Monday, February 1, 2021

the book group read (January) ... Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens


Putnam, 2018
368 pp


This will be a relatively short post.  It happens sometimes that a book and I do not get along well, and this is one of those.   I didn't know that would happen when I selected it for my in-real-life book group -- it is highly rated and garners glowing praise among readers and critics alike so I thought we should give it a go.  While it is a book that prompted much discussion, I couldn't help it ... I just didn't like it.   

There were two things that I was most keen on when I made my decision for the group to read this book. One, the first paragraph of the  dustjacket blurb reveals that a murder occurred in 1969, and that the suspect among the locals was the so-called Marsh Girl, Kya Clark, so I thought "okay, it's a murder story, I'm down with that", and  two, the fact that the blurb referred to this book as an "ode to the natural world."   As someone who often spends weekends hiking trails in Florida's Everglades, I could get behind that also.  The nature writing in this book was indeed fine -- I loved being in the marsh as the author described it, being in Kya's boat as she navigated the estuaries, and the way in which this girl could read the landscape from an early age.  There were other things as well, among them the way in which the marsh had  formed this girl so that even into adult life she related to people by comparing them to the behaviors found among wildlife.  It's easy to understand why these sections were so strong, since prior to writing this novel Ms. Owens spent time living in the wild and authored three nonfiction books, one of them winning the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing in 1984.   The thing is though that as much as I enjoyed her forays into the natural world in this book, for me they weren't enough to save the story that played out here.   It was all too farfetched, too predictable, the characters were too stereotypical, it read like a YA novel, and the writing was just not strong enough to make it even halfway enjoyable.  The murder plot, which as an avid crime reader I was looking forward to, completely fizzled as it  was also predictable -- I knew who did it very early on.    At one point about a quarter of the way in, I was completely bored, and actually embarrassed enough that I sent my friend an email actually apologizing for choosing this book for the group.  

As I said in my goodreads post, that's me once again not agreeing with thousands of other people.  

I should know by now that just because a book is a bestseller doesn't necessarily mean it's good.  And quite honestly, me not liking this novel probably doesn't mean a thing to its author, since according to Wikipedia, by 2019 4.5 million copies had been sold.   I will say that going into it I really wanted to like it, but in the long run, it just wasn't my cup of tea.  And that's okay. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Dead Girls, by Selma Almada


Charco Press, 2020
originally published as Chicas muertas, 2014
translated by Annie McDermott
146 pp


I read this back in November but have reread it in the meantime, and it was even more powerful the second time through.  Dead Girls is described on the back cover as being a work of "journalistic fiction," defined as 
"a form of nonfiction that combines factual reporting with narrative techniques and stylistic strategies traditionally associated with fiction," 
used here to great effect to tell a story of three femicides that occurred over a short, six-year period in the 1980s, during which time Argentina was "celebrating its return to democracy."  The author's first exposure to femicide was at the age of thirteen, when as she says, a "dead girl crossed my path," although she also reveals that it was earlier,  during her childhood in a small town in Argentina's interior, that she came to sense that "as a girl"  she was safe nowhere, and that  "all the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet ... it was always your fault."   Not even the family home, "the protective family space,"  was safe, since violence could happen there as well.  That dead girl crossing the author's path was Andrea Danne (19),  who had been murdered in her own bed; the other two women whose stories she examines are Maria Luisa Quevado (15)  strangled, raped, body dumped,  and Sarita Mundin (20), a young mother whose body was discovered washed up on a riverbank.   As one might guess, this is not an uplifting story, but it is one that needs to be told.  Now. Today. 

Dead Girls chronicles the author's investigations into the deaths of these three women, whose murderers were never brought to justice.  Over the course of three years she meets and talks to their friends, family members, or to anyone who might have known anything about what had happened to them.  While some are willing to talk, in many cases she is met with silence and evasion.  She also combs through newspapers, reports, archives, while at the same time, reflecting on her own childhood and realizing that the topic of violence of women "was always there."  She remembers and discusses  conversations  about women in the neighborhood who were beaten by their husbands, or who were controlled by the men in their lives  to the point where, for example, wearing high heels was not allowed "because they were for whores," or  the wearing of make-up was forbidden.  As Ms. Almada says, these were discussions "grown women" spoke about "in whispers," while her mother talked about them "loudly, indignantly," before being told to be quiet (when children were present)  in code:  
"Careful, there's laundry hanging up ... as if saying those things were like saying dirty words, or worse, as if they were a source of unimaginable shame." 

