Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Alpine Ballad by Vasil Bykau

Glagoslav Publications, 2016
translated by Mikaili Khilo
200 pp

paperback, my copy from the publisher. My thanks, along with sincere apologies for not getting to it sooner.


There is something very special about this particular edition of this novel, as noted on the back cover blurb, it is
"An altruistic, philanthropic project of Glasgoslav Publications, Alpine Ballad" is coming out as a gesture of peace and a reminder to all of the human cost of wars that ransack our planet to this day."  
Certainly can't argue with that. Extra cheers to Glagoslav, because the other thing that makes this edition so special is that this translation is the first not to have been based on versions censored by the Soviets.

I had no idea before reading this novel who this author was. It's an embarrassing thing to admit, but, well, there it is. There is a very nice introduction to Bykau in the intro section of this book, and as I was looking up more biographical info about Bykau, I stumbled onto a blurb for his  biographyVasil Bykau His Life and Works by Zina J.Gimpelevich.  It says that
"The Soviet Union banned many of Vasil Bykau's novels, which often focus on the agonizing moral dilemmas faced by young officers during the horrors of war. Considered the best modern Belarusan writer and the last Eastern European literary dissident, Bykau (1924-2003) is referred to as "the conscience of a nation" for leading an intellectual crusade against Lukasenka's totalitarian regime. In exile from Belarus for several years, he was given refuge by Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize by Havel, Czeslaw Milsoz, and PEN."
I'll be reading his biography for sure in 2017.  For sure.  He knows his topic -- he served in the army during World War II and was wounded several times; when the war was over, he began to write.

Now on to the book.

Alpine Ballad is, on the face of it, a novel about the flight for freedom made by two prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp somewhere in the Austrian Alps after they'd managed to escape.  Four of Ivan Tsyareshka's fellow prisoners died after an unexploded  bomb goes off, leaving a nearly-impenetrable cloud of dust and a lot of chaos. Ivan takes off, knowing that there's no way the others survived although he understands that it was only due to their deaths that he now has a chance at freedom.  Alsatian dogs and soldiers are sent after him, but he's not going to give up, and eventually clears the camp area, heading toward the Alps with the plan to make it to Trieste, where he hopes to hook up with partisans.  It isn't long, though, until he encounters another escapee,  Giulia, who is in the camp as a political prisoner marked by a red triangle on her clothing.  The novel follows their journey and their hopes as they take uncertain steps toward freedom.

Now, I say "on the face of it," because there's way more than just a simple escape going on here.  Earlier I mentioned that this novel's publication is a "reminder to all of the human costs of wars," a theme that just permeates this book.  One major idea captured here  is what Bykau refers to as "Entmenschung," referring to the dehumanizing practices of the Nazis, which he says is "the most dastardly of all evil deeds on earth."  We see this idea at work throughout the novel, and it especially comes into play here as Ivan more than once has to make decisions that will require strength of spirit and an examination of his own humanity.  Ivan totally understands this concept -- as we're told, once he was put into the camps and had the opportunity to observe what was going with "the underside of Nazism," he comes to realize that "death was not the worst thing that could happen during the war."

How these ideas play out through the novel I will leave to others to discover.  The story gives Ivan a chance for reflection in the form of flashbacks, which not only help us to understand who he is as a person, but which also offers a look at life in the USSR in the 1930s, most especially the famines that killed so many people in the Ukraine.  While the journey embarked on by Giulia and Ivan is just downright brutal in so many places, this is not, as I said earlier, just another novel about an escape -- reading it that way sort of lessens the impact and importance of what the author has to say here.

another one I recommend. Serious food for thought in this novel.

fiction from Belarus

Sunday, December 11, 2016

a real-world book group read: Em and the Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Aleph Books, 2012
235 pp

"What is a cure when you're dealing with the human mind? What is normal?"

I picked up my phone on Friday morning and my friend and fellow book-group member says to me, "you really put your balls out there with this book," and I suddenly had a panic moment since I hadn't even started it and we meet on Tuesday.  Yikes. After explaining to her that I hadn't even opened it and after some more chatty conversation about the novel,  I figured I'd best be hustling my bustle and get reading. After all, it was my choice for December's group read so I should know something about it, right?    Note the 2012 copyright date -- this book's been sitting on my shelves since it was longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which is why I bought it in the first place. It didn't win, but it did win the 2012 Hindu Literary Prize.   Oh my god -- 2013 was such a good year for reading, with some excellent novels like Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon (a lovely book that no one should miss), River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, book two of his incredible Ibis trilogy (my favorite historical fiction series ever), and Jeet Thayer's Narcopolis (that year's winner)  to mention only a few.  [As a side note, 2014's winner, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry, is another no-miss novel that I can highly recommend. Memo to self - put that one on next year's group read list.]  Anyway, I started Em and the Big Hoom after that phone call, took a break around 6:30 to go out for Thai and then finished it Saturday morning. 

The first thing I'll say is that it was difficult to keep myself grounded in the idea that this was fiction since it reads so much like a memoir.  One reviewer's overall opinion: "often wonderful writing, but feels too anchored in the auto/biographical" which I assume is a negative here, but I thought otherwise. To create a fiction that reads like reality is to me a mark of a good author; if it is based in reality, well, to put forth one's very soul  cloaked in fiction is a gutsy, bold move, but to each his/her own, of course.  The Em of the title is the narrator's mother, Imelda, who is married to Augustine, aka the Big Hoom.  The story is told via the son, the younger of two children born into this family (the other is daughter Susan), who as he says, wants to "try and understand her," to 
"try and figure out how this happened to my mother, once a beautiful woman with a lovely singing voice, and -- yes -- how this happened to my father, a man with a future who had given it all up to make sure the present was manageable. For her. For us."
Our first clue that something is not quite right is that the novel opens in "Ward 33 (Psychiatric) Sir J.J. Hospital."  The serious bipolar depression that keeps landing her there after several suicide attempts is the "this" that the son is trying to understand, but the novel is so much more than a young man trying to understand his mother's mental illness, which is difficult in and of itself.  At one point Em notes that "Nobody knows what I am going through," and her son agrees:
"Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You're a tourist; she's a resident."
But his real aim is to get underneath her condition, to recover the woman herself, doing so via her stories, her many writings, and what she says when she's speaking in a free-association sort of way, although this isn't always easy, as he notes, since
"Conversations with Em could be like wandering in a town you had never seen before, where every path you took might change course midway and take you with it. You had to keep finding your way back to the main street in order to get anywhere."
One way to approach this novel is as a sort of testimony to Em, but at the same time, it's the Big Hoom who also gets much credit, for being the glue that holds the family together as they undergo crisis after crisis. And then, of course, the son, who just dreads that he may be watching his own future play out in what's happening to Em.  The thing about this book is that there is so much at work here that my short little post can't possibly do it the justice it deserves; there are so many layers to uncover and so many relevant topics that crop up throughout the story that it is again one of those books that a person needs to discover on his/her own.

