Thursday, November 7, 2019

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy

9781644450062
Graywolf Press, 2019
193 pp

paperback


"No one would a done a thing like that on purpose. It's against nature." 



Another of my most anticipated books for this year, I'm happy to say that Benjamin Percy's Suicide Woods didn't let me down.  I worry sometimes that something I'm really looking forward to reading is going to just tank, but any fear on that score was swept aside once I started reading this book.   It is a collection of ten short stories, well, actually, nine short stories and one nearly novella-length tale at the end; it's also a book that actually lives up to the blurb by author Luis Alberto Urrea, who  says right there on the front cover for all to see that it
"deals in a shivery fear, a dreamlike unease, a sense of eldritch hallucinations creeping toward us."
Never a truer word spoken.    Word of warning: if you're not inclined toward the weird, eerie, or sometimes downright creepy,  pass. This is not the book for you.  On with the show.

It's always a good sign, I think, when a collection of stories like this opens with one that sets the tone and acts a sort of teaser for what to expect throughout the rest of the book; this one certainly passes that test with flying colors.  The first story, "The Cold Boy" begins with a description of the forest as "hardwood," where the sycamore and oak trees would be completely bare if not for the hundreds of crows, "huddled like little men in black jackets."  The sounds they make create "rusty voices" that are audible a quarter of a mile away where a man named Ray stands on a frozen pond in the middle of a Minnesota cornfield, where there are "two sets of footprints, yet he is alone on the ice." First of all, when crows make an early appearance in a story, things rarely turn out for the best since everyone knows that the crow is a harbinger of doom; then, of course,  there's the immediate question of why there are two sets of footprints if Ray is out there by himself.    At this point, which is just two paragraphs in, the sense of something ominous starts making itself known in my blood, creeping under my skin as if to mirror the feeling of cold that rises and creeps up Ray's legs and into his chest, where his "heart feels frosted with tiny white crystals."  And after we realize what's going on here (which I won't divulge), Percy makes a shift into the realm of the unexpected, throwing his readers (well, me anyway) completely into off-kilter mode, where, quite honestly, I stayed throughout the entire book.   At the same time, there's more to this collection opener than just the eeriness and the unsettling creep factor; for me it begins a clear line of thought running from this first story through the last, in which attempts to alter or conquer nature, both human and otherwise, turn into the stuff of nightmares.

I don't want to go through each story in the book;   while there were only a few that left me with what I call FTG (Failure to Grab) syndrome, only natural for me in the case of an anthology of stories, for the most part I was beyond impressed.  The best stories for me included "The Cold Boy," "Heart of a Bear," and "The Balloon," while the absolute chart toppers were the titular and breathtaking "Suicide Woods," which made me put the book down for a few hours before returning to it and "The Uncharted," a story I visualized while reading much more than any of the others in the collection.  Both of these were superb, and not only because of their eerieness and the fact that they both completely messed with my head.   "The Dummy," "Dial Tone" and most especially "Writs of Possession" all resonate in our current social/political/economic climate, with the latter being one of the saddest stories I've ever read in my life while certainly one of the best written of the bunch.  The blogger at Minnesota Monthly reviewing this book quotes Percy as saying about the writing of this story that "It's like I took this larger portrait of America and dropped it, and it shattered," and after I read that statement, I realized how perfectly it describes what he's done here.

If you are a reader who prefers uplifting, follow-the-dotted-line sort of stories or  stories full of nice nice and happy endings, or who demands fully fleshed-out characters in your reading, move along.  That sort of thing you just won't find here.  It's going to appeal more to those people who enjoy books along the lines of what I call "strange with purpose," where thinking is required,  which is pretty much the bread and butter of my fiction reading these days.  It is unforgettable, really, and I can certainly recommend it.



Friday, October 11, 2019

The Good People, by Hannah Kent

9781447233350
Picador, 2017
384 pp

hardcover


"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it." 




