Reviews

Recent Reviews:

Review: A Greater Music by Bae Suah. Translated by Deborah Smith

My latest review on Three Percent!

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee Nowhere to Be Found, Bae Suah is back, this time with Deborah Smith, translator of the Man Booker Prize winner The Vegetarian and founder of Tilted Axis, a UK-based press dedicated to publishing new works in translation.

In the book’s opening chapters, the narrator—who remains unnamed—falls into an icy river in the suburbs of Berlin. A Korean writer and student living in Germany, she begins to look back over the years, blurring lines between past and present as she examines her relationship with Joachim, her on-and-off, working class boyfriend, and M, her German tutor, a refined and enigmatic young woman she’s in love with. The contrast between these two partners and the tensions around language and class are fascinating, but I had a hard time just getting past how gorgeous the writing was.

The narrator describes M, setting the scene for their many discussions of music and language, “The rain water trickled down M’s pale, almost ghost-like forehead, down over her eyelids, still more sunken after her recent cold, and over her slightly-downward pointed nose. When she tilted her head upward, her lips appeared unbelievably thin and delicate, tapering elegantly even when she wasn’t smiling, flushed red as though suffused by the morning sunlight. The delicate, languidly prominent scaffolding of her cheekbones . . . If books and language were the symbol of M’s absolute world, then music was her inaccessible mind, her religion, her soul.”
The narrative is constantly shifting, pliable, and fluid, in both tense and setting. The construction seems effortless, allowing the narrator to sift through her life, her relationships, and most importantly the end of her relationship with M to find closure in it all. Her memory, one can’t forget, is imperfect—an approximation and perhaps a reinvention.

The style of the writing evokes the very music that seems to drive the story. Smith in an interview with Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn stated, “When I was translating her, the thing that I was most aware of was trying not to smooth out the weirdness too much. . . . It becomes quite hypnotic when you read it in Korean, and quite lyrical in places as well. She writes a lot about music, and the other thing that her style evokes is that. It’s more about the cadence of the sentence. The core book itself, the structure, is more about variations on a theme, and coming back to certain motifs rather than a straight chronology.”

Thankfully for readers, Bae Suah is prolific and Deborah Smith seems determined to bring these great books to English language readers.

 

Review: We Show What We Have Learned & Other Stories by Clare Beams

Another brilliant book club pick from the phenomenal small press book club at Brookline Booksmith. I was blown away by this debut short story collection by Clare Beams and published by Lookout Books. The stories, individually and as a whole, were startling, creepy, and gorgeously written. She’s been likened to a mix of Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson and I think that’s a fitting combination. The Rumpus did a great review, discussing the stories in more detail and the feminist nature of the book—you can find it here.

 

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Review: Heartless by Marissa Meyer

If you’ve explored the blog before you’ll know I’m a lover of all things Alice. I’ve shouted out to Alice adaptations posted by my beautiful friend Amanda here and picked some of my favorite retellings/ nonfiction picks too! Now Heartless has exploded on the scene and I want to re-read all of them! But first let’s talk about Heartless.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen. At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship. Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.”

Heartless by Marissa Meyer (you may know her from The Lunar Chronicles) is an Alice in Wonderland prequel that tells the backstory of the infamous Queen of Hearts. Meyer delves deeply into Wonderland and brings to light characters and references that will prove to be delightful for anyone familiar with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. But you certainly don’t have to know the original to love this book! Meyer weaves an incredible story that is all her own. I especially loved the addition of baking and Catherine’s dreams as a way to make Wonderland seem even more over-the-top and whimsical. The underlying comments on Victorian society and feminism seemed apt instead of forced and although a little slow in the middle, the end was a whirlwind of action and emotion (and it was creepy in all the ways that Wonderland should also be!) This book was both perfect and devastating.