It's a lovely novel, poignant, sad, filled with despair, but sometimes funny in a darkly humorous sort of way, and frankly, sometimes it's just flat-out, absolutely frightening.  And now that I've written that sentence, it seems to me that my reaction to this book must mirror a range of emotions that caretakers or family members of those suffering the same "madness" as Em does here must also experience, so to me the "auto/biographical" feel becomes even more real.  It's a good writer, I say, who can bring those feelings out onto the page where they then transfer into my head and live there for the duration.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I'm just sad that it's taken me three years to get to it.

other reviews worth noting:

The Guardian
The Complete Review
The Toronto Star

I would skip the Kirkus review, because once again, it's written by someone who did not thoroughly read the novel, as is made obvious in the statement that says "the father, unaccountably, is the Big Hoom."  Well, Kirkus reviewer person, had you actually paid attention, on page 7 the author spells it out for you how that nickname may have come about.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November: Supermoon and super reads

Ah yes, November -- the month of the supermoon, elections, Thanksgiving and of course, super books.  Not a bad one in this month's bunch.  How can one person read so many books in one month? you might ask, which is a fair question, with the answer being that  the election results left me unable to sleep for days at a time and sort of stunned to the point where I just wanted to retreat into a sane world of literature. At least when insane stuff happens there it's fiction -- you can check out any time you like...  'nuff said.

Starting with crime fiction, we have 

Crush , by Frédéric Dard
Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard, both from Pushkin Vertigo
In A Lonely Place, by Dorothy Hughes, basis of the movie with Humphrey Bogart
The Riddle of Monte Verita, by Jean-Paul Török, an homage to the classic locked-room mystery
Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, which was maybe a little less streamlined than it could have been but is a really good study of what creates a psychopath and
The White Devil, by Dominic Stansberry, which is a lovely mystery based on a classic play

moving onto the strange, there's 

Clark, by Brendan Connell, which is just absolutely delightfully original and refreshing, published by Snuggly Books, who is fast becoming one of my favorite publishers in the universe
It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, which, if you'll pardon me for saying so, scared the shit out of me even though it was written in 1935, and which I recommend to anyone and everyone right now at this particular given moment in American history because he shows how it can happen here
Lonely Haunts, published by another small indie press, Coachwhip Publications, and which features the work of two previously-unknown (to me) and rather obscure writers of ghost stories
Devil in the Darkness, by Archie Roy, from Valancourt Books (my ultimate favorite small publisher), a creepy novel about strangers stranded in a haunted house in Scotland.  Written in the 1970s, but still able to produce spine chills
Muladona, by Eric Stener Carlson, from Tartarus Press. Carlson is a wonderful but not-as-well-known-as-he-should-be author who should be read more widely.  This book was all-around creepy as a young boy has a week to discover the name of the entity haunting him or else. That's just the surface story, though -- so much other stuff is going on here that needs to be read about
The Outcast Spirit and Other Stories, by Lady Dilke, also from Snuggly Books, which I absolutely LOVED because of the ethereal feel of its contents and because she's a new obscure woman writer to add to my list.

Now to nonfiction, you know, with FACTS that can be checked, etc., 

Well, there are only two book in this category this month, neither of which I've written about yet but will soon be posted. First, part one of Stephen Fry's amazing autobiography/memoir, Moab is My Washpot, which I just loved; and second My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of One of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan, which is the memoir of Liane de Pougy, a great friend of one of my favorite writers ever, Jean Lorrain. de Pougy's book is meant to be one in a series of memoirs written by women, but I have one more book, The Mayor of Mogadishu to read before I can really embark on that path. 

and finally, the literature,

in which I'm making an effort to read new books combined with what has been just languishing away on my shelves forever:
Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki (on this very page), as is 
The Matiushin Case, by Oleg Pavlov, published by and other stories, another little press whose books I've had good luck with enough to have bought a subscription for the year
The Man With Two Left Feet, by PG Wodehouse, along with his The Inimitable Jeeves, both of which I loved loved loved.  We watched the entire Jeeves and Wooster series, and I discovered that it's a great place to go when one is depressed, as are the books.  I probably won't post about the Wodehouse books, but I'm just head over heels.

that's it, happy reading, and yada yada yada. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

beware: rant ahead -- it's been a crap month for buying from Amazon sellers

This has been me over the last month  or so.  Not once, not twice, but three times I've had issues with  different sellers who have been less than up front about what they actually have in stock, and of course, I'm the one who ends up being disappointed and frustrated to the point of tearing out my hair. This is the part where I name names, because this is just crap and people shouldn't be treated like this. To be fair, I've ordered a lot more from other sellers that actually did their jobs in a very good way, but I just get so angry when I feel like the bad sellers could care less about their customers.

on with the crap sellers:

 MovieMars, from whom I ordered a British dvd on 10/29, sort of didn't tell me that the item they had "in stock" actually came from the UK, and that it would be four weeks before it arrived.  When I emailed the company  (via Amazon buyer/seller messages) that the tracking number they gave me (DHL global, of course -- slower than molasses) didn't seem to exist in the DHL tracking system, their response was that "tracking doesn't seem to be working right now."  Well, hell, it wasn't working EVER, at any time, not just on the day I made the inquiry.  In the meantime, I ordered books from the UK and other dvds through Rarewaves Imports and other sellers, and they all got here within two weeks.  I'll just be skipping MovieMars in future, even if I have to pay more from someone else.

Then there's a company I'll NEVER buy from again, melisandy.  These people just take the freakin' cake.  Again, they listed a book at a decent price, I bought it, and like MovieMars, the book they had "in stock" ended up coming from the UK and no one bothered to tell me when I asked where my book was.  Not only that, but they bloody well lied to me in the process:
"Dear Nancy        
Thank you for your email.I have shipped your book on time via media mail which you paid for. Expected transit time for this shipping method is 4-14 business days. (Monday - Friday, not including postal holidays). In rare instances items may take up to 21 business days to arrive. But most of our books has been arrived earlier than expected time.I hope you will get it on time. If you meet with any problem please let me know. "

Oh yes. And then the tracking number ... nonexistent, which I discovered when I emailed back to inquire about it. Response:

"Dear Nancy , Thank you for your email.I have shipped your book on time via media mail which you paid for. I am sorry but this order has any tracking number. Expected transit time for this shipping method is 4-14 business days. (Monday - Friday, not including postal holidays).I hope you will get it on time. If you meet with any problem please let me know.                      Best regards
And then, of course, my book comes, and not only was it NOT mailed "media mail" as the two responses I received said it was, but it came from the UK, from somewhere called Chalky's. To top that off, they didn't bother to mark it shipped on Amazon until nearly a week after they said they'd mailed it.   Now, I don't know about anyone else, but for me the customs declaration label, along with the return address label from a store in the UK sort of gives it away that melisasandy didn't have the damn book in stock to begin with.  So then I wrote again to say I was disappointed that I was lied to, and the only response I got was "I'll pass on your disappointment to the shipping department."    I still haven't written that feedback, but it's coming.