While Dead Girls focuses on "three small-town girls murdered in the 1980s," their stories are set squarely within the wider context of  violence against women as she goes on to offer the names and brief stories of others who had met the same fate at the hands of men, as well as the  well-entrenched misogyny and commonplace violence that exists throughout the small towns in Argentina's interior.  This is not, as she also reveals, a new phenomenon, citing an account in a book that "catches her eye" about the case of a Polish girl from the 1950s who had the misfortune of having a boyfriend who was a "possessive, jealous and violent man." 

 In her Epilogue, before listing the names of femicide victims who died over the month's time  since the "new year began,"  the author writes that 

"In that time, at least ten women have been killed for being women. I say at least, because these are the names that appeared in the papers, the ones that counted as news"

leaving the reader to wonder about the ones who didn't count as news.  

As the back-cover blurb says, what she's written here is a "clear-eyed, multi-faceted account that has global resonance." While I recognize the huge importance of Selva Almada's book, at the same time, it's a very difficult book to read on an emotional level.  While reading it, I couldn't hep  thinking of Fernanda Melchior's Hurricane Season  -- in both books the authors offer a look into the economic and social conditions in these small towns that help to feed that violence, but also acknowledge  that crimes against women are all too often marginalized by the police or the politicians who have the power to change things but allow these crimes to continue.   

It's a tough book, but so worth it, and it's one I can very highly recommend.  I can also recommend Charco Press, a small but ultimately awesome publisher.  

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Tartar Steppe, by Dino Buzzati

Canongate, 2018
originally published as Il deserto dei Tartari, 1940
translated by Stuart Hood
275 pp


"...perhaps I might be some use if there was a war. Maybe I wouldn't. Perhaps in a war -- but otherwise no use at all..."

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the first page of this novel starts on the day that Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo has "looked forward to for years -- the beginning of his real life."  I didn't fully appreciate the impact of these words until after I'd finished The Tartar Steppe and went back to the beginning before closing the book.

It is on this day that Drogo leaves the city to start his posting at Fort Bastiani, beyond which is desert:
"Stones and parched earth -- they call it the Tartar Steppe."
The soldiers at Fort Bastiani are there, it seems,  to protect against a possible incursion by the Tartars, who may have lived in the desert "Long, long ago..." but have not been seen since.   On reaching the Fort, Drogo realizes that he may have made a mistake, but was convinced to "put up with staying" there for four months.  Late at night, unable to sleep, he starts to question his decision wondering if somehow his superiors wouldn't let him go after the four months were up, unable to keep his thoughts from wandering to the possibility that he may have to
"stay up there for years and years, in this room, in this solitary bed."
He is warned by the brother of the Fort's tailor  to "see that you leave as soon as possible, that you don't catch their madness"  --    a "kind of illness" common among soldiers who believe that "Great things are coming and that "something must happen."   It is imperative, the old man tells him, to 
"Watch will let them convince you, you'll end up by staying here too." 

Drogo refuses to accept this, believing himself  to be "an outsider, an uncontaminated spectator," who will be leaving them forever in just "four months' time." However, at the end of the four-month period, he's decided to stay, having become used to things and having 

"within him dull sluggishness born of habit, military vanity, love for the accustomed walls which were his home." 

