attendance. After a ceremony in a church and then a civil service, they have an elaborate wedding feast, with a Baroque cake created by a baker that we learn is completely off his trolley. There are long chapters later that reveal the story of Alice’s parents, Josef and Kvêta, Alice’s horrible marriage, and the delusions of the baker. The opening chapters are the easiest chapters to get through. The rest of the book felt like I was trying to assemble a puzzle after the pieces have been soaked and don’t really fit together anymore. To be honest, this book made me feel like an idiot.

There are a few things I think I worked out about Love Letter in Cuneiform. First, immortality is a frequent motif. The baker’s delusions include a man who is supposedly cloned from a famous person, to solve the problem of nature v. nurture at last. Another contains a man who is cursed with immortality. This overt examples of immortality are echoed by the way the characters keep telling each other stories about people who are gone or dead. As long as they tell stories, those people are not completely gone. Second, time plays a strange role in several sections. When Josef is in prison, for example, it’s as though he and Kvêta are living in lacunae. They’re just trying to survive until they can get back together again, when normal time will resume. So many characters seem to be waiting for a later them: when they get pregnant again, when Communism ends, etc. Things will be alright later. The problem with living like this is that it means so many characters suffer while they wait, instead of trying to make positive changes.

I’m sure I’m missing things about Love Letter in Cuneiform. In the translator’s note at the end, Zucker puts Zmeškal into the context of post-Communist Czech literature. The problem with this is that I had no clue who Zucker was talking about. I didn’t recognize any of the names. This isn’t Zmeškal or Zucker’s fault, of course. It’s not even really my fault; I could read every hour of the day, week in, week out, and still not be able to read everything I need to understand the titles in translation that come across my reading horizons.

At any rate, there are interesting ideas in Love Letter in Cuneiform. I would recommend it to readers who don’t get frustrated easily and like challenges (structural, thematic, contextual, etc.). For readers who are looking for a glimpse into life in another place and another time, there are easier reads out there.

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Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata

36605525Keiko Furukura has an unusual flaw. Though she’s intelligent, she doesn’t understand other people. Ever since she was a child, she had a hard time knowing how to act, how to speak, how to emote, how to just be in the world. But she seems to have found a place for herself in Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori). As an employee of Smile Mart, Keiko performs the role of a thirties-something part-time convenience store worker. She functions well enough, until the day when he meets the reprehensible Shiraha and realizes that her friends and family keep asking when she’s going to get married.

I really enjoyed reading about neuro-atypical Keiko. Once I stopped trying to diagnose her (I couldn’t help it; I took a semester of psychology as an undergrad), I learned to see through her eyes. She’s a scientist who constantly studies the people around her to learn how to be “normal.” She adopts mannerisms and speech patterns from the people around her. Essentially, she’s been acting her entire life, because her default state is affectless, unambitious, baffling, and occasionally frightening to the people she meets and her family. In the same way that she doesn’t understand people, they don’t understand her. The chance to look at society through Keiko’s eyes reveals a lot about how inexplicable most cultural norms are.

Shiraha, on the other hand, does not try to fit in. He is an awful person, straight from a red pill reddit thread. He talks about the Stone Age constantly to “explain” why men and women are expected to behave in certain ways, sneers at any kind of gainful employment, and is basically a dick. And yet, Keiko is willing to put up with him because having a “boyfriend” makes her life a bit easier. People stop wondering about her quite so much because she suddenly makes sense to them.

But as Convenience Store Woman develops, it becomes clear that Keiko is in an untenable position. Does she keep up the charade? Or does she insist on being who she is, in spite of the social consequences? I also felt a little bit of extra tension because most of the Japanese literature I’ve read lately had me worried about the possibility of things taking a turn for the macabre. (At the risk of spoiling things, I’m happy to report that no one dies in this book.) I wasn’t sure what to expect from Convenience Store Woman. What I found turned out to be interesting, unusual, and moving. I really liked this novella.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 12 June 2018.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who would like to understand a neuro-atypical mind.

A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol

36755919There is a maxim by Francis Bacon that lodged itself in my head as I read A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol and translated by Lisa Dillman. The maxim is, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” In this novel about human monsters, characters are constantly stymied when their children are threatened. Great wrongs are allowed to go unavenged for a long time because no one has the strength—or the arrogance—to tell their enemies go to hell.

This achronological novel takes place in two different times. In 2002, in Barcelona, Gonzalo Gil is dreading having to merge his fledgling law firm (consisting only of himself) with his father-in-law’s rich and powerful firm when he learns that his sister has committed suicide after being accused of killing the man who kidnapped and killed her son. In 1933, in the Soviet Union, Gonzalo’s father, Elías, is sent to the gulag after being betrayed by men he thought were his friends. On the train to far eastern Russia, he encounters a psychopath who will emotionally torture him for the rest of his life. These plot-paced sentences should be a good indication of just how much happens in A Million Drops. So much happens between 1933 and 2002 that it’s little surprise it took del Árbol almost 700 pages to describe the conspiracies and revenges that connect Gonzalo to his father, as well as explain the decades of violence that Elías and his nemesis caused.