As with this author's fine novel Burial Rites, The Good People is based on real events, this time from  nineteenth-century Ireland.  In 2011,  Kent (as she described at Lit Hub in 2017)  came upon  an article from the Morning Post reporting on the Tralee assizes of 1826 which mentioned
"the trial of 'Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age' indicted for a serious crime 'committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition.' "

Finding little else about Ann Roche, she went on to write Burial Rites, and then came back to find out more about her elusive subject in 2015.  Back to the microfilm she went, and finally discovered another article, one that mentioned two more women associated with Roche, Honora Leahy and Mary Clifford.   The Good People brings the three together in a story that  kept me up until 3:30 a.m. when I had to stop just for the sake of actually sleeping for a few hours two days ago.  I am still thinking about it; I'm still haunted by it.

Nora Leahy has recently lost her daughter, and now she's lost her husband.  After the new priest visits her and reluctantly prays for him ("the sacraments are for the living and cannot avail the dead"), the house fills with neighbors.  Martin's body is turned on the bed, "so as to avert further misfortune," and Nora's nephew Daniel, who had witnessed Martin's death at the "crossroads next to the the blacksmith's," reveals that as he and another man, Peter O'Connor, were taking the body to the Leahy's home, they had seen lights ... "Coming from where the fairies do be, down by the Piper's Grave." Peter confirms Daniel's story, commenting that
"You mark my words, there'll be another death in this family before long... First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company.  And if the Good People have a hand in it ... well." 
In just a few pages then,  we discover that the people of this small village live in a world where the Church and superstition live side by side; where fairies, aka the Good People, are believed to exist as  more than just fodder for storytelling.

The gathering is interrupted with the arrival of  Nance Roche, who has come for the keening, a practice that is frowned upon by the priest.   She is a woman who is known for her cures, whose job is to see to "the daily blights and bruises of the living."  She is an herbalist, but also has what she refers to as "the knowledge," and lives in a small cabin "between mountain and wood and river" where she's been for the last twenty years:
"...she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood.  She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars.  She was a pagan chorus. An older song."
 and she is known to some as "Nance of the Fairies."  Whether her "gift" is, as one character notes, "God-given or a token from the Good People," no one knows, and it is not for them to know.  All she will say is "Twas them that gave me the knowledge to cure folk and bring the fairy dart out of them..."

Grieving for the loss of her daughter and now her husband, Nora now finds herself alone to take care of her grandson, young Micheál, whose condition has caused him to change from a happy, healthy infant to one who, according to Nora, is "ill-formed" and now unrecognizable from the baby he was.  For her, he is "burdensome" and she needs help during her grief, so she hires fourteen year-old Mary Clifford who needs the job to help support her starving family.   Although Mary develops a sort of bond with  Micheál, it doesn't take long for her to catch the women's gossip at the well, referring to Micheál as the "blasted cratur" and "changeling" that has caused all of the ills of the village; and indeed, things are getting pretty bad there.  Nora's grief has taken over her life, there is no help coming from either the priest or the doctor, so she begins to believe that there may just be something in what they're saying -- that her grandson is a changeling, but what does she need to do to get her real grandson back? 

With the same sort of claustrophobic atmosphere so excellently evoked in Burial Rites, The Good People delves into the story of these three women; it also looks at the conflicts between religion and superstition, medicine and traditional folk healing, and the forces of the time that come together to precipitate the events in this novel.   I think though that  one of the characters here points to the heart of it all when she says that
"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it."  
I so very highly recommend this book.  Beware -- it will haunt you.




Saturday, September 28, 2019

Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah

9781982110338
Scribner, 2019
303 pp

hardcover

Without wasting time, the author reveals right out of the gate what we are about to read:

"This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land." 
As our narrator reveals, this is a story that "has been told many times before, but always as the story of the Doctor."  This time around, however, those whose voices have not been heard have their say about their roles in Dr. Livingstone's "last journey" from Chitambo to Bagamoyo, a place whose "very name means to lay to rest the burden of your heart."   It was a journey of over 1500 miles and 285 days, as revealed via two narratives: first that of Halima, Livingstone's cook, followed by an account kept in a diary by Jacob Wainwright, a freed slave who had been taken in and educated by missionaries early in his life. 

