review · science fiction

City of Ash and Red, by Hye-young Pyun

Trigger warnings for rape and violence to animals.

39331853The beginning of Hye-young Pyun’s novel, City of Ash and Red, (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), terrified me because it presents one of my worst fears. An unnamed man arrives in a foreign city to take up a job, only to end up without his phone, documents, most of his possessions, and eventually the apartment his new employer set up. He doesn’t speak the language well. All the phone numbers he might call were stored in his phone. He’s on his own. Meanwhile, an epidemic and a garbage strike are making conditions in the city district he’s fetched up in downright hellish.

At first, I felt a strong sympathy for our unnamed protagonist. He’s in desperate straights in the first chapters, especially as the epidemic gets worse and he is quarantined to his apartment. But then, I started to learn things about the protagonist that flipped my sympathy on its head. Throughout the first chapters, the protagonist alternately laments and puzzles about his broken marriage and how his wife left him for a man he doesn’t like. But when the protagonist does manage to call home after an arduous phone directory search, we learn that not only is his ex-wife’s dog brutally murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, so his his ex-wife.

The hits keep coming after that. The protagonist is visited by police officers and jumps out a window to escape, becoming homeless. While the protagonist digs through trash for edible food and scraps for a park bench to sleep on, more is revealed about his violent outbursts. The early chapters lead us to think that the protagonist is a put-upon, quietly suffering man. The rest of the book shows us the lie, complete with shocking examples of what happens when he loses his temper.

The wheel of Fortune lifts and drops the protagonist more than once in City of Ash and Red. So much so, that it’s hard to know what to make of the story. On the one hand, it would be easy to read the novel as a version of a man’s justifiable descent into hell for his deeds. On the other, the ending doesn’t make sense in that reading because the protagonist’s luck seems to be on the rise. City of Ash and Red left me feel angry for the way the protagonist repeatedly escapes justice. I suppose that’s the question this book presents for me. Is there an amount of suffering that could make amends? If not, what is a fitting punishment? Can suffering and deprivation even be considered a punishment if the sufferer thinks they’ve escaped justice?

Longtime readers of this blog will know that these are the kinds of questions that fascinate me in literature. It’s entirely possible that other readers will get something completely different from City of Ash and Red. Every reader, I think, will be unsettled by the strange city where the story takes place and the even more unsettling revelations about the protagonist. Kim-Russell, the translator, preserves the way Pyun withholds names and identifying details from us so that this city and this protagonist could be anywhere and anyone. Because this story could take place anywhere with any number of abusive characters standing in for the protagonist, the novel is just that much more chilling.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 November 2018.

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historical fiction · review

In Your Hands, by Inês Pedrosa

39895942Unlike anger, which writers can call to readers mind by making us think about the physical symptoms—pounding heart, clenched muscles, etc.—we’ve all felt, love is harder to evoke. Not all of us have felt the all-encompassing, possibly life-ruining love that the three protagonists have in Inês Pedrosa’ In Your Hands (translated by Andrea Rosenberg). The protagonists do their best to explain their feelings, from familial love to friendship to companionship to erotic passion. Some of the types of love shown here baffled me; this novel has permutations that I’ve never seen before in fiction. But by the end, even without being able to call on common experiences or symptoms of love, I think In Your Hands is successful in its explorations.

The novel opens with Jenny remembering her wedding day in 1935, when she married the great love of her life, António. On the very next page, we learn with a shock that the great love of António’s life is Pedro. Though she was upset, Jenny decided that being close to António and sharing a part of his life was enough. There were several chapters when my ire rose on Jenny’s behalf. António is no prize. He gambles. He’s jealous of Pedro. He’s temperamental. But by the end of her section, I lost my pity for Jenny. She chose her life and never changed her mind.

Part of what helped Jenny was that she had a child to care for. Camila is not Jenny’s biological child, but Jenny raised her up after the girl’s mother was deported and murdered by Nazis. While Jenny’s section is very much of the old world, Camila comes of age after World War II. She has options her adopted mother didn’t have. But when love comes for her, Camila is smitten hard and her life is disrupted just as much as Jenny’s was. The last part of the novel is narrated by Camila’s daughter, Natália, who saw how much love derailed her mother and grandmother’s lives and turned away from her great love to marry a safe man. But, by playing it safe, Natália’s life grows hollow. Her life makes us wonder if an all-consuming love is worth the price of pain and loss that her forbearers felt.

Andrea Rosenberg’s translation is wonderful throughout; she ably translates the slippery language about emotion and preserves the distinct voices of each of the narrators. Overall, In Your Hands is one of the strangest love stories I’ve ever read. It’s definitely not about falling in love. It’s narrated by women looking back on their lives. One has no regrets. One is sad but has made peace with her past. The last has to decide if she wants to take the plunge again. I wasn’t sure about it when I started reading it, but In Your Hands rewards the persistent.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

historical fiction · review

A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil

Trigger warning for rape.