In addition to all the plot (seriously, guys, there is so much plot in this book), A Million Drops gives us numerous portraits of men who face horrible choices about what they would be willing to do to get what they want. Elías wants to be a good Communist, but he quickly realizes that the Soviet leadership are more interested in power and bloodshed than they are about building the Worker’s paradise. His nemesis, a truly monstrous individual named Igor, takes full advantage of the chaos in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In 2002, Gonzalo has the chance to finish the good work his sister started, but only if he can find a way to stop people from ruining his family. Over and over, men are asked to compromise their ethics. Some struggle. Some gleefully compromise. Some make what they think is the right choice, only to be twisted by guilt and anger.

A Million Drops is, I think, a good read for characters who like thrillers blended with historical fiction, served with a big spoonful of ethical and moral dilemmas and plenty of evil machinations. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and there are some things that could probably have been cut. Unlike some of the other books I’ve read lately, I can promise that this book has an ending in which all questions are answered and we get to learn what happened to everyone. I ended up being more satisfied by this book than I thought it would as I was making my way through all that plot. This book was grim and fascinating at the same time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

In the Distance with You, by Carla Guefelbein

36755921In this multi-layered novel, three people slowly discover the secrets of the mysterious cult writer Vera Sigall. The three characters take turns narrating the tale after Vera falls down the stairs of her Chilean home and has to be put into an induced coma while the swelling in her brain goes down. As In the Distance with You, by Carla Guelfenbein and translated by John Cullen, develops it explores creativity, soulmates, incompatibility, unequal relationships, curious parallels, and literary influence. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this novel.

Daniel is the first to discover Vera at the bottom of her stairs. He has been a friend to the enigmatic writer almost the entire time they’ve been neighbors. They have a strange friendship. She’s an elderly writer who refuses to give interviews. He’s a young architect whose award-winning design for a cultural center is stuck in development hell. For all their differences, they enjoy each others company. Meanwhile, Emilia has arrived from France to study the few papers Vera has donated to a library of Latin American women writers. Emilia wants to explore the star and astronomy motifs throughout Vera’s novels. But when Emilia hears that Vera is in the hospital, close to death, she starts to lurk outside the writer’s room until Daniel spots her and strikes up a friendship. Later, the voice of poet Horacio Infante joins the chorus, taking us back into the 1950s as he begins an affair with Vera.

Daniel and Emilia’s deepening relationship mirrors Vera and Horacio’s. All four are creative people, albeit in different fields. While there are moments of instant attraction, it takes time for the characters to learn how to genuinely care for and love each other. It feels organic, even if it’s bittersweet to see one character fall faster than the object of their love. I’ve never read a book that looks so closely at partners that don’t love each other equally. How can such couples move forward when one half of the couple is more in love than the other? As if this wasn’t enough, both couples also run headlong into the thorny problem of influence. Daniel and Emilia start to collaborate on a restaurant idea. Vera and Horacio dip in and out of each other’s work. The problem is, who owns the finished product? Is it possible to share credit? If one person’s name is put down as the creator of something, what might happen if it is revealed to be a collaboration? And then what happens if the partnership breaks up?

In the Distance with You is a moving and thoughtful book. I loved the realistic and original character development; by the end, I was sad to leave the characters. What I loved most, however, were the questions about influence and collaboration. Readers who are interested in author processes or inspiration will love this book. Even readers who aren’t so much into the psychology and problems of authors will probably still enjoy this book for the story of friendship turning into love in a faraway city balanced against a potentially impossible romance.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat

35382482In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat and translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli, is one of the strangest nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Most nonfiction books are set up chronologically. It’s the most logical way to tell a lot of stories. In the Restaurant, however, is served up to readers like tapas. It jumps from topic to topic, telling the story of restaurants with side dishes of sociology, literature, crime, and commentary about what the institutions show us about society.

While the short segments that comprise In the Restaurant seem disjoined, I noticed that they slowly develop a theme of high versus low. For every scene or short discussion of restaurants becoming the realm of ultra-high class eating and service, there is a look at the rough, dirty conditions in lower restaurants (or sometimes the same ones) that dish up barely acceptable fare for the punters. Back and forth, Ribbat uses this tension to explore the dichotomies that the food industry reveals under close scrutiny.

A history of restaurants, one would thinks, would be all about food. There is a lot of food in this book—discussions of molecular gastronomy at El Bullí, the development of nouvelle cuisine—but Ribbat is equally interested in the way that food service is also about more than plates of food. When a customer arrives at a restaurant, they have certain expectations. They expect that they will, for lack of a better word, be catered to. The waiter is expected to make any substitutions the customer wants, to deliver the food at the right temperature, and so on. By referencing sociologists who studied restaurant workers, Ribbat also covers the discovery of emotional labor.