 As we are told before the first chapter even begins,
"On the long and perilous journey to bring him home, ten of our party lost their lives. There are no stones to mark the places where they rest, no epitaphs to announce their deaths. And when we who remain follow where they led, no pilgrims will come to show their children where we lie. But out of that great and troubling darkness came shining light. Our sacrifice burnished the glory of his life."
 With only minor complaints, overall it is a fine novel, and some of the comparisons to Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account made by readers is not too far off the mark here (although I liked Out of Darkness Shining Light more), as her book also put the voices of those who followed in the shadows of more famous historical figures front and center.  I love this sort of thing, really, when done well.  Halima's account begins prior to Livingstone's death at Chitambo and ended all too soon for this reader; Wainwright's rather stifled, pious journal entries purposefully read like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, as he intends his diary for future publication.  Both, however, reveal that outside of  the singular cause of delivering Livingstone's remains to the coast, within the group there were conflicts based on ethnic and religious divisions, jealousies,  and much more.  The members of the caravan also faced hardships including disease, hunger, superstition from outsiders, fear of being captured by slavers and other horrors.  Throughout the book there are also ongoing questions about Livingstone's own relationship with slavery, and colonialism is put under the microscope here.  Wainwright's account of himself, his worldview, and his desire to be ordained in order to save his fellow Africans stands out as just one example, and his self-serving narrative  is often giggleworthy and eyebrow raising as we see him sometimes justifying what he does through the filter of his Christian beliefs.

Once I picked it up, that was it; any moment away from this book was spent thinking how quickly I could get back to it.  This novel was on the list of my own ten most anticipated books for the remainder of 2019 and I was not at all disappointed.  Recommended mainly for readers of historical fiction done well.  There's so much bad historical fiction out there, so it was a pleasure to read something so well researched and well written.






Monday, September 16, 2019

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

9781101870600
Pantheon, 2019
274 pp
translated by Stephen Snyder

hardcover

It wasn't too long after starting this book before I noticed something strange about it.  By page 98, it hit me that for a story  labeled as "Orwellian,"  it was written in a surprisingly quiet tone.  Without discounting the bizarre events recounted in this book, the understated style alone was actually disturbing in its own right, and I experienced a sort of weird off-kilteredness throughout the story.

As the novel opens, the narrator finds herself wondering
"what was disappeared first -- among all the things that have vanished from the island."
A curious beginning, and by the time you reach the ending, it becomes all that much more curious given the fact that the novel is written in the first person.  (Cryptic I know, but cryptic in terms of this novel seems par for the course.)    I said somewhere that the book has a surreal feel to it, and I don't use the term lightly here.

Our narrator also recalls a conversation she had with her mother as a child, in which she was told that
"...that's just the way it is on this island. Things go disappearing, one by one..."
Continuing, her mother tells her that losing a memory "doesn't hurt," that
"One morning you'll simply wake up and it will be over, before you've even realized. Lying still, eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air, you'll feel that something has changed from the night before, and you'll know that you've lost something, that something has disappeared from the island."
As just one example of things that were "disappeared from the island" among many,  her mother explains to her about perfume:
"In those days, everyone could smell perfume. Everyone knew how wonderful it was. But no more. It's not sold anywhere, and no one wants it. It was disappeared the autumn of the year that your father and I were married. We gathered on the banks of the river with our perfume. Then we opened the bottles and poured out their contents, watching the perfume dissolve in the water like some worthless liquid. Some girls held the bottles up to their noses one last time -- but the ability to smell the perfume had already faded, along with all memory of what it had meant.  The river reeked for two or three days afterward, and some fish died. But no one seemed to notice. You see, the very idea of 'perfume' had been disappeared from their heads." 
At some point things get "back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it is that disappeared." 

One never knows what will disappear next -- various types of food, birds, hats, roses, photos, etc., --  but not all people lose the memories of what was, however, and to ensure that their dictates are followed, the Memory Police try to round up these people and take them away to some unknown location, the fate of the narrator's mother.   They are "men who are determined to see things disappear,"  and
"from their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable.  So they force it to disappear with their own hands."
 The narrator is a novelist, despite the fact that on the island, few people seem to have need for novels; interspersed throughout her story are pieces of the unsettling but telling story she is currently writing.  She works closely with her editor known only as R, and as the blurb notes, she discovers that because he is one of the people whose memories haven't disappeared, he is at risk of being taken away by the Memory Police.  She hits on a plan to hide him, and builds a secret space in her home where he can live in relative safety.  In the meantime, things on the island continue to disappear ...