Case #3 -- another book from another seller (whose name I'll provide if this doesn't get sorted quickly),  a hardcover copy of a novel I've been wanting to read which ended up coming to me as an ARC copy.  I haven't heard back from them yet, but I can't wait to see what they have to say. How the hell do you go from hardcover, like new,  to ARC? Hmm. My guess would be that they didn't have the hardcover in stock to begin with.  This is just bogus and it's another company my dollars will never reach. 

I don't get why Amazon doesn't crack down on sellers who can't actually lay hands on what they're selling and have to get it from somewhere else. Sheesh! If I wanted it from somewhere else, I would have bought it from somewhere else.  

rant over. Share any experiences like these -- I feel better knowing I'm not alone. 

*Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki

Penguin Classics, 2010
originally published as こころ, 1914
translated by Meredith McKinney
238 pp


This novel would probably still be languishing on my shelves had it not been for an online friend who, reading it with a group,  suggested I read it along with her. Great idea, because it also gave me the opportunity to read yet one more book I've owned forever that's just been languishing on my shelves unread. 

  Kokoro is,as I discovered, one of those novels where a second reading and a bit of research can completely change what you thought about it after the first time through. The second read was spurred by 1) discovering that a scholarly controversy had arisen over this book and 2) deciding to pick up and read another translation along with an introduction that explained said controversy. After much time to focus, think and absorb, well, the second time around actually clarified things I had trouble zooming in on after the first time. 

(the second time through): trans. Edwin McClellan
Peter Owen Publishers, 2007

Structured in three parts, the novel opens with the narrator meeting and attaching himself to an elder man he calls Sensei, and is soon "yearning for the possibilities of all he had to offer." However, Sensei, who reveals that he distrusts humanity, is reticent to open up about himself, and our narrator often finds himself frustrated when, as he says, "I failed to gain what I sought from him in matters of the mind." However, Sensei also reveals that while he is "suspicious" of most people, he realizes that the narrator seems "too straightforward and open for that," and that Sensei, before he dies, wants to "have trusted just one person." If the younger man could "be that person, ... sincerely in earnest," from his heart, then he will reveal to him the story of his past and leave nothing out, but not right away, since "It requires a suitable moment." What he wants in return is left unspoken for the moment. Eventually the narrator will learn all, but not before part two, which finds him back home with his parents. While there because his father's health is failing, he abandons his own family at a critical moment due to some disturbing news from Sensei, which sets up part three, where all is revealed. Sadly, since everything sort of turns on the revelations in part three, I have to keep silent, since to tell would be to spoil, but this is actually the part where we come to understand Sensei and where we learn exactly what it is he expects from the narrator -- it isn't expressly stated in so many words, but trust me, it's there. 

I wish I could make this post less cryptic, but there's a lot happening in this novel that a reader really needs to experience and sort out on his/her own. Look for thematic elements such as the formation of bonds, relationships, betrayal, individual vs. social responsibility, love, and above all, what it really means to bare or entrust one's soul/psyche to an outsider. What I will say is that after the second reading, Kokoro became an even darker book than it was the first time through, which I didn't think was possible.  Interesting factoid: the use of hiragana for the word kokoro (
こころ)  rather than the kanji (;) has,  according to Tony Rayns, who wrote the liner notes for the dvd,

"the effect of diffusing the meaning, making it seem less clear-cut and more open to semantic and philosophical nuances. For Soseki, this was related to the sense that the Japanese national psyche was changing; he saw an emptiness in Japan's kokoro brought on by external pressures from the West and internal pressures to assimilate them."  

Highly recommended for people who enjoy Japanese literature or for people who want to start reading Japanese fiction; it probably won't take everyone two readings, but I got a lot more out of it by doing it that way. 

So, having read the novel I had to see the film as well. Big differences abound here, which are covered a bit in the dvd liner notes. As just one example,  the movie "simplifies" Soseki's novel, "reorders its plot and eliminates some of its subtext while playing up the homosexual implications that are merely latent in the original."  I have to say that since the subject doesn't actually come up labeled as such in the novel, I was surprised to see a scene in this movie where Shizu (Mrs. Sensei) starts wondering out loud whether or not there's some sort of attraction between her husband and Hioki  (the novel's narrator, given a name here) which Hioki quickly denies with an "it's not what your thinking!" response.  Much of the story is revealed through flashbacks, which I think really is the best way to have done it, since so much of the novel turns on what happened in the past.  I've seen people criticize this approach used here, but I really don't see how else it could have been done. To tell it in a linear-narrative, chronological style would have wrecked things (as it would have in the novel as well).   While the movie is certainly  worth watching, the book is much, much better. There are movie critiques everywhere so I'll leave it there. 

book & movie -- definite yesses, but definitely read the book first.  

fiction from Japan

Monday, November 21, 2016

oh my god - that ending! Whoa! The Matiushin Case, by Oleg Pavlov

and other stories, 2014
originally published as Delo Matyushina, 1997
translated by Andrew Bromfield
249 pp


The Matiushin Case is second in a trio of stand-alone army novels known as the Last Days trilogy, which begins with Pavlov's Captain of the Steppe (his first novel, shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1995) and concludes with Requiem for a Soldier.  The Matiushin Case won the Russian Booker Prize in 2002, which is how it came to my attention (and thanks to and other stories for translating it, to my home).  Pavlov has also been awarded a number of other honors: the Solzhenitsyn Prize in 2012, a spot on the shortlist for the Russian National Literary Award "Big Book" in 2010, three literary magazine prizes, and he was a nominee for the Russian Booker Prize of the Decade in 2011.  His first novel was published when he was just 24.