 

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Review: Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null

I have not been able to get this startling collection of short stories from Matthew Neill Null, published by the new-to-me Sarabande Press, out of my head since reading it two weeks ago. Allegheny Front is dedicated For the animals and many of the stories “pivot on fraught interactions between humans and animals” and the wilderness of rural West Virginia, where the author is from. Electric Literature posted this amazing interview with Matthew Neill Null that really enhanced my reading of the collection. You can find it here. In the interview, the author discusses how he starts his story with a specific image and you can really see these haunting images as you read each story.

“My stories are image-driven. I begin with visions that come floating up from my subconscious. In the case of ‘Something You Can’t Live Without,’ the cave=bear’s skull imbedded in the rock, the man rubbing blood off his neck with a neck-tie, the shrieking cloud of passenger pigeons, and the twin boys holding dead foxes, one red, one gray. In ‘Mates,’ for instance, I saw the eagle nailed to the barn siding like an emblem . . .”

 

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Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

I loved The Vegetarian by Han Kang (and translated by the phenomenal Deborah Smith). It is a beautiful and unsettling story about a woman, Yeong-hye, who begins to have horrible nightmares—of blood and carnage—and in order to clear her mind and rid herself of these dreams becomes a vegetarian. The story becomes one of control and power as her husband and family try to break her back into submission. To further emphasize her lack of control, Yeong-hye’s own story is even told by others, in three parts, first by her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally by her sister. It’s a dark and fascinating book and I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you enjoyed Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah. It’s my pick for the Man Book International Prize for this year.

 

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Review: Nowhere to be Found by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has been widely overlooked. I’ve found this to be largely because Nowhere to Be Found is published by AmazonCrossing.

If you’ve overlooked Bae Suah out of some desire to punish Amazon, or because of a general indifference to the AmazonCrossing imprint, you’re only doing yourself a disservice. With three upcoming books translated into English—_A Greater Music_, The Owls’ Absence, and _Recitation_—Bae Suah will continue to establish herself as one of the hottest voices coming out of South Korea. list: Books from Korea named her as “one of the most risk-taking, experimental writers active in Korea”—and with the fiction that is coming out of South Korea right now (see: Han Kang and others), that is high praise.

Nowhere to Be Found follows a nameless narrator’s search not for meaning, but for meaninglessness, in contemporary South Korea. Bae Suah’s young narrator describes her empty existence as she travels through life, barely moved by the disintegrated state of her family and her own poverty and loneliness. Translator Sora Kim-Russell describes it as “a road novel turned inside out, a story of a woman’s journey out of and into desire told as only Bae Suah could tell it.” Blurred descriptions of a life full of trivial banalities are thrown against dark, sadomasochistic sex scenes:

Rain falls inside the dark, abandoned house. It streams down the walls of the kitchen and front door like a waterfall. Burn me. Pour gasoline over me and set my body on fire. Burn me at the stake like a witch. Wrap me in garbage bags and toss me in the incinerator. I’ll turn into dioxin and make my way into your lungs. Stroke my face lightly with a razor blade and suck the blood that comes seeping out. Lap it up like a cat. I want to be covered in blood. I’ll cry out in the end and weep for fear of leaving this world without ever once discovering the me inside me, the ugly something inside me. But then I see her: another me passing by like a landscape of inanimate objects outside the window of the empty house quietly collapsing in the rain.

The abrupt shifts are disorienting and unsettling, something Suah is known for. She breaks boundaries, constantly, between recollection and memory, facts and fiction. The writing itself, brilliantly translated by Kim-Russell, is reminiscent of Sebald (who Suah translates into Korean) but the style remains her own: sharp, gorgeous, and tight.

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Review: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

My life these past two weeks has been consumed by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which, like the character Lila, have proven to be “terrible, dazzling.” This deep and captivating portrayal of two women’s friendship is set against the poverty and violence of their village and the political turmoil in Italy. I was struck by these women, Elena and Lila, and their ambitions and intense relationships with language, reading, and learning, viewing education as the ultimate escape from their lives.

It’s nearly impossible to describe Ferrante’s writing, impeccably translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, but it seems unique in contemporary Italian literature. It’s not flowery, but sparse implies some lack of power and feeling that could never be attributed to Ferrante.