41806096A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil and translated by Barbara Romaine, presents two lives. On one side, Aisha lives a life of surprising good luck and appallingly bad luck, pursued by literal and figurative wolves in early twentieth century Egypt. On the other, Howard Carter faces his own ups and downs on fortune’s wheel as he struggles to luck into a big find in Egypt’s ancient necropolises. The characters meet twice in the first two thirds of the novel, bumping into each other purely by chance. In the last third, they meet once more and Carter persuades Aisha to accompany him to the Valley of the Kings, convinced that she will change his luck.

At the beginning of the book, we are given no clue that the novel will culminate with the unsealing of Pharaoh Tutankhamen‘s tomb in 1922—at least until Carter arrives on the scene. A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore opens with Aisha fleeing with her mother to a Catholic (possibly Coptic) convent in Asyut. Aisha’s lecherous uncle will do terrible things to her if she is not taken in, her mother argues. This is the start of Aisha’s drifting through life. Flooding chases her from the convent a few years later and she fetches up at the home of a rich friend from the convent school. Her gift for languages helps her reach a certain amount of independence in Cairo before her past catches up to her. Meanwhile, Carter appears in Aisha’s life in spectacular fashion at a party, during which he points out to everyone how much resembles paintings of a beautiful ancient Egyptian princess. He then pours out his life’s story to her during their two meetings.

Carter’s biography (somewhat altered by Qandil) makes for very interesting reading—as long as one doesn’t mind reading about a white man in a colonized country barreling around arguing with people about the best way to do things. Aisha, on the other hand, became less interesting to me as she faded into a listener. There are times when I thought I understood her, but she mostly serves as a target for other characters’ whims. She has so little agency in this book that I was angry on her behalf. Feminist readers will probably be put off by how this book treats her.

The best part of the book (apart from Aisha’s brief stint as a translator for the Egyptian political newspaper, al-Liwa) is the last third, which contains a counterfactual history of the last part of Pharaoh Akhenaten‘s reign and how Tutankhamen came to the throne. Carter manically searches for a big find while Aisha grows more fearful of the warnings of local Egyptians for them to leave things alone.

Romaine ably captures Qandil’s take on Carter’s story by preserving the long, sometimes fanatical speeches given by characters who are utterly convinced of the rightness of their behavior. Like Aisha, we are expected to listen to all of these ideas and thoughts and left to judge the characters who speak them as guilty, innocent, sane, insane, prejudiced, tolerant, and so on. Qandil’s prose took some getting used to. I hung on because I was so interested in reading an Egyptian version of Carter’s story. Readers who can stomach Aisha’s story may enjoy seeing Qandil’s perspective on the rapacious world of early Egyptology.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

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Unbroken seal on Tutankhamen’s tomb before excavation (Image via Wikicommons)
literary fiction · review

The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken

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

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

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

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

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

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

literary fiction · review · short stories

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

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

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

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

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

Geirangerfjord_(6-2007)
Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

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

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

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

autofiction · review

Deviation, by Luce d’Eramo

38122394As I read Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (translated by Anne Milano Appel), I had the image of a moth fluttering around a bug zapper constantly in my head. Lucia, the protagonist of this book—which I can only describe as autofiction—resembles nothing so much as a moth furiously and irrationally trying to kill itself. Lucia volunteers to work as a laborer for the Nazis in Germany to get a better look at the Arbeitslager and konzentrationslager because she believes that they can’t be as bad as the rumors make out. As if this wasn’t enough of a deviation, Lucia makes decision after decision that puts her straight back into harm’s way. In this reflective book, d’Eramo uses fiction to explore her decisions, the consequences of those decisions, and her lost memories. Fiction that hews closely to autobiography (or vice versa) seems the best way for her to try and understand her actions.

D’Eramo’s book is a collection of stories that closely resembles what happened to her in 1944-1945 and 1960. Deviation opens with an escape, when Lucia makes her way from the Arbeitslager at Dachau to a Durchgangslager where deportees and laborers live while they perform impressed work for the Nazis and Germans. (Lucia was never interned with Jewish people or any inmates in the death camps. Also, I’m not sure what the right words are to describe the laborers. Some of them are volunteers, but most of them seem to be drifters who got caught by the Nazis.) Lucia has, by this point, learned the ins and outs of camp life. She also has a knack for making the right friends, friends who will steal food and supplies for her. Futher, Lucia knows that, if things get really bad, she can always pull her rip cord: her parents connections to the well-heeled fascists of Italy. In spite of herself, Lucia lands on her feet in the Durchgangslager.