Well, it's a good thing that I don't mind bleak in my reading, since no light seems to shine through anywhere in this story. That's not a bad thing -- on the contrary, sometimes people in books don't have happy lives, just as in real life there are people for whom life isn't always lived on the sunny side.  And while several literary people have pointed out what they see as this novel's flaws,  I don't care -- I was very taken with this novel.  For me this was one hell of a reading experience. When I feel like I'm locked into a claustrophobic, hazy hell along with an already-damaged character and that there's no possibility of escape until the end, well,  to me that's a sign of a good book. Disturbing, yes, but if I'm that disturbed as a reader, well then the author's done his job.

The reality is that it is not a happy world Matiushin is living in here, which we discover as the book follows him from childhood to his time as a young Soviet Army soldier, where he ends up as a guard at a horrific Soviet labor camp aka The Zone.  As a child he grew up in an unhappy, unstable home with his mother, a brother and an overbearing, often violent and drunk military father; as a young recruit he finds himself in a world of corruption, mind-numbing routine, violence, and brutality among his fellow soldiers.  But it's the aha-moment ending that really got to me, one I never saw coming, and one that afforded an entirely different perspective on some earlier parts of this novel.

Obviously I haven't really given much away here, and it's better that way in case anyone decides to read it sometime down the road.  I'll post two reviews but I'd suggest refraining from reading anything that gives away too much.  Anyone at all interested in literature reflecting the Soviet era should not miss this book -- while it has many of the same thematic elements as a lot of other literature of its time, there's something different in this one, causing the story to worm its way into my brain and refuse to leave.

review: Phoebe Taplin, The Guardian, 08/21/2014
review: Brandy Harrison, Three Percent

fiction from Russia

Monday, October 31, 2016

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

Hogarth, 2016
320 pp

arc - my thanks to the algorithms and the good people at LT.

If you haven't read this book yet, go and get a copy. It's delightful. My only regret is that I didn't listen to it, although I'm thinking I just might -- there are a few theatrical numbers here that would be more entertaining in stereo, that is, if they're actually set to music. If anyone knows whether this is so, please let me know.

As I said, the book is just delightful -- it's satirical, it's funny in some spots, and a bit poignant here and there, but just enough so that it doesn't get sappy.  Hag-Seed, is of course, one more offering from the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and this time around, Margaret Atwood takes on The Tempest. I think she's done a great job with it.

This novel follows the follies and foibles of Felix Phillips, the ousted artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival who has been removed from his position as top dog by some conniving manipulation by his trusted assistant. [As just a small aside, I recently read an article in the New Yorker which identifies Makeshiweg as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival  -- not being from Canada, I had no clue. But that's just my little nod to the Stratford Shakespeare festival; knowing that little factoid or not knowing it before reading it doesn't really make a difference. ]  Anyway, going into his own form of exile, he reappears some years later as a teacher in a prison where certain inmates are allowed to attend a literacy course where they study different types of literature. Felix decides to not only teach them Shakespeare, but also to allow the inmates to put on plays based on the Bard's work. This time around it's The Tempest, which was the production he was going to put on at the time he got booted out of the festival.  Some twelve years later now, Felix realizes that the play would be a great vehicle through which he can have his revenge on all of the people who had worked behind his back to depose him, since he's learned that they're coming to the prison to see the play before they decide to take away the funding for the literacy program.  

So many people have written about this book, professional critics and casual reader people such as myself, so I won't go any further than that little appetite whetter of a synopsis.  What I will say is that while I loved the central thematic idea here of different types of prisons, a lot of other things crop us here as well: loss and grief, redemption, and the healing power of art, to name only a few. It's a lovely book, funny and tragic at the same time, and a joy to read from beginning to end. I suppose it might have Shakespearean purists foaming at the mouth with indignance, but pish-posh on that. I loved it. 

It's a fine book and you don't even need to be familiar with the play prior to reading the novel, since Atwood includes a lovely summary at the end. Highly, highly recommended. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

September books, digested

So many books, so little time to talk about them.  Whirlwind trip through this month's books:

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang:  damn, I loved this book!  More to follow on this one, but it will definitely be on my 2016 favorites list

The Honeymoon, by Dinitia Smith:  September's real-world book group read. Sorry, but I wasn't over the moon about this book -- to me it just flat-out  lacked depth. My book group was split on this one, but we did have a great discussion about George Eliot.

The Book Collector, by Alice Thompson -- from Salt Publishing; I liked it much better after the second read. Haven't posted about this one, but definitely recommended. Reminds me so much of Angela Carter's story "The Bloody Chamber," and "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.


dark fiction/horror/weird fiction and everything else that falls in this category:

The Dark Domain, by Stefan Grabinski : more to follow about this one after I read his The Motion Demon, but I loved it.

Strange Medicine, by Mike Russell : I love Mike Russell's work. He's just so out there it's an actual pleasure to lose myself in his stories.

Eltonsbrody, by Edgar Mittelholzer -- Barbados, a creepy old house on a cliff and lots of chills -- what more can you ask for? By one of my favorite Caribbean novelists

All Souls' Night: Stories by Hugh Walpole:  Collection of supernatural/other stories by Hugh Walpole, released by Valancourt Books.  Fun.

Night-Pieces, by Thomas Burke. Another Valancourt edition; lots of good stuff.


crime fiction
The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin:  shortlisted for the 2013 Russian Booker Prize -- intense mystery at its core; one of the most literary crime novels I've ever encountered. Great read.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara - a true conundrum of a mystery and another good book from Pushkin Vertigo.


Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips: reveals "the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated" in the US -- a must read

News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: -- after season two of Narcos, I had to know what was really going on in Colombia at the time -- another fine book that kept me on the edge of my seat.

and now, for October...

Aside from a few must-reads, October is dedicated to creepy books just perfect for Halloween,  so most of the action will be taking place over at oddly weird fiction.  Pop on in!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hystopia, by David Means

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
336 pp


"Accuse history of bending the kid. And the war, the war bent him, too."

There is this wonderful scene on page 154 of this novel, which is actually a book within a book, where one of the characters has a vision where she hears a dead boyfriend saying the following:
" I wonder who's going to tell the story, Meg? Nothing else to say. You see, you had to be here and you weren't. You know the one that goes: How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb? How many? You fucking don't know because you weren't there, man."
And therein lies the irony of this novel -- in Hystopia, thanks to an initiative put into practice by the third Kennedy administration to help wipe out the traumatic memories of Vietnam vets, those who were there don't remember much more than those who'd never set foot in Vietnam.