And Ferrante herself is a small piece of the allure of her novels, as she writes anonymously. I don’t have the intense desire to know her that I see in the book world but I also strongly agree with her sentiments published in The New Yorker here.

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.

The Story of the Lost Child, the last and final book in the series, comes out September 1st! 

 

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is undeniably one of the big books of 2015 and although I’m not usually a reader of the big thriller of the moment I found it incredibly unique and startling. The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller revolving around an unreliable narrator who, because of her alcoholism, blacks out during crucial scenes of the initial plot and has to recreate them to understand the increasing violence surrounding her. The book was riveting and fast-paced but also strikingly adept at portraying the violence and frailty of humanity.

 

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China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

I thoroughly enjoyed this fun and frothy sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Kwan never skimps on the details of the lives of China’s rich and at times China Rich Girlfriend seems almost like an anthropological study with its witty footnotes and intricate accounts of families and social structures. I found that with this sequel I was more interested in the lives of the minor characters, specifically Astrid, Eleanor, and Kitty, and hope that Kwan continues to delve into their lives in the next book. And if anyone hasn’t heard Crazy Rich Asians has been opted for a film!

 

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Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America’s Toughest Communities By Jorja Leap

A group of former gang members come together to help one another answer the question “How can I be a good father when I’ve never had one?”

Jorja Leap follows the men of Project Fatherhood as they struggle to right themselves and their families in a community faced with chronic unemployment, poverty, and substance abuse. Their stories are at once heartbreaking and inspiring but overall they are vitally important as Leap paints a larger sociological picture that has enormous implications on our society.

 

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Where’d you go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where’d you go Bernadette? is one of the few novels I’ve read recently that I just had a lot of fun with! I read primarily nonfiction for work and even my pleasure reading is sometimes overly ambitious in terms of literary merit. Where’d you go Bernadette? and Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan are two books in recent memory that I’ve just laughed myself silly at. Semple’s novel is smart and sparkling with a not unusual but rarely pulled off mixed-media format. The story (which for most of the book is focused on the central question of well, where did Bernadette go? ) is an epic compilation of formats and voices, written in emails, letters, FBI documents, hospital notes, and the like. It’s incredibly successful and entertaining and pokes fun at tech company and west coast culture with much hilarity in its wake.

 

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that I would love H is for Hawk. I am not a falconer and had little knowledge of the life of TH White. Nonetheless, after I heard Macdonald on the Diane Rehm show on NPR I knew I had to read this book. Macdonald’s reading was so affecting and her prose so memorable. Once I found out she was the reader for her audiobook I bought it immediately. The book is raw and haunting in its portrayal of grief and it is without a doubt one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

To listen to Helen Macdonald on the Diane Rehm show and read an excerpt of the book visit the following link: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-03-09/helen-macdonald-h-is-for-hawk

 

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Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Evan Osnos writes in fascinating detail about modern China using individual stories of Chinese individuals to portray the modern Chinese spirit against the backdrop of developments and current events in China’s recent history. I found this book incredibly absorbing and came away with new information and perspectives that have furthered my understanding of recent major events in the news that pertain to China. The book is arguably readable but that doesn’t mean that it lacks in insight or provocative ideas. That being said, I would recommend Age of Ambition to those whose knowledge of China is not at an expert level. The stories, information, and cast of characters are primarily well known amongst scholars of modern China and so this book may seem redundant. Its portrayal of the Chinese people, however, may still make it an interesting read for scholars and experts.

Have you already read Age of Ambition? I would recommend Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich by John Osburg

 

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Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

What if your favorite literary characters had cellphones? Would they use emojis? Would they Lol and use other texting lingo?