I was completely hooked by In the Restaurant. I loved the way it was told, most likely because it is organized a bit like my brain is. One fact is connected to another in a seemingly tangential way, except, the more to read, the more one realizes that looking at disparate things can create a larger picture. Stepping back to think about why, for example, front of house staff in restaurants are almost all white or how long it took to solve a series of doner kebab vendor murders show us how segregation is still alive and well in food service.

In the Restaurant was an incredible read, entertaining and enlightening.

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

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Cult X, by Fuminori Nakamura

Trigger warning for rape.

36278938I found Fuminori Nakamura’s Cult X (translated by Kalau Almony) infuriating. I requested it because I am fascinated by cults. Being an atheist, I want to understand what draws people to religion. Cults are the most extreme versions of religion; charismatic leaders with a good story suck people in for various reasons and followers stay even if it all goes wrong. What leads people to do that? Cult X does answer that question, as well as tries to answer what it is that drives those charismatic leaders to try and lead people off the cliffs with them. My problem with the book is that it is packed with lectures by male characters, with barely any attention paid to the women who appear in the novel. By the time I got to the end, I was sick of mansplaining and female characters who were treated as little more than sex dolls. There were some interesting ideas here, just not enough to make up for those two major problems.

Cult X opens when a detective gives Narazaki the bad news about the woman he wants to be his girlfriend. She’s in a cult, a mysterious cult that no one knows anything about. This short prelude dumps us straight into Narazaki’s attempts to find Ryoko, which quickly evolves into something that reads like a handful of characters being tossed into a tumble dryer on high. Narazaki follows Ryoko’s trail to a guru who has ideas about atoms, brains, and the Big Bang—but who also keeps asking to poke women’s breasts. The guru leads Narazaki to the guru’s rival and enemy, plus something a lot more sinister. Narazaki disappears as a lead character for a while so that we can follow Ryoko’s lover, Takahara, as he wrestles with his conscience.

As the novel jumps from character to character—and lecture to lecture—we get hints about what the religions of these cults are. While the guru is more philosophical and wants to share ideas about where the universe might have started and how atoms and the brain and quantum physics interact. The rival leader is downright evil. He has essentially created a sex cult, with ambitions to turn it into a terrorist organization. But instead of exploring these cobbled together theologies, the book devotes more time to letting these “great men” expound on their thoughts and their traumatic histories. While there are some interesting echoes and themes in Cult X, I started to loathe their expository dialogue the more I read, especially once I learned how depraved the rival leader was.

The ending of Cult X offered a little bit of an apology after slogging through the lectures and self-tortured men, but not enough to make it up to me for all the pretentious male characters who run roughshod over everyone to achieve their destructive goals. Some readers might enjoy the thriller aspects of this novel. The terrorism plot ratchets up to a fever pitch over the course of the book. I actually kind of liked how big of a mess the putative terrorists managed to create. I just didn’t like the lectures or the misogyny.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 22 May 2018.

Familiar Things, by Hwang Sok-yong

33148672Bugeye doesn’t have much going for him at the beginning of Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Things (translated by Sora Kim-Russell). Things are so hopeless that when his mother takes a job as a trash picker at Seoul’s Flower Island landfill, it’s actually a step up for their little family. And, strangely enough, the trash heap turns out to be a land of opportunity for Bugeye in this strangely charming coming-of-age story.

Flower Island lives in the shadow of Seoul (which is not named, but I’m calling the city Seoul because all of the plot descriptions say that’s where this story takes place). It has it’s own culture and economy, latched on to the rest of Korean society. There is a strict pecking order among the groups of trash pickers, the recyclers, and other salvagers. Money makes it possible to move between the groups, but it takes a long time to accumulate enough to make the jump. The adults in Bugeye’s life worry about that more than he does. Like the other children of trash pickers, Bugeye is resigned to the fact that he will probably follow in his mother’s footsteps and that the rest of Korean society will be closed to him. When I started to read about his life, I was expecting another depressing tale of extreme poverty (like The Rent Collector by Camron Wright). Instead, I was as surprised as Bugeye was when Baldspot appeared on the scene and things started to get magical.

Baldspot makes it possible for Bugeye to have a childhood. While their parents pick through Seoul’s trash for anything they can sell, Baldspot introduces Bugeye to Headquarters, a club house built as a place for the local boys to escape to. He also introduces Bugeye to the strange lights and the mysterious Mr. Kims that only they can see. The boys run around the island and make friends with the more uncanny parts of the island, such as the woman who is occasionally possessed by the spirit of the island’s guardian spirit. The poverty of their families should have crushed them, but Bugeye and Baldspot have adventures that keep their minds (mostly) off of their worries about the future.

For me, Familiar Things walks a perfect path between realism and the supernatural. There’s enough realism that I didn’t get annoyed at the story for not taking the setting seriously enough, but enough magic that it wasn’t utterly depressing. I loved learning about the dokkaebi and what Flower Island was like before it became a landfill. And the way that that past is blended into Bugeye’s reality is seamless, with a beautiful,  bittersweet ending that gives the book a poignancy that I loved. This book is amazing.

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