  As author Silvia Moreno-Garcia says in her NPR review of this novel,
"If you view The Memory Police as one big, fat metaphor for state control -- and I'm sure many people will see it as that -- you'll probably find more pleasure in it than if you attempt to consider it in other terms."
While the Orwellian tag is beyond appropriate (I was downright haunted by the thought of what the Memory Police might cause to disappear next, and also by the matter of  complicity) there is most certainly much more going on here in terms of  isolation, memory, loss, and the self.  In this world, to forget is to survive,  but at what cost?


While I was at first curious about the island's backstory, hoping it would be explained, eventually  it just became easier to  accept that things are the way they are here, making the reading of this book much more of an experience in the long run.   I finished it well over a week ago one morning about 2 a.m., laid there thinking about it for another two hours, and it hasn't left my head yet.   It is one of the strangest books I've read, but honestly, for me, that's part of the appeal.

Recommended with the caveat that this is a novel that will likely leave readers with more questions than answers;  there is no explanation as to the why of things, described here as "the laws of the island;"  they just are.  It also has an ending that  might just leave people scratching their heads with a big WHAT? standing out in their minds, as so many readers have noted.   While it may not be everyone's cup of tea, I loved this book; then again, I'm very much drawn to novels that I've labeled "strange with purpose," so I'm not surprised.


****

real reviews
Silvia Moreno-Garcia,  NPR
Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today

Monday, September 9, 2019

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry


9781782116172
Canongate, 2019
213 pp
hardcover
(read in August)

"There's grief, and the longer we go on, the more of it we've the burden of."

"You look for quiet spaces in a life, Charles. And do you find them?"


I couldn't wait for the US publication of this novel, which happens September 17th,  so off to the UK it was for me via an online purchase.  Money well spent, as it turns out; when I finished it, I noticed my spouse staring at me like "what?" because I was a wee bit choked up on turning the last page.  It is such a fine book, really -- sad and moving with more than a touch of black humor, and for me, excellent. Then again, it's the work of Kevin Barry we're talking about so no surprise there.

It's October 2018, and two men "in their low fifties" are sitting on a bench at the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras, a place with a "haunted air, a sinister feeling" that "reeks of tired bodies, and dread."  Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are men for whom
" The years are rolling out like tide now.  There is old weather on their faces, on the hard line of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain -- just about -- a rakish air." 
Maurice has a "jaunty, crooked smile," that appears "with frequency."  Charlie's face has an "antique look, like a court player's, medieval, a man who'd strum his lute for you... Hot adulterous eyes and again a shabby suit... Also, stomach trouble, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble."

They are awaiting  Maurice's twenty-three year-old daughter Dilly, from whom he's been estranged for over three years. They've been told that she'll be headed for Tangier on the titular Night Boat or "possibly coming back" from there, and  while they wait they pass out flyers with her picture on them, look for and harass "crusty types" who might know something about Dilly.  We meet them as they are looking
"blithely at the faces that pass by in a blur of the seven distractions - love, grief, pain, sentimentality, avarice, lust, want-of-death." 
 As "the hours melt one into the other," during this "lizard night,"  they also spend time reflecting on the past.  Exactly how these two men have come to this point  is revealed via a series of flashbacks that encompass these "seven distractions" while recounting how their years  in the drug trade not only made their fortunes, but also took a tremendous toll on their lives and those of the people closest to them, leaving no one unscathed, most especially Dilly and her mother Cynthia. 




cover of the US edition, from Doubleday


Night Boat to Tangier is many things, the history of a friendship, a story of love and loss, but most especially it is a tale of the past that continues to haunt the present, in more ways than one. It is
"a tremendously Hibernian dilemma -- a broken family, all the melancholy rest of it..."
 and while it can verge into the morose and become brutal in places,  there's also a sort of humorous, witty edge that offsets things so that you don't find yourself stuck deep in "all the melancholy rest of it"  the entire time.  The back-and-forth bickering/repartee between Charlie and Maurice ranges between funny and heartbreaking at times, then there's the story of Maurice's doomed building site which just may be a fairy fort, two men watching tv and mouthing the words to Rumblefish while in a mental hospital ... sometimes you can't help but laugh. 

As with the two men waiting in the terminal whose stories manage to entrance some of their listeners, Kevin Barry has "woven a ring" that "shimmers" here, one that is "made of these odd, circling words."  The man is truly a gifted storyteller.