Ortberg’s book is hilarious. I originally thought she only reworked classics of British Literature like Jane Eyre but she does a wide variety of books. She’s witty and clever and includes all of the inside jokes of each piece she plays on. This  is one of my favorites:

“JANE
MY LITTLE SUNBEAM
WHERE ARE YOU
I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE
I’m taking a walk
be back for dinner
AH YES MY CAGED SPRITE
COMMUNE WITH NATURE AND UPON YOUR RETURN
RELATE TO ME THE VAGRANT GLORIES OF THE RUINED WOODS
do you really want me to describe my walk to you
MORE THAN ANYTHING YOU POCKET WITCH
it is fairly cloudy out
looks like rain soon
AHHH TO THINK THAT MY LITTLE STARLING JANE
SHOULD RETURN
TO PERCH ON MY BROKEN MALFORMED SHOULDER
SINGING A SONG OF THE GREY AND WRACKING SKIES
MAKES MY HEART SWELL TO BURST
all right
JANE
JANE I BOUGHT YOU A DRESS MADE OF TEN THOUSAND PEARLS AS A BRIDAL PRESENT
where on earth would I wear that
YOU COULD WEAR IT ON THE MOON
that seems impractical
how would i even breathe on the moon?
I WOULD BREATHE FOR YOU MY JANE

JANE WHERE HAVE YOU GONE
I AM BEREFT AND WITHOUT MY JANE I SHALL SINK INTO ROGUERY
i am with my cousins
WHICH COUSIN
IS IT THE SEXY ONE
Please don’t try to talk to me again
IT IS YOUR SEXY COUSIN
“ST. JOHN”
WHAT KIND OF A NAME IS ST. JOHN
I’m not going to answer that
I KNEW IT
DID YOU LEAVE BECAUSE OF MY ATTIC WIFE
IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT
yes
absolutely”

 

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My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I saw Joanna Rakoff speak about My Salinger Year at Brookline Booksmith months back and it took me far too long to read it. As someone who works in publishing I was especially interested in seeing the portrayal of New York City publishing in the 90’s, a pretty crucial time with the changes in technology and economic downturn, but also enjoyed her witty writing and the insights into J. D. Salinger. Looking back at publishing in the 90’s it is interesting to note the radical changes, technology was just beginning to affect the industry whereas now Amazon and the ebook have completely changed the nature of publishing and book selling. Rakoff’s work has inspired me to read other books that shed a light on the publishing industry during its different stages.

 

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Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

I’ve always admired Quirk Books and am so happy that they’ve had such success with Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children and now with Hollow City. It’s a quick but interesting read and builds on the unique characters of the first book. I would recommend it for anyone that enjoyed the first book. My only other recommendation would be to read it in print. I read it in ebook version and I think the reading experience would have been preferable in print with the images.

 

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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan 

Crazy Rich Asians was forcefully placed on my book pile with the phrase that it was “like Pride and Prejudice” which it is. . . if Pride and Prejudice was set in modern day Hong Kong. It’s an interesting mix and I laughed out loud at some points in the book. I appreciated that Kwan wasn’t afraid to include a lot of inside jokes, sections of Mandarin, etc. in order to appease a more mainstream audience. It was authentically funny and a joy to read. My only complaint? I think it wrapped up too quickly and I really wanted more from the ending. But maybe I just wanted more?

 

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Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns

Louise DeSalvo writes of Cinderland that Burns has, “charted new territory for the memoir by substituting the “I” narrative with the choral “We” and in so doing has brilliantly demonstrated how the harm done to one of us reverberates with us all.” DeSalvo accurately pinpoints the singularity of Burns’s memoir but there is more to Cinderland than the simple change of “I” to “We.” The  memoir is riveting and powerful, delving into the steel collapse and its affects on a small town and the ultimate cost of keeping such terrible secrets.

Discussion Questions are available here: http://www.beacon.org/Cinderland-P1050.aspx (By yours truly)

Amy Jo Burns grew up in Mercury, Pennsylvania, an industrial town humbled by the steel collapse of the 1980s. Instead of the construction booms and twelve-hour shifts her parents’ generation had known, the Mercury Amy Jo knew was marred by empty houses, old strip mines, and vacant lots. It wasn’t quite a ghost town—only because many people had no choice but to stay.