If you read this book carefully, Hystopia reveals the inner turmoil of a very young man, Eugene Allen, who has recently returned from Vietnam at the time of the novel's writing. According to one of  the people interviewed at the end of the book-within-a-book, "He went over and served and came back and started right to work on his book," his "typewriter going day and night."  Allen, who is trying to cope with both the trauma of the war and his own personal pain originating more close to home, has framed Hystopia as a rather surreal, dystopian novel in which the action takes place in an America where Kennedy has successfully dodged a number of assassination attempts and has made it to his third term in office.  Kennedy has created an agency called Psych Corps, which would "solve the problem of mental illness in general and the vast horde of returning vets in particular," and under the auspices of this group, the process of "enfolding" occurs.  Veterans have to relive/reenact the particular "causal events" of the experiences leading to their trauma, which, along with the drug Tripizoid, leads to a sort of amnesiac state -- while they know they were in the army and  that there was some causal event, these people only retain actual memories of things up to that point, and then of what happened afterward.  What's left if all goes well is their story, which is the final step in the cure.  But here's the catch: enfolding doesn't always work -- especially on vets who have been too psychologically damaged for treatment to do any good.  While some of these beyond-help vets  "roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and re-enacting atrocities on civilians,"  one of these failed enfolds, a fellow called Rake who "had very little to go back to" at the end of the war,  is "going around taking perfectly cured individuals and returning them to their traumatized states."  The Rake situation just can't be tolerated, so the Psych Corps gets involved in trying to stop him.

But of course, the story is not so simple as it seems to be on the surface. There is a LOT going on here that really captured my attention. For one thing,   in this book successfully-enfolded vets are meant to be sent back into action, implying that this government administration has no real interest in ending the war at all. Even worse, it can't or won't step up to the plate and admit its mistake in getting involved in Vietnam in the first place. There is a great little scene near the beginning of this  novel where one member of Psych Corps explains to another that
"...history misses the point. Take the Somme, for example. The Big Fuck-up. I mean it was called that when it was happening. You had something like sixty thousand lads -- and they were lads -- die in the first day of battle. That battle cut the world in two. It introduced pure irony into the world, but do historians mention it? Hell no. Are we willing to call Nam the Little Fuck-Up? Christ no. The president keeps her rolling and decides to make a repository for irony..."
To me, the novel reads like an examination into the role of history/memory both in terms of self and on a larger, national scale.  Historical amnesia, remaking/rewriting/bending history are all found here, as is the effect of "enfolding" on a personal level, since many of the characters in this book discover a need to "unfold" -- to regain and reach down into those memories before they can make any real internal progress.  The dilemma is that, as one character puts it, while "You feel good and clean with the trauma put away, but at the same time you want to know what really happened," which can often be destructive.  Obviously, there's much more here; I haven't even begun to scratch this novel's surface.  One more important thing that may help in trying to understand this book: in a 2010 article in Paris Review, Means notes that
 " If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode."
which is most certainly the case and certainly appropriate in this book.

 Aside from some things that sort of bogged this book down and interrupted the reading flow, I couldn't stop thinking about this novel after finishing it, and I think a second reading is definitely in the cards. There are some incredible moments here, especially in a section of about 15 pages  (154-169) with some of the most powerful writing I've read in a very long time.  Hystopia may be framed as an alternative history, but I think there's a good reason for doing it this way.  And once again, I see I am swimming upstream of other readers in terms of really liking this book, but it is what it is. I would without hesitation recommend this novel -- it's certainly unlike anything I've read before. Well done.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin, 2015
260 pp


"It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore ...I thought I had everybody fooled." 

So what's up with this year's Booker Prize longlist?  Both Eileen and Menmuir's The Many (the two I've read so far) are really dark reads  peering into damaged psyches. I like this sort of thing, but had I known that my random choice of these two books one after the other would make for such disturbing reading, I probably would have read something lighter in between the two. Dark fiction appeals to me, but this pair of books together left me a bit gutted.

In John Banville's blurb from Penguin's website he notes that
"If Jim Thompson had married Patricia Highsmith – imagine that household – they might have conspired together to dream up something like Eileen."  
Thompson I'm not feeling so much, but there is something akin to Highsmith in here in the sense that Moshfegh has written a book that left me wanting to take short breaks from roaming around in her repulsive main character's head. This novel takes on a week in the life of Eileen Dunlop as recalled by an older self some fifty years later, looking back to her last days as "angry little Eileen" leading up to the moment when she makes an escape from strange "life of a nobody, a waif, invisible."  Keeping in mind that in this novel appearances can be somewhat deceiving and that there's much more going on than meets the eye, whether or not we should be cheering her on is a judgment call that can't really be made until the final page has been turned.

While I'm not going to go into plot so as not to spoil things, it's beyond appropriate that Eileen works in a "private juvenile facility for teenage boys," "for all intents and purposes -- a prison for children,"  since one of the main ideas in this book seems to be how people come to find themselves in his or her own form of imprisonment.  Eileen is stuck in her house taking care of her widowed dad, a stubborn ex-cop who is now drunk most of the time which Eileen prefers since she can "just hand him a bottle and leave the room" when he needs to be distracted or soothed.  When he asks her to buy him more booze, instead of arguing, she's glad to get out of the house to kill time.  She's stuck in a body she despises to the point of repulsion and self-loathing, she's stuck in the past, wearing her deceased mother's clothes. She's stuck in her "brutal cold town," just counting the days until she can make her escape, viewing life as "one long sentence of waiting out the clock."  But, as we learn, Eileen isn't the only one who is stuck or imprisoned.

 And Eileen has secrets that she shares with no one except us.  On the other hand, she's not the only one  -- most of the main characters in this novel have secrets that will slowly come tumbling out and trust me, they're pretty horrific. Thinking of the secrets people keep here reminds me of the author's focus on masks. Eileen wears her "death mask" at work, since she is "terribly sensitive and determined never to show it." She finds that in order to get through her work day, she has had to "steel herself from the reality of the place..." since she was surrounded by "misery and shame."  Her inspiration --  a book she'd discovered at a library that "showed casts of faces" of several notable historical figures.  Practicing regularly and "diligently" at a mirror, she worked toward achieving, as she notes, "an aura of benign resilience, such as I saw in those dead men's faces."  Again, though, she's not the only one, and it seems to me that the author spends a lot of time getting to the root of what's behind the masks these people wear.  There's much more of course, but it is definitely a book that needs to be experienced rather than simply talked about.