From the first story, d’Eramo takes us back and forth from the events of 1944. We see her running away from an attempt at repatriation to Italy. We see her helping rescue people in Frankfurt after a bombing—only to be crushed under a collapsing wall, an injury that leaves her legs paralyzed. We also see her striving mightily to escape a pernicious suitor after her injury, fluttering from tenuous situation to tenuous situation, with no though to anything except getting a little further away.

Lucia’s behavior is very confusing, even after d’Eramo spends pages looking back in an attempt to understand her younger self. The last “story” is full of thoughts about how she recovered memories only decades later and why she repressed those memories. D’Eramo/Lucia’s theory is that she suppressed and deliberately hid things in the earlier stories because it took her that long to realize that she wasn’t a hero for volunteering for her fact-finding mission. D’Eramo/Lucia retold a less complicated version of her life so many times that it became real, at least until the real memories started to resurface.

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Luce d’Eramo in 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Deviation puzzles me greatly. If it wasn’t so obviously modeled on the author’s own life, I would have found it a particularly audacious and worrying piece of fiction. Because it is autofiction, it offers a unique look at the Holocaust—even if it leaves me with more questions than it answers. In spite of my continued confusion about the book, I want to complement Appel, the translator, for her very capable job of transforming d’Eramo’s text into coherent English. There are parts of the book that drag, but I chalk that up to d’Eramo’s maundering.

I’ll leave it to other readers to think about d’Eramo/Lucia’s epiphanies and revelations. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by d’Eramo/Lucia. I don’t think the narrator is either. The last story of the book, I think, betrays the narrator’s own bewilderment towards her actions. Lucia’s behavior is so irrational that calm reflection decades later doesn’t seem capable of answering the central question of why Lucia volunteered for an Arbeitslager.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be received 18 September 2018.

historical fiction · review

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

27428407There are two paired questions I hear all the time from students studying World War II. The first is, how much did ordinary Germans know about the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The second is, how could they not know what was happening? In Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (translated by Anthea Bell), we see a small family of aristocratic Germans who are so clueless about what was happening outside of themselves that I wanted to scream at them. This disturbing novel follows the von Globigs and a handful of their acquaintances over the course of a few weeks in January 1945. They’ve been isolated from the truth of the war up to this point, but the war is heading straight towards their little piece of East Prussia and they will no longer have the luxury of sitting to one side.

Last fall, I read Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale, so I had a very good idea of what was going to happen to any German who got caught by the Red Army. I can’t entirely fault the von Globig family for not knowing; the Red Army was still in their future. But I can fault them for their self-absorption. Katherina von Globig is a society lady who has deliberately isolated herself in her rooms of the family manor, Georgenhof, after the death of their daughter two years previously. Grief is hard, especially for a parent, but Katherina still has a living son, Peter, to keep an eye out for. Auntie, Katherina’s relative-in-law, who lost her family’s estate in Silesia in the 1920s and who lived through World War I should know better than to shut out the world. The Polish and Ukrainian “servants” should definitely know better. And yet, the family carries on with their own amusements. Katherina reminisces about the movies she’s seen and her affair with the local mayor. Peter plays with his trains. Auntie keeps an eye on the family goods so that no one steals anything. None of them has an eye on the horizon, even though Katherina occasionally tunes into the BBC.

Meanwhile, Drygalski keeps butting into their business as the local housing manager. The little martinet wants to use the large house to billet refugees and, any way he can, stick it to the aristocrats who’ve always looked down on them. Peter’s tutor, Dr. Wagner, carries on teaching the boy Latin. A parade of refugees—the higher in rank, the more self-absorbed and out of touch with their rapidly changing reality—comes through Georgenhof. Only a few characters have healthy senses of self-preservation. Most of them are fixated on what they’ve lost, their family heirlooms, their instruments, etc.

It’s only towards the end of All for Nothing that the characters get swept up in the cresting wave of refugees from the east. I don’t want to give away the characters’ fates, but I can say that bad luck strikes the family and their acquaintances with an almost divine sense of retribution. There are moments of kindness and mercy, as well as moments of opportunistic cruelty and murderous chaos. With blind luck in the mix, it’s a wonder anyone makes it out of this novel alive.

Kempowski’s novel—through Bell’s lucid translation—has the feeling of folklore throughout. There are few details about the characters given, except for easy to recall facts that stand in for development. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, I see All for Nothing as a fable that serves to teach us lessons about the impossibility of staying neutral when others commit terrible crimes in one’s name. So, we drift along with the characters as their fortunes change from moment to moment. We have to experience along with them their good and bad luck. There is backstory of some of the characters, but nothing to distract us from what is happening during those cold weeks in January 1945 with the Red Army coming as fast as it can to snatch them all up. All for Nothing is extraordinarily effecting in answering at least one of the questions we always ask about the Germans on their home front.