The year Burns turned ten, this sleepy town suddenly woke up. Howard Lotte, its beloved piano teacher, was accused of sexually assaulting his female students. Among the countless girls questioned, only seven came forward. For telling the truth, the town ostracized these girls and accused them of trying to smear a good man’s reputation. As for the remaining girls—well, they were smarter. They lied. Burns was one of them.

But such a lie has its own consequences. Against a backdrop of fire and steel, shame and redemption, Burns tells of the boys she ran from and toward, the friends she abandoned, and the endless performances she gave to please a town that never trusted girls in the first place.

This is the story of growing up in a town that both worshipped and sacrificed its youth—a town that believed being a good girl meant being a quiet one—and the long road Burns took toward forgiving her ten-year-old self. Cinderland is an elegy to that young girl’s innocence, as well as a praise song to the curative powers of breaking a long silence.

 

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The Bees by Laline Paull

Orwell meets entomology. How could you go wrong?

I loved this book, from its cover to its intimate bee hierarchies, and carefully hidden subtexts. You are immediately thrown into this puzzling and complex world with Flora, a lowly sanitation bee, who commits the ultimate sin against the hive by laying an egg when only the queen may lay.

 

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All Souls: A Family Story From Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald

It seemed a crime to have worked at Beacon Press for so long and to never have read All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDonald. In poignant and honest prose MacDonald describes his childhood in South Boston, “southie” as it is affectionately known here in Boston. Although the book certainly touches on exciting topics like Whitey Bulger and the busing riots, its quiet strength is found in MacDonald’s depiction of his family life, his proud Irish neighborhood and his conflicting feelings about both. MacDonald has continued his work as a non-violence advocate in Boston and New York City.

 

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An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The latest addition to the ReVisioning US History series at Beacon Press, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is both honest and unwavering and should become an essential text in understanding US history and the origins of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz reframes US History to dismantle foundation myths and reveals a brutal system of colonialism and a fictitious ideology meant to cover its violence. It’s not just about a faraway past, however, As Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams, adds, “Spoiler alert: the colonial era is still here, and so are the Indians.”

 

 

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I thought I’d review these two books together seeing as how I’ve read both of them this week and they offer distinct views of Africa. Alexander McCall Smith’s series is incredibly popular ( now in its fourteenth book) and follows the story of Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s  first and only female detective. Americanah is a more literary work and NY Times Bestseller that has been recommended to me from almost every avenue of the publishing world. 

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve been reading this series for years and have always loved the way McCall Smith captures the essence of a changing Africa. Mma Ramotswe is uniquely perceptive and refreshing as a character and the events in this new addition to the series had me dashing through the book. It’s not my usual fare but the series is a delight to read.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche 

Looking over my reviews, I’m a pretty happy reader. I can usually find something special or intriguing about a book and don’t post too many negative reviews. That being said, I had a hard time dragging myself through Americanah. The scope was impossibly large, the story told over three continents, many years, and multiple characters, and seemed to get sidetracked often. The two main characters, Ifemulu and Obinze, were interesting and thorough characters but too much of the story was spent elsewhere. Ifemulu’s blog posts contained exciting and provoking comments on American society but they were thrown at the end of long narratives to wrap up chapters and bundle up the moral of the story. Ngozi Adiche is a quickly rising literary star and I see so much potential in this novel. It’ll come, I’m sure of that but it’ll come even quicker with a gifted editor with some editorial focus.

 

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The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

It’s the centennial of the publication of Dubliners and Joyce seems to be everywhere. The Most Dangerous Book follows the publication history of Ulysses, detailing the book’s severe censorship and period of illegality, Joyce’s diminishing health, and the modernist movement that propelled Ulysses into notoriety. Birmingham is engaging and thorough, documenting the spirit of the age that created and supported Joyce and his work of genius with wonderful profiles of figures like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Beach. The book is immensely readable and gripping and I look forward to Birmingham’s next works of scholarship.