As time goes by, he slowly becomes more entrenched at the Fort as he and the men there continue to wait for the "enemy to advance across the steppe, for one great and glorious battle." None of the officers ever utter the word war, as "in it lies their hope," and Drogo waits for "something different," something 
"truly worthy of him, so that he could say: Now it is over and I have done what I could." 
While all at Fort Bastiani continue to wait over the years, Drogo discovers that life in the city has "become completely foreign to him," that it is now "a world of strangers where his place had been easily filled."  His old friends marry and have families, while Drogo's opportunities come and he lets them pass.  Eventually he finds himself  unable to hold back the "mysterious flood" as 
"Everything goes by -- men, the seasons, the clouds, and there is no use clinging to the stones, no use fighting it out on some rock in midstream; the tired fingers open, the arms fall back inertly and you are still dragged into the river, the river which seems to flow so slowly yet never stops"

as his years of expectations fade away into years of emptiness, and as his life becomes no more than an existence as barren as the Tartar Steppe.    And it just might be, according to Buzzati, that Drogo may have been deluding himself all along;  he may just be "an ordinary mortal for whom only a mediocre fate is reserved." 

The Tartar Steppe speaks to a life of waiting and hoping for something that may never happen, walling oneself off from everything while hoping for that moment of  meaning in one's life.    It's a good thing I don't mind reading bleak, because this book is one of the bleakest.   At the same time though, it is a beautiful and haunting piece of writing and I'm absolutely kicking myself for having let it sit on my shelves forever.  This one I can very highly recommend, but leave the introduction by Tim Parks until the end.  

I loved this book. Absolutely.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

tissues a must: Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart


Grove Press, 2020
423 pp

(read earlier this month)

Quite honestly, had I not seen this book on the Booker Prize longlist, I may have never read it and that would have been a shame.   I nearly passed on it after reading the back-cover blurb by Sandra Newman who described the book as 
"an intimate and frighteningly acute exploration of a mother-son relationship and a masterful portrait of alcoholism in Scottish working-class life..." 
because  my initial impression was that this is yet another book about yet another dysfunctional family and I have been avoiding that sort of thing for some time.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  As it turns out, Shuggie Bain not only turned out to be a great book, but also one that now, ten days after finishing, I'm still thinking about and still talking about to anyone who will listen.  

While the novel opens in 1992, the bulk of this story takes place during the 1980s.  Hugh "Shug" Bain, his wife Agnes and their three children are all living in Glasgow, in a "high-rise flat" they share with Agnes' parents.   Agnes had been married before to Brendan McGowan, the father of Catherine and Alexander (who goes by the name of Leek); Shuggie (Hugh Jr.) came along after she'd left Brendan and married Hugh.  Agnes spends time reflecting on happier times, and  has dreams of a better life, but all too often alcohol gets in the way.   On one particular night while Shug and the older two children are out and Agnes' parents are watching TV,  she is feeling somewhat sorry for herself and decides that she and Shuggie should "have a wee party."  He dances for her, makes her laugh, and to keep her laughing, 
"he did whatever had caused her to laugh another dozen times till her smile stretched thin and false, and then he searched for the next move that would make her happy." 
The night ends with Agnes singing along with the music, "her voice cracked with the poor me's," then deliberately setting the bedroom curtains on fire.  The pattern of her "poor me's" while drinking and Shuggie searching for "the next move that would make her happy" will continue over the years, as the Bain family (minus Catherine, who's married and gone abroad) leaves Glasgow for a house Hugh had bought in desolate Pithead, and as Hugh decides he can't stay with her any longer because of her "wanting" and "All that drinking."

The remainder of the novel takes us through Shuggie's childhood and his relationship with Agnes as  her drinking becomes worse.  Although Leek tries to look out for the family, eventually he is unable to take much more and leaves Agnes to Shuggie's care, not always easy for this young boy who is also trying to deal with his own growing pains, including, as the dustjacket cover says, a feeling that he is "no right."  

This is just a thumbnail sketch, of course -- I haven't said anything about the times or the Thatcher era policies that sadly left so many people out of work, nor have I said anything about Glasgow as a setting or the bleak landscape of Pithead that mirrors the bleakness of the lives of the working-class families who live there.  That's all to be discovered  in the novel, so vibrantly and yet so achingly described. 