While the dustjacket blurb says that there's a "Hitchcockian twist" in this novel, I didn't feel that one either.  It's true that this "twist" is important to the overall story, but I kind of saw it coming so it wasn't as much of a "Hitchcockian" moment as I was led to believe by the blurb.  I don't really think that plot is really the main focus here; it's much more a book about people and damage and how they end up being the way they are.  Eileen turned out for me to be much less about reading a novel and became more of a foray into a seriously disturbed mind or two or three, and I liked it.  Creepy, yes. Repulsive and uncomfortable, at times.  Difficult subject matter, definitely. But how people end up where they are in their lives and why they do what they do absolutely fascinates me and it's all here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

Salt Publishing, 2016
141 pp


The Many is an example of why I am a champion of novels from smaller, independent publishers. I had noted this title while looking at Salt's webpage some time back, thinking it looked intriguing, and then it shows up on this year's Booker Prize longlist. Not that I plan to read every novel on that list, but this one had initially caught my eye because it seemed like the kind of dark, intense read that would appeal.  And as it turns out, my hunch was right.  Even though this novel has its naysayers, I liked it.

The truth is though, that it took me two readings before I felt like I was getting somewhere with this novel. To be really honest, while the story compelled me to keep turning pages the first time,  it wasn't until the ending when I did a double take and realized a) that all is not as it seems on the surface here and b) I absolutely needed to read it again.  The result was an even sadder and more disturbing story the second time through, and it was well worth the time I put into it, one that's still haunting me right now while I'm thinking about it. Very few books can really do that to me, and this is one of them.

Just a little re plot, but not much.  An old, abandoned house overlooks the sea, a house that has stood empty for years.  Now an "incomer" by the name of Timothy Bucchanan has come to occupy it, thinking to fix it up as a place for himself and his wife Lauren (who is not there with him at the time and who will come when the house is ready), but his arrival is not a particularly welcome one among the others who live in this small, isolated coastal village.  Most profoundly affected by Timothy's arrival is Ethan, who is the first to notice chimney smoke rising from the house.  It seems that the place formerly belonged to Perran, who died many years ago; the house has since remained just the way it was when Perran died, sort of frozen in time.  Ethan and the men in the village are fishermen, but their way of life has been seriously curtailed, with fishing limited to an area delineated by the coastline and a "line of stationary container ships," due to "a profusion of biological agents and contaminants" poisoning the waters. The damage to the environment yields damaged fish, and yet there's always someone there to pay for and to take away the catch.  As Timothy works to try to put the house into some sort of order, questions arise regarding the former occupant, about whom everyone seems reluctant to speak. The question is why, of course, and trying to uncover answers is part and parcel of this novel.

In trying to deal with the house (which is still known locally as "Perran's house"), Timothy has times when it seems he may have taken on a bigger job than he can actually handle.  On his first morning in the house, he "wanders from room to room," discovering "huge shadows of stains on the walls and ceilings." His first thought as he looks around for fuel for the fireplace  is that the "house is a mistake," and then while looking out the window, he
"draws his fingers the length of the window frame and feels flecks of paint peel off beneath his fingertips. There is a thin line or crack, barely perceptible, that runs up through the window and he adds it to his mental list of things he needs to fix." 
The second time through, taking things much slower this time, it was here that my thinking skills  started kicking in, drawing me toward the ideas of deterioration and damage that seem to be common threads in this book.  Of course, what I read into it may not be at all what the author intended, but well, considering how very enigmatic this book is, my interpretation is probably just one among many.

 The Many is definitely a cryptic novel which can be extremely frustrating, and given its size,  it probably shouldn't take two readings for most people.  In my case, the second read helped a lot, since there is not much that is said here by way of explanation, and there is much that a reader has to pick up through an examination of dreams and flashbacks and through drawing parallels.  I often felt like the characters in this book -- "hemmed in", since there's a tense, claustrophobic feel to this story.  It also had the effect of keeping me knocked off kilter the entire time.  In spite of the fact that it was so enigmatic (and really, some of it is just plain strange at times), I found it a dark, sad and eerie book that I won't be forgetting any time soon. That's a good thing.

Recommended for very patient readers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

Melville House Publishers, 2016
originally published 2013, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
217 pp


Frankly, this is one hell of a good book.

I can just picture someone somewhere reading the back-cover blurb of this book where it says "The Queue is a chilling debut that evokes Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque surrealism,..." and wondering why he/she should read it if it's done before.  Well, it's certainly true that there are a lot of books that focus on people faced with the absurdities of a totalitarian government, but in this book, what strikes me is how optimistic some people are in believing  that if they just wait long enough, the state will take care of their problems.  Never mind that the Gate, the bureaucracy that is the unseen "absolute authority" in this unnamed country,  is never actually open to the citizens -- although rumors abound as to when it might open, people have been waiting long enough for help that a huge queue has formed and continues to increase in size while nobody ever seems to move.  The Gate continues to issue laws dictating that people will need permission from the state for an ever-growing number of activities, some as absurd as can be, and as these laws and proclamations become ever more intrusive and ever more numerous, more people continue to find a place in the queue and to wait with some measure of hope for what they need. And it's in the queue, really, where life goes on -- there are rules to be followed, commerce taking place, religious activities and activism, protests going on and  information being disseminated -- so that at some point, the queue becomes a society in its own right.

The major thread running through this story gives us a peek at how this authoritarian system works.  Tarek is a doctor who desperately wants to remove a bullet from a young man named Yehya Gad el-Rab.  Yehya, who wasn't protesting at the time, had been shot during the "Disgraceful Events," a four-day long "street battle" put down by the Quell Force, a unit specifically created to deter riots of this sort, and he now has a bullet lodged in his pelvis.   Hampering Tarek's efforts is a recent proclamation from the Gate that says that it is a "criminal act" to extract a bullet "except when performed under official authorization issued by the Gate of the Northern Building." After all,
"bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." 
So Tarek has to wait until Yehya receives that "special authorization" from the Gate. As the story progresses, the proclamations issued by the Gate in this case become increasingly absurd, for example, with the forbidding of x-rays, and most especially the denial that the government ever fired on the crowd.  New hurdles continue to crop up -- Tarek discovers that Yehya's medical records have been tampered with, and that the x-rays have disappeared altogether. Things take a more sinister, dark and downright frightening turn when in her desperate attempt to help save his life, Yehya's girlfriend decides to bypass the system. In the meantime, Tarek continues to agonize over what he should have done and didn't out of his fear of repercussions from the Gate.  And all the while, history is being rewritten or whitewashed, forcing many people to try to rationalize what they know versus what the Gate is telling them.