 

 

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The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell

Melville House publishes the coolest books and The Weirdness is no exception. It’s funny, irreverent, and different and might be just one large joke about the lengths people go to to get published. Oh, and those satanic fair trade coffee beans? You can buy them from Melville House’s website.

What do you do when you wake up hung over and late for work only to find a stranger on your couch? And what if that stranger turns out to be an Adversarial Manifestation–like Satan, say–who has brewed you a fresh cup of fair-trade coffee? And what if he offers you your life’s goal of making the bestseller list if only you find his missing Lucky Cat and, you know, sign over your soul?

If you’re Billy Ridgeway, you take the coffee.

 

 

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Love & Fury by Richard Hoffman

Richard Hoffman’s latest memoir (released today by Beacon Press!) is a striking reflection on fatherhood and Hoffman’s upbringing in a post World War II blue-collar family. He writes honestly about the racism and sexism he sees in his upbringing and faces these issues head-on as he discusses the imprisonment of the father to his grandchild. His narrative is not politicized but instead details his experiences in the flawed justice and prison systems. The memoir, while weighty, unflinchingly deals with issues of addiction, racism, and the “love and fury” inherent in family relationships.

This will not come clear. It can’t. There is no binary good/bad, glad/sad conclusion to be reached. When I have spoken of my family in the past, there is always someone who wants to know how such love and fury could coexist, and I don’t understand the question. It seems either naive or disingenuous. Families seem to me to be made of love and fury. The world is mostly water; we are mostly water, but we don’t ask how such hydrogen and oxygen can coexist. We just drink it and live. Maybe we wish it were champagne, or root beer, or cider, but we’re not foolish enough to wish it were liquid hydrogen or liquid oxygen.” (28)

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One More Thing. Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak

I had heard a lot about this collection and was curious to see if the clever wit I associate with Novak as a producer and writer on The Office would translate to his short stories. They’re notoriously tricky to write and even trickier to sell from a publisher’s point of view. Novak, on the other hand, brings something refreshing to his short stories. Sure, sometimes he tries a little too hard to be clever but he is clever. And funny. And biting. And vulnerable. He understands people and so he understands humor. It’s one of the most surprising books out in the market right now and I look forward to his career as a writer.

In Teddy Wayne’s New York Times Review “Out of Character” he writes, “The melancholy sensibility and verbal élan elevate Novak’s book beyond a small-beer exercise in clever monkeyshines and into a stiff literary cocktail, with a healthy pour of vintage Woody Allen and a dash of George Saunders strained through a Donald Barthelme sieve — droll and smart in spades, but often humane and vulnerable, too.” No one could put it better than that.

 

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Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl’s first work of fiction Delicious! expands her already illustrious career as a chef, critic, and nonfiction writer. Delicious! follows the story of young writer Billie Breslin as she takes a job at the gourmet food magazine Delicious! Little does she know the magazine is about to close (echoing Reichl’s own experiences at the closing of Gourmet) but Billie is kept on to take complaint calls. She discovers the magazine’s library and a stash of letters written during World War I between a young girl, Lulu, and legendary chef James Beard.

 

Reichl’s characters are wonderfully written and the work as a whole is creative, playful, and a delight to read. As chef Barbara Lynch described it, it is “sweet, tangy, and crispy.” Reichl provides a rare insight into the world of gourmet food magazines with their test kitchens, colorful characters, and devotion to food. It’s when Reichl talks about food though that she is at her very best. Her passages describing Billie’s first exploration of the New York culinary scene are some of the best in the book:

“I opened them to find Kim dancing with a molten river of chocolate. I stood hypnotized by the scent and the grace of her motions, which were more beautiful than any ballet. Moving constantly, she caressed the chocolate like a lover, folding it over and over on a slab of white marble, working it to get the texture right. She stopped to feed me a chocolate sprinkled with salt, which had the fierce flavor of the ocean, and another with the resonant intensity of toasted saffron. One chocolate tasted like rain, another of the desert. . . Now the scent changed as Kim began to dip fruit into the chocolate: raspberries, blackberries, tiny strawberries that smelled like violets. She put a chocolate-and-caramel-covered slice of peach into my mouth, and the taste of summer was so intense that I felt the room grow warmer. I lost all sense of time.” (27)

The letters between James Beard and young Lulu, which Reichl says she wrote in one sitting before the ideas for he rest of the book had really come to her, provide an unexpected look at rationing, war recipes, and cooking during World War II, as well as the renown chef James Beard. Delicious! was over far too soon for my taste but luckily for readers Reichl has two more novels in the works.