My worries about this book completely dissipated once I got into it, and it came to be a story not just about an alcoholic mother, but of the boy who loves her so unconditionally and so deeply despite all of her failings as a parent -- as he said to her at one point, "I'd do anything for you."  It was difficult to watch Shuggie take on so much at such a young age, having to deal with Agnes' ups and downs; at the same time, the intensity of his devotion to his mother fairly leaps off of the pages, even during the worst of times.   Agnes presents as a character in conflict, but she was also an object of my sympathy.  As frustrated as I was with her most times, there were times when I couldn't help but admire her fortitude.  As we're told in Chapter 20, 
"She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but ... Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise."
Shuggie Bain is the author's first novel, and it is absolutely gorgeous.  While it is bleak, there are parts here and there that will make you laugh, and the book leaves you with a small bit of hope at the end.  I made it through the story dry eyed, but I must have been holding everything inside while reading because the minute I read the last word, the floodgates opened and I had to run for tissues.   I can't stress enough the beauty to be found here, and it is a book I very highly, highly, highly recommend.  

One final thought:  From the author in The New Yorker, September 7 2020:
"Shuggie and Agnes feel like real people to me. I only hope that I can make them proud."

I'm sure you did, sir, especially Agnes.  Very much so. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O'Farrell


Knopf, 2020
300 pp


"... I may run mad with it."

Certainly one of the most absorbing novels I've read this year, Hamnet paints such a moving picture of  loss, grief and pain that at certain  points I had to put the book down just to get out of Agnes' world and back into mine.  

The dustjacket blurb reveals only a brief glimpse into this story, concluding with the following:
"...a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time..."
The play, of course, is Shakespeare's Hamlet, written about "four years or so later" after the death of his son Hamnet.  As O'Farrell explains in a segment of NPR's All Things Considered,  
"spelling in -- of course, in Elizabethan times was a lot less stable, so Hamnet and Hamlet are, in fact, the same name name."

 In the same segment, the author explains that at 16 she was studying the play, and her English teacher happened to mention "in passing" the fact that Shakespeare had a son.  Her thought at the time was to wonder "what does it mean for a man like Shakespeare to call a tragedy like this after his dead son?"

In this book, she reimagines how this came about, and does so without mentioning Shakespeare by name at all, explaining to host Mary Louise Kelly that 

"He's the husband, or he's the father or the playwright or the actor. I needed people in a sense to forget who he is. I wanted them to think about him as a human being."

She also says that Hamnet, as a person, has been "really overlooked," and indeed Hamnet is the first person encountered on opening the novel, knowing that he needs to get help for his twin sister Judith who unbeknownst to her brother has been infected by the bubonic plague.  Scouring the house and the streets for his mother, he is unable to locate her or anyone else, and you can just feel his panic rapidly rising as he searches and waits.  The reader also has to wait for help to arrive since the next chapter goes back in time, introducing the young man who through some hinky business dealings of his father, is forced to serve as Latin tutor to the younger sons of a yeoman as part of a "debt or a fine" which his father "cannot--will not? -- pay."  It is while doing this job that he meets Agnes ("Ann-yis. Agnyez") , whom at first he mistakes for a young man "wearing a cap, a leather jerkin, gauntlets...," holding a bird on "his outstretched fist."   The novel alternates between present and past, as we learn the personal and family histories of both parties since their respective childhoods, including Agnes' skills in the ways of nature, her upbringing, her pleasures and pain as wife and mother, and the absent father that her husband becomes, unable to stay at home, going off to London to seek his fortune only to eventually find that fame which keeps him there for longer periods of time.  

The Shakespeare Family, from The Guardian 

In the present, as Judith becomes ill,  Hamnet succumbs as well.  Death spares his sister; it is he who dies.  While no one at the time had ever recorded the actual cause, O'Farrell fills in the blank with bubonic plague, offering an excellent few pages of describing how it made its way to Judith  via a glassmaker in Murano. Agnes is frantic, as none of her healing knowledge helps save him; she feels guilty for being away when her children needed her, for being  "an absent mother," missing "the unheard cry" of her son, something that will "lie at her very core, for the rest of her life:"

"Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's...."
 Hamnet's death is the catalyst for Agnes' deep and painful spiral into a grief that cannot be assuaged and affects not only her but everyone around her.    As much as she would like to "unmake the skein of Hamnet's death," she also knows that for all of her pain, the world will keep spinning, indifferent to her pain,  and that 
"There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only one way."