There are a number of other stories here in this novel,  and it hits on so many things thematically, but I'll leave those for others to discover.  And as I said, while there are certainly any number of books out there that explore this sort of thing, this one is certainly different than most others I've read.  Looking at what other people have to say, The Queue is garnering some excellent reader reviews, although one reader called it "decidedly dull," with an ending that isn't "conclusive."   I will say that this book is not an easy read in the sense that answers/explanations aren't handed to you on a plate, and that it does take a fair amount of patience to read, for which in my opinion, you'll be rewarded. At the same time, as I read it, images were just exploding in my head, which is a good thing and to me the sign of a well-written novel.  For me, it was a serious page turner, a book I didn't want to put down for any reason.

real reviews of this novel:
from NPR
Literature After the Arab Spring

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, 2002
511 pp


It's not often I read a 500-plus page novel and manage to finish it over the course of a weekend, but Fingersmith is just the sort of book that enables that to happen.  I picked it up late Friday night and suddenly it was Sunday afternoon and I'd turned the last page.  Then I ran upstairs and grabbed my dvd of the BBC adaptation, because I wasn't quite ready to call it a day with this story.

And what a story it is! I really can't go into much detail because this is such a twisty novel that to tell would be to spoil.  It's so twisty, in fact, that I got to the first major surprise and did a huge gasp nearly making me choke on the almonds I was eating at the time.  I remember at the time thinking "that's f***ing brilliant!" but as it turns out, there were more twists to come.  The plot is about as nefarious as it gets and quite frankly, while it's not my favorite Waters novel (that's a tie between Tipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger), it had this way of lifting me from where I was back into Victorian England and to shut out the rest of the modern world while taking me there.  Okay - that's majorly cliché, but well, it is what it is.

Dustjacket material:  Fingersmith begins in the locksmith's shop at Lant Street, "in the Borough, near to the Thames." It's a poor part of London populated by thieves.  As Sue Trinder says, "We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street," and Lant Street has been her entire world since she was a baby. She had been raised there  by a Mrs. Sucksby who was a "baby farmer," and Mrs. Sucksby was the only mother she'd ever known.  She is totally devoted to Mrs. Sucksby -- as Sue notes, "She had been paid to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What's love, if that ain't?"  Sue is seventeen when one day a visitor, Dick Rivers aka "Gentleman" arrives at Lant Street with a proposition that will involve Sue in a big way.  It seems that Rivers has made the acquaintance of young and naive Maud Lilly who lives in the country with her uncle, for whom Rivers is doing a bit of a work on the uncle's collection of books. Rivers has learned that Maud stands to inherit a huge fortune when she marries.  The plan is for Sue to go to Maud as her personal maid, gain Maud's trust, and to help convince Maud to marry Rivers.  He will then get rid of Maud by stashing her safely into an insane asylum, and once Rivers has control of Maud's fortune, Sue gets a big chunk of the cash for her troubles. Sue, who's never been away from Mrs. Sucksby, isn't sure, but since the money will be a good way for her to repay Mrs. S's kindness, she decides she'll do it.

That's absolutely all I'll say about the plot because the joy of this novel is in the many twists and turns this story takes once Sue arrives at the Lilly home to help set Rivers' plan in motion.  It is an absolutely, beyond-delightful novel that as I said earlier, totally engulfed me from the beginning.  Yes, there is a ton of detail here, some of which could have been left out or pared down and yes, some of the material verges on Victorian-novel cliché, but in this case, I was too deeply wrapped up in the story itself to care, reflecting back on these issues only afterwards.  It's a page-turning novel done in Victorian style  (Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Dickens all came to mind immediately), and while the plot is so twisted, it's really the people here that are the main focus. And oh my gosh - Sarah Waters can write people so very well.  She can also channel Dickens very nicely in her descriptions of London streets and slums, making it no wonder to me at all that Fingersmith was nominated for the Booker Prize in its day -- seriously, I would have voted for it had I been a judge that year.

Lovely book -- my advice: forget anything critical, go into it just for the story, have fun with it, and stay away from any spoilers.  Readers like myself who are very much into older works will love it for the atmosphere; readers like myself who love Sarah Waters' novels will definitely want to read  it for her ability to lift you out of where you are while reading it. It took me long enough, but I'm so happy I finally decided to take it off my shelves and  read it!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

from the Caribbean: Shadows Move Among Them, by Edgar Mittleholzer

Peepal Tree Press, 2010
originally published 1951
350 pp


"Berkelhoost teems with passionate, residual spirits."  

Having recently discovered Mittelholzer's work (in My Bones and My Flute), I couldn't wait to revisit him again.  Luckily, Peepal Tree Press has published a few of his books, including this one.  The blurb for Shadows Move Among Them says that while reading this book it is "impossible" not to make comparisons to "the fate of the People's Temple commune at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978."  I can sort of see it -- you have in this novel the establishment of  a "utopian" community of Berkelhoost where people are free to express themselves in many different ways, but it's a place where the emphasis on "discipline" comes before everything else.  It's a good book with a story that takes time to develop but once you're in, you're hooked.

Set on the banks of the Berbice River back when this country was still known as British Guiana, the leader of this community, Reverend Harmston, has developed a  philosophy centering on taking life with "a pinch of salt," without having to "nail ourselves down to any set philosophy or flat conventions."  Newcomer Gregory Hawke, the nephew of Mrs. Harmston, has come to Berkelhoost seeking a rest -- he's burned out by the war, he may or may not have killed his wife, and he's looking to heal his nerves and seek peace in nature. When he gets there, Harmston's precocious daughter Olivia realizes that the real Gregory hasn't yet appeared, that it's "only his shadow" that is with them.  As Gregory becomes more familiar with the family and the way of life at Berkelhoost, he finds himself having to take stock of the meaning of "civilization" (the world he's just left) and "barbarism" as he's confronted with an entirely new set of values here, constructed in such a way as to be a sort of antidote to the problems of the outside world.  There's much more of course -- sex, nature, religion,  and of course, Guyanese history all have major roles  in this novel.

There's a lot of subtle humor in this novel, as well as a growing awareness that even in this utopian oasis,  all may not be as bright as it seems.  Berkelhoost is a not only a place of phantoms and shadows, but it is also a place where contradictions abound.  I found it to be an incredibly thought-provoking novel once I started noticing said contradictions and to me this was the big payoff here.