 

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Loungbourn by Jo Baker

“If Elizabeth had the washing of her petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”

It seems only natural that trailing on the success of intimate portrayals of servant life like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs that someone would think to reimagine servant life at the Bennett household. Few would imagine, however, the startlingly perfect interpretation that is Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Baker describes life “below stairs” with an unflinching honesty, depicting the hard lives and the constant struggle of the servants at Longbourn and the lower classes. The threat of the entailment seems more real when we as readers step back from Mrs. Bennett’s boisterous complaints to Mrs. Hill’s quiet contemplations about how she will survive if Mr. Collins brings his own servants. She, unlike Mrs. Bennet and her daughters, has no allowance.

 

Told through Sarah’s perspective, as a housemaid at Longbourn, the aspects of Pride and Prejudice that simmer beneath the surface, are told in detail, adding a darker, more realistic portrayal of the story. In Loungborn we see tales of war and army life  and the gap between the landowning gentry and the working classes.In addition we see Austen’s characters in a different light, speifically Mr. Bennett, and the injustices of women’s second class position in society. Hints of the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy abound but are quickly forgotten in Sarah’s relationship with John Smith which is equally romantic.

If Jane Austen’s books are said to sparkle with their wit and characters then Jo Baker’s story is a novel of a different kind. Longbourn doesn’t sparkle. It instead has the freshly scrubbed appearance of a kitchen table in the servant’s hall, It’s clean and honest but a little raw.

 

 

Past Reviews:

Published Originally on Open Letter Book’s Blog Three Percent

1112

Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos. Translated by Robert Malloy.

Any author who has been both nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature and exiled from his country because of the strength of his criticisms against the nation’s longstanding dictatorship deserves to be taken note of. Rómulo Gallegos in his acclaimed novel, Doña Barbara, hailed as a classic of Latin American literature, is one such author, almost forgotten by English speaking readers since his initial popularity in the 1930’s. In the University of Chicago’s recent reprint, Gallegos receives the credit due to him as a Nobel Prize nominee, the first democratically elected President of Venezuela, and forerunner of magical realism, with Larry McMurty writing in his foreword to the novel, “There are echoes of Gallegos in García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Fuentes.” In Doña Barbara, Gallegos weaves together the story of the Venezuelan llano, or prairie, and the lives of the plainsmen, the ranchers and cowboys, thieves and villains, that all operate around Doña Barbara, the witch.

The novel revolves around the llano, and its significance to two feuding cousins with vast ranching estates. Doña Barbara, a treacherously beautiful rancher has steadily expanded her estate over the years through her calculating manipulation and seduction of men, furthering her reputation as a witch with her nightly conversations with her “Partner,” the devil. These corrupt dealings committed by Barbara and the mismanagement of land, wealth, and justice by government officials in the novel represent many of Gallegos’ criticisms against the Venezuelan dictatorship. When her cousin, Santos Luzardo, returns from his many years in the city to reclaim his land and ranch, a struggle ensues that jeopardizes the fate of the llano. The struggle is one of violence and seduction, as McMurty perfectly describes it, Gallegos’ llano is “steamy, tumescent, lust driven.” Furthermore, the llano is spilling over with all sorts of unimaginable occupants characteristic of early magical realism, like the prehistoric one-eyed alligator and various villains like the Turk and his harem, the Toad, the Wizard, and a cowboy assassin…