I loved this beautiful, haunting book. 

****

real reviews:
Nicole Flattery, The London Review of Books
Alan Warner, The Guardian


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A "novel-bomb" ... Harbart, by Nabarun Bhattacharya

9780811224734
New Directions, 2019
originally published 1994
translated by Sunandini Banerjee
122 pp

paperback

Every week I grab my copy of The New Yorker out of the mailbox, and before I do anything else, I turn to the "Briefly Noted" section for leads on new books to read.  [It's hell on the wallet, but so far I haven't been let down by my choices.]  In one of the July issues, I came across this title and knew I had to have it -- I just sensed it would one of those out-of-the-ordinary books I look for but rarely find.  I was so right.

This novel hits so many of my reader buttons it's unreal. Harbart is  political, gritty, loaded with satire and teeming with history, as well as social critique; it is sad but graced with a measure of dark humor that will leave you giggling when least expected,  and at times it not only teeters on the very edge of the fantastic, but gives it free rein.    It really is, as Siddhartha Deb says at The Paris Review website, "a novel that ticks like a bomb."  (FYI, Deb also provides the Afterword in this book, which is the same material found at Paris Review.)   It's also one of those stories where I enjoyed the dark humor but at the same time felt guilty for laughing.  I'm so impressed with Banerjee's translation -- it couldn't have been easy at all to carry this "novel-bomb" from its original Bengali to English with such relish and passion.

Without saying too much here, the novel begins with Harbart's suicide in 1992. From there it weaves its way through the story of what exactly prompted his death, introducing us to the main character who had lost his parents when he was just an infant.  His aunt is the only one who seems to actually care for him, along with his nephew Binu, who Harbart respects and admires.  As Harbart gets older, he becomes caught up in forces and events  greater than himself over which he has absolutely no control, a scenario which, by the way,  the author mirrors in the story he tells of Calcutta over Harbart's lifetime.   It is the death of this beloved nephew that strikes Harbart to his core and leads to his newly-found career as someone who can speak with the dead, a vocation that will eventually lead to  some unforeseen consequences of its own.

While the story itself is a great one and Harbart is one of the most hapless but lovable characters I've come across in a long time, there is so much more to be found here.  Siddhartha Deb notes in the Afterword that "Harbart's character does not encompass the novel as a whole," and that it focuses more on relationships
"between the individual and the scattered collective, between revolution and the afterlife, between cockroaches and fairies."
At the same time, "it is always about language."  So true.  So very, very true.  The author's writing is described on the back-cover blurb as "anarchic," which describes it perfectly.

With afterword and translator's notes, this book runs to only 122 pages, but don't let that fool you.  I started reading this book late one afternoon, but the 70-something pages I'd read replayed in my head over and over and over again until I actually got up at 4:30 in the morning to finish it.  That's  just the sort of novel it is.   I will say that for many readers it may be a challenge; as John Domini notes in his review at The Washington Post"the names alone can present a stumbling block," but sticking with it yields great rewards.  It is a book I will never forget; I am only frustrated because my few words here don't even begin to do it the justice it deserves.

I loved this book.


Friday, July 12, 2019

book excitement: new preorders. I'll definitely need more tea.

image from we❤it



Although I knew it would be deadly, I was just glancing through Lit Hub's "Most Anticipated Books of 2019, Part 2" from July 9 and got so excited that I couldn't help myself and preordered ten.   I'm not ashamed to admit that I have compulsive book buying disorder, but then again they're books I really want to read so I suppose that makes it okay on some level.     Here's the list -- a strange mix to be sure, but then again, that's my reading life:



Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah (Scribner)

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom (Grove Press)

The Promise, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

Forgotten Journey, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

False Bingo, by Jac Jemz (MCD/FSG Originals)

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf)

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, by Susanah Calahan (Grand Central)

Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, by Nina MacLaughlin (FSG Originals)

Mary Toft or The Rabbit Queen, by Dexter Palmer (Pantheon)

Dead Astronauts, by Jeff VanderMeer (MCD)


Luckily I have plenty of books to keep me busy in the meantime; otherwise I'd be going a little bit crazy with anticipation.    As it is I can't wait.  

and now, I must go to Nepali Tea Traders for more tea....