Shadows Move Among Them may not be everyone's cup of tea, but so far, I haven't been disappointed with either of the Mittelholzer novels I've read and there are more winging their way to my house as we speak.  I appreciate Peepal Tree Press taking the time to publish his work; there are still some books that haven't yet been brought back into print, but I'm hoping the Peepal folks will consider doing so. His books are definitely worth reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

And Other Stories: Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera

I'm beyond impressed with these two short books:  Signs Preceding the End of the World runs to 114 pages, while The Transmigration of Bodies comes in at 101, but don't let their brevity fool you -- they are amazing.  If I was someone thinking about becoming a writer, I'd read everything Yuri Herrera has written, scan his library shelves for his literary influences, and learn everything I possibly could from this man -- to me, his work is just plain genius. Both novels are beautifully written despite their sparse prose style, which actually makes his work all the more powerful.  A huge part of what makes his writing so appealing  is that he does not have to elaborate in any way to get his messages across to the reader; his unique use of language here conveys all it needs to. They're both absolutely brilliant and highly original; it's like the author takes elements of different genres to create something that transcends genre.  Both novels sink the reader into atmosphere from the first paragraph, and both stories work through characters whose lives land them smack in the middle of other people's lives and in certain situations that arise within the spaces they occupy.  In Signs Preceding the End of the World,

And Other Stories, 2015
originally published as Señales que precederán al fin del mundo, 2009
translated by Lisa Dillman
114 pp

we view a nearly mythical journey taken by Makina, who works as her small town's switchboard operator, and who is asked by her mother to deliver a message to her brother necessitating a journey across the border. In The Transmigration of Bodies, a man known as The Redeemer

And Other Stories, 2016
originally published as La Transmigración de los cuerpos, 2013
translated by Lisa Dillman
101 pp
acts a go-between to ensure the safe exchange of the bodies of two young people to return them to their families.  He has gathered a reputation as someone who fixes people's situations, someone whose handling of matters allowed his clients to have "kept their hands clean of certain matters" earning him their gratitude and respect in return.  

Signs begins with the literal exposure of the underworld,  as a sinkhole opens and swallows a man, a car and a dog in a town that is "riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver dust."  As Makina watches, we watch her moving ever so slowly away from the edge of the hole.  Her journey to find her brother is covered in nine chapters, bringing to my mind Virgil guiding Dante through the nine circles.  As she moves from point to point we are brought into a story of immigration and its uncertainties, crime and violence, borders, and more, all so nicely done in such a short space.  This book doesn't need to be any longer to get its messages across; the same is true with The Transmigration of Bodies.  Once again, in this book the opening is significant -- the inhabitants of an unnamed town find themselves in the middle of a plague, a perfect opening for a book that examines the ongoing violence, crime and death in Mexico.   The focus on the "bodies" of the title is also interesting, but in the interest of time I'll leave it for others to see how.  There is so much more to glean from these little books, but above all, they are books that highlight an amazing writer's art. 

There are all manner of reviews and synopses online for both books so I'd look at those for deep insight. I'd like to mention the translator, Lisa Dillman here:   I was trying to find information on Yuri Herrera and came across an article from that offers some incredible insight not only into her process, but into Herrera's own stunning use of language as well.  

And Other Stories has done it again, and I can't wait to read Herrera's third book in this trilogy when it's translated.  Highly, highly recommended.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Oh, those Martian Women!!! Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant (1893)

Dodo Press, 2008
[originally published 1893]
133 pp

(read earlier; still playing catch-up with posting)

A few nights back my friend and I were having a conversation about what we've been reading lately, so I brought out this book to share.   Her first reaction: "there were feminists in Cedar Rapids back then?"

Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant actually published this novel under the pseudonym of "Two Women From the West." The first publication of this book was by Arena Publishing Company, an outfit that published "books on political and economic reform," as well as a number of Utopian novels, a genre that was quite popular at the time. Arena also published speculative and science fiction by authors who have long since faded into obscurity.  The owner and editor of Arena, Benjamin O. Flower, liked Jones & Merchant's book, which saw two editions before going out of print.

As Carol Kolmerten in the introduction to the 1991 edition of this novel (Syracuse University) states, Unveiling a Parallel is
"one of over two hundred utopian novels published from 1888 through 1918 that envisions a better world -- the largest single body of utopian writing in history." (xxiv)
Perhaps that time frame can be pushed back a bit.  After a bit of research, I thought that the earliest example of feminist utopian novels in the U.S. came from Mary E. Bradley Lane in 1881, with her Mizora (which I just bought), but there was one that came along even earlier (1870) --  Man's Rights, or How Would You Like It, by Annie Denton Cridge.  Moving forward, perhaps one of the most famous books in this genre of writing is Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published later in 1915.  The point is that feminist utopian novels were quite popular through the turn of the century, although the utopian novel in general  was largely the provenance of authors, who according to Kolmerten, were "unknown middle-aged, male ... Protestant, middle class, and white."    For further reading on the topic, a good place to start is The Utopian Novel in America, by Jean Pfaelzer; now on to Unveiling a Parallel. 

To keep things short and sweet, the male narrator of this story climbs in his "aeroplane" and takes a nice trip to Mars. He first arrives in Thursia, which surprisingly is very much the same as the 19th-century America our traveler has just left.  He quickly learns the language of his host, so as to better communicate with the woman he's fallen for, Elodia, his host's sister.  Elodia is a highly-successful banker and businesswoman, as well as a natural leader in her own social set.  The narrator is smitten, until sometime later, when certain other things about this woman are revealed, at which point he loses his interest because she's not the woman he thought she was, nor, he realizes,  would she be willing to become so for any man. In fact, Thursia itself holds a number of surprises for this man, including but not limited to, women vaping a potentially-lethal mix of valerian and alcohol, and a place called "Cupid's Gardens," where  powerful women like Elodia go to meet lovers or pick up prostitutes for their sexual pleasure. It seems that there is just too much for him to overlook in terms of the women of Thursia. The narrator moves on to Caskia, where he finds a more enlightened, more utopian society, one where people are able to enjoy some measure of leisure thanks to technology.  This is a place where everyone works for together the greater good, one where the notion of universal love is a true reality,  where material possessions are of no value, and where our narrator meets and falls for a woman as unlike Elodia as possible.

original 1893 cover; from Wikipedia

There is a huge amount of great satire to be found here, most especially in the dialogue between the narrator and the Martian people with whom he speaks.  As he asks a ton of questions about the women there, what ends up happening is that we actually get a great contrast between more enlightened ideas about Martian women and the attitudes toward women back home.  This book seems to reflect more than anything Jones' and Merchant's ideas about who women are and who they could be if equality could be attained.   Sadly, while the narrator in this book can begrudgingly admit to some positives in terms of how women are perceived and treated on Mars, he never fully comes around, noting that his own views are just "too thoroughly ingrained" in his nature.

 I won't really say more about this novel, except that while it is fun to read, it can also become  polemical in nature, and sometimes a definite chore to get through. There are also a number of contradictions spread throughout the story.   But it is also informative and I have to credit the authors with being so futuristic in their thinking. Writing this book in a time where literature pretty much stressed the patriarchal was also gutsy and something different. I'd say that anyone at all interested in American pre-20th century feminist writers will definitely want to pick up a copy of this novel for his/her library.  For me -- while it was a bit tough to get through at times, it is a great find and a wonderful addition to my slowly-growing collection of works by lesser-known American women writers.