The llano is the quintessential backdrop for this mixture of magic and reality, allowing for a seamless understanding of the sensuality and danger inherent in the plain and the work of the ranchers. It seems an environment made for the smoky haze between these two worlds, and the feud between the two cousins. Gallegos captures in minute detail the contrasting nature of the Plain:

The Plain is at once lovely and fearful. It holds, side by side, beautiful life and hideous death. The latter lurks everywhere, but no one fears it. The Plain frightens, but the fear which the Plain inspires is not the terror which chills the heart; it is hot, like the wind sweeping over the immeasurable solitude, like the fever lying in the marshes. The Plain crazes; and the madness of the man living in the wide lawless land leads him to remain a Plainsman forever. (90)

It is his characterization of Doña Barbara, however, that establishes Gallegos as a master. He details her upbringing as a young girl, abused by the men around her, nearly sold as a sex slave, and ultimately the death of the only man to show her any kindness in her youth. Her hatred and sexual manipulation comes to a halt, however, when she meets her cousin Santos and finds in his gentle, noble demeanor a man worthy of her respect. Gallegos allows for a full and crucial understanding of Barbara’s convoluted feeling towards Santos:

Up to then, all her lovers, victims of her greed or instruments of her cruelty, had been hers as the steers marked with her brand were hers. Now when she saw herself repeatedly rebuffed by this man who neither feared nor desired her, she felt that she wanted to belong to him, although it had to be as one of his cattle, with the Altamira sign burned on their sides; and she felt this with the same overmastering force which had driven her to ruining the men she loathed. (220)

Rómulo Gallegos in his intimate understanding of the wild, unyielding llano, the Venezuelan people, and the tragic figure of Doña Barbara, created a masterpiece of Latin American Literature, establishing an important and inspiring foundation in magical realism.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

5.5

Daughter of Silence by Manuela Fingueret. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart.

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980’s neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to “The Americas” series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina’s political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, “Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother’s path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex:

A space for the abused and desperate. Peronism was the ideal place in which to orient those feelings. The Peronism of passion, of mysticism, of marginalization, of prominence. Jew and Peronist. Peronist and Jew. Woman, Jew, and Peronist. A triple provocation. The stories of concentration camps that I tried to decipher between books and whispers among family members became an undeniable obsession. All the barriers that Tinkeleh put in place with her silence made my journey inevitable. (78)

Fingueret’s prose captures Rita’s desperate, winding thoughts as she navigates her imprisonment and clings to her memories to maintain her sanity. In her rapidly declining state, however, she finds solace in piecing together her mother’s unspoken memories of the Holocaust. Whether this imagined world is healthy or another tax on her already damaged mental state is left undiscussed, but Rita uses these imagined memories to connect to her mother and other resilient women, etching their names on her cell walls for inspiration.

Rita’s story is told through fragments, becoming increasingly disorienting as her abuse escalates. In any lesser author’s hands, this disorientation would merely result in a reader’s confusion but Fingueret instead artfully references Rita’s fragile mental state, with the spaces between the text, the silence, telling more of Rita’s struggle than her words alone. Rita herself is insightfully portrayed, surrounded by the impassioned idealism of the Peronists around her, and struggling to connect with a distant, silent mother, she discovers in prison the deeper similarities between herself, Tinkeleh, and generations of other women, forced into the bind of silence and obedience but driven to survive.

The novel ends uncertainly, as Rita is transferred from her prison, defiantly looking at the blank expanse of her future:

I stretch my body across the void. I see a lot, I hear too much, I file and file, thousands of voices, ages, hair colors, professions, addresses: Auschwitz in Buenos Aires. These women console me. They know as well as I do where this train is headed. Did I get off at the wrong station? I have no regrets. (147)

Despite its difficult subject matter, the book concludes with some remnants of hope, as Rita’s resilience stands as a testament to the strength and will to survive of generations of women. The deep unsettling connections allow Fingueret to create a wholly new Argentinean novel, exploring the relationship between Judaism and Latin America, women and their tradition of silence, and ultimately calling for a clearer understanding of the nature of history.

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