 There is so much anger and hurt in this woman that as a mom myself,  it was often unbearable to watch her going through such a depth of anguish and pain at the loss of her child, while Hamnet's father continually looks for him "everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience" to the point where, as he says, "I may run mad with it."  

David Mitchell and Liza Tarbuck from Upstart Crow  -- after the death of Hamnet.  It's the one episode across the entire series that gave me lumps in the throat and a good cry.  From Luke McKernan

Hamnet is a fine example of historical fiction, a fine re-imagining of the "overlooked" Hamnet and his death, but above all, it gives Anne Hathaway whose life is also somewhat of an enigma,  an identity as a strong woman who had to endure so much on her own. I did find it to be sometimes for my taste too overly detailed, with every herb, every remedy, every this and every that of the period eventually finding its way onto the pages.   It was just too much, and I would often find myself skimming these parts because really, I just wanted to get on with the story. Unlike a lot of historical fiction fans who love this stuff, it often becomes tedious for me until it's time to just move on.     I also found the prose a bit on the overwrought and heavy-handed side at times which dropped this book from a loving it to liking it status.  However, the story itself is so good that I was utterly absorbed in it from the very start and had trouble letting it go, and it is a book I can recommend.   Warning: you may need tissues.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Mystery of Henri Pick, by David Foenkinos

Pushkin, 2020
originally published as La Mystere Henri Pick, 2016
translated by Sam Taylor
270 pp


"This novel changed lives." 

My curiosity was more than aroused by the idea that Pushkin Press would be partnering with Walter Presents "for a series of timeless novels with strong international appeal."   The books chosen have been "handpicked" by Walter Iuzzolino himself, whose long-running Walter Presents has been a tv staple in my house for several years, even before the move to PBS in 2018, so there was no doubt that I would be buying this novel.  I've also preordered Walter's second Pushkin pick, The Second Life of Inspector Canessa, due out here in the US January of 2021. 

I admit to being a bit surprised as I started reading this book, as most of the time Walter tends to lean toward international crime.  The Mystery of Henri Pick, as I discovered, is much more on the lighter side than I'd expected.  At first it was a bit discombobulating not having the full-fledged crime/mystery novel I thought I'd bought, so I had to regroup, let go of my original expectations and move on.  Once I relaxed, the book became a fun read, albeit with a slightly serious edge.

In the small town of Crozon in Brittany, librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec had set aside a space at the municipal library "for the world's homeless manuscripts," inspired by his reading of The Abortion by American writer Richard Brautigan.   After placing ads in trade magazines "inviting all authors" to bring their rejected books to his library,  writers throughout the country came to
"rid themselves of the fruits of their failure. It was a sort of literary pilgrimage. There was a symbolic value in travelling hundreds of miles to put an end to the frustrations of not being published."
Meanwhile, in Paris, Delphine Despero has gone to work for Grasset, hired as a junior editor for this publishing firm. It was in this context that she met and fell for a young, aspiring writer by the name of Frédriéc Koskas who later accompanied her on a trip to the home of her parents in the village of Morgat, near Crozon.  Delphine is curious after hearing about the library of rejected books, and after  the pair make couple of visits, Delphine takes one of the manuscripts, The Last Hours of a Love Affair away with her and becomes throroughly enchanted with it, ultimately deciding that it absolutely had to be published.  The book's author is one Henri Pick, now deceased, but who used to run a pizzeria in Crozon.  As the dustjacket blurb  informs, "The book is an immediate sensation, prompting fevered interest in the identity of its author."  Curiosity grows about Henri Pick, not just for the journalist who wonders how this pizza chef could write such a novel, but also for his family, who'd never even seen him pick up a book, let alone spend time writing.   The publication of Pick's work also sets off a number of "unforeseen consequences" which make up the bulk of The Mystery of Henri Pick, as it is definitely a novel that "changed lives." 

This book fortuitously arrived at a point when I needed something mind-refreshing, something on the lighter side, and the author threw a few hours of happy reading my way.    Author David Foenkinos noted that his book is "a playful reflection of the literary world,"  as well as a "tribute to books and literature and to the writers that have long been heroes of mine," and I have to admit that I couldn't help feeling rather guilty every time he mentioned a title that has been sitting on my shelves, sadly neglected and sadly unread.  The story is definitely "playful," and while I loved the literary references as well as the great love for books and literature displayed throughout, for my taste it goes too much into the private lives/soul searching of all of the characters affected by the publication of Pick's book, making it drag a bit in the reading after a while and sometimes turning toward the "cutesy" side which is just not my cuppa.  I also want to say that the dustjacket makes a lot of the "obstinate journalist," but in reality, he takes up far less space than I would have thought from the book's description.    But then came the ending which  I can only describe as completely unexpected and which I greeted with mental applause and a silent shout of bravo in my head.  Now to watch the film.

Overall, it's fun, it's lighthearted, and we can all use some of that happening in our lives at the moment. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor

New Directions, 2020
originally published 2016 as Temporada de huracanes
translated by Sophie Hughes
207 pp


The discovery of a corpse floating in an irrigation canal near a small rural village opens this most harrowing novel.  The person known as "the Witch" has been killed;  the question of who is responsible and why is asked and answered here, but it quickly becomes apparent that this book is not just a simple murder mystery.  In Hurricane Season, the author explores the hopelessness and the violence that plagues this small village as well as the myriad forces that shape and perpetuate it.

  The narratives of four different but interconnected characters living in the village of La Matosa form the very core of this book, moving the story forward (although not always in linear fashion)  from their various vantage points.  Each one takes us somewhat closer to the crime as well as to an understanding of the character of the Witch herself.  It is telling that she remains voiceless here while her presence remains central to everything.  Since these stories happen to build from one another however,  any certainty you may have gained from one person is quickly shaken as seeds of doubt begin to creep into your mind with the next, often changing your perspective and understanding. Yet as they relate what they know (or think they know) about the Witch and events that may have led to her murder, taken together these accounts paint a grim picture of a more collective reality of life in the village of La Matosa, a place one character refers to as "the ass end of nowhere," a place where the inhabitants  have been passed by, ignored or forgotten on many levels.    What we find in their lives reveals much about these people, especially  their dreams of escape from a hopeless future while stuck in a society where abandonment, poverty, misery, and violence of all sorts never seem to end.   What's more, the institutions that could make a difference don't seem to work here:  families break down,  religion and superstition mingle into one and neither the government nor the law bring any sort of justice.

I have opted not to detail any of the plot since the less a potential reader knows about what happens here the better.  What I will say is that as truly bleak as it is,  I thought this novel was brilliant and unflinchingly honest on so many levels, and that as the dustjacket blurb says, the author did manage to "extract some tiny shred of humanity from these characters" that leaves room for empathy and understanding.  More importantly, the novel underscores a number of ongoing horrors plaguing parts of Mexico, including narcotrafficking, homophobic prejudice and violence, and especially femicide.

 I read an article about Hurricane Season a few days ago in which the author is quoted as saying about this book (you'll have to trust my translation here):
"Of course, it's a love novel, only the characters never find it. It's something you lack so much that you don't even know what's it like. And even if they find it, it doesn't matter, because what good if everyone is drowning, it's all fucked up."
Reading Hurricane Season made me very uncomfortable for a number of reasons, two of which I'll name. First, there's an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pervades this book, and I'm left with the feeling that the future holds little resolution to the underlying problems that exist in La Matosa leaving things to continue on as usual.   Second, while I loved the writing style, the language is just brutal and raw; the author doesn't hesitate to use some pretty foul words and her portrayal of heartbreaking sexual abuse is just downright ugly.   Then again, I had to ask myself how someone could otherwise write a book that captures "the brutal force of male vice,"  rage that doesn't quit, and the sense of it all being so "fucked up," and I couldn't come up with an answer.