Friday, March 15, 2019

Mrs. Rossi's Dream, by Khanh Ha

Not too long ago (and borrowing from Rodgers and Hammerstein),  I was that girl who cain't say no.  As a result, I had tons of books to read from Netgalley, from various publishers, and from people who organized book tours for various bloggers.  At first it was great and there were books arriving at my door on a daily basis.  But there was also a downside --  I started noticing that I had little time for the books I'd been buying that were starting to seriously pile up.   So with a few exceptions,  I quit accepting offers and got back to my own tomes which had been sadly neglected, and became a much happier person.  But I will always make time when asked if I would like to  read a novel by indie author  Khanh Ha, who has been the recipient of several awards for his fiction.  Mrs. Rossi's Dream is his third novel, and in my opinion, the best he's written.


9781975625689
The Permanent Press, 2019
312 pp
my copy from the author, thank you!!!!


Once again, the author takes us into the vivid but harrowing landscapes of Vietnam.  The Lower U Minh National Reserve in the Mekong Delta  is teeming with life, but at the same time  it is also a place of death.   During the years of the Vietnam War,  as we are reminded, it was the "territory of IV Corps," but it was also home to North Vietnamese forces and the Vietnamese civilians who lived there. Heavy casualties on all sides were suffered in the area, where all too often the bodies were not recovered -- in this place, "The dead remain where they died."  


U Minh Ha, from Vietnam Tourism


Some twenty miles south of there, a couple in their late sixties own and operate a roadside inn for tourists, many of  whom come to visit the National Reserve.  Every day the husband takes a shovel and digs in the same spot, pulls out a bone from his pockets, and buries it.  When the narrator of this story, Le Giang, asks the woman what he is doing, she remarks that their son, who had been an ARVN soldier during the war, had been killed in combat twenty years earlier but they had never recovered his body.   This scene sort of sets the tone for what's coming, when a Mrs. Rossi arrives at the inn with her adopted daughter. Her son,  Nicola Rossi was an American lieutenant who had served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and had died during a firefight in the forest when a mortar blew up.  He had been trapped beneath the trunk of a fallen cajeput tree; missed by the Viet Cong who likely would have shot him in the head had they seen him.    Like the old man at the inn, her son's body had never been recovered; she has come to the area hoping to locate his remains and to make another connection with him by visiting the River of White Lilies, a place she knows he'd been.     She has nothing to go on except a crude map drawn by someone who served under Lieutenant Rossi, her dream of finding him, and a guide who knows the area like the back of his hand and who has taken many people on the same sort of mission. 

  It is her  arrival that sets the story moving into different directions,  mixing the past with present,  as both the living and the dead draw on their memories to reveal not only stories of the Vietnam War and its aftermath,  but also to reveal how in some cases, humanity manifested itself as compassion in some very unexpected ways.  Mrs. Rossi's Dream is a most human story at its core, underscored by the idea that 
"When you held a fragment of bone in your hands, or a skull marred with spiderweb cracks, you couldn't tell if it was Vietnamese or American." 
It is also a story that gives prominence to the dead, which comes as no surprise in this setting.  As just one example,  there is an excellent short chapter in which a young woman draws on her childhood memories to describe a nighttime visit to a strange marketplace at the site of a deserted village that had been "shelled to ash." While wondering about the "eerie stillness"  of it all, she learns that at just past midnight at the beginning of the Lunar Year the dead return from "their yin world into our yang world" in order to "enjoy again our worldly pleasures for one brief moment."

I will say that while I enjoyed the book overall, I thought that there were a couple of scenes that could have been left out with no problem. As far as the ending,  I'm of two minds there. While it is poignant, realistically speaking what happens probably isn't practical at all; at the same time in a story where the dead speak and walk the yang world, well, I suppose anything could happen.  I will also say that the novel is probably not going to appeal to readers who rely on total realism to enjoy a novel.  Thankfully, I don't,  and I think the way in which the author has constructed this book was the right one.   


*******
I read Mrs. Rossi's Dream as part of a book tour, and at the tour's website there is an interview with the author as well as a schedule of other readers' blog/goodreads thoughts about this novel.  If anyone's interested, there's also a link for a giveaway as well.  My many, many  thanks to Khanh Ha for my copy. As I said earlier, I believe that this is best he's written so far and I will certainly look forward to reading his next book.





Sunday, March 3, 2019

All My Goodbyes, by Mariana Dimópulos

"I had as many pieces as a broken vase, and I never found a way to put them back together or even to number my porcelain remains."  


9781945492150
Transit Books, 2019
originally published as Cada despedida, 2010
translated by Alice Whitmore (who did a brilliant job here!)
125 pp
 paperback


The truth of the matter is that I bought this book expecting that it was going to be a crime novel, and while there is a murder, All My Goodbyes turned out to be something completely unexpected, another one of those books where I had to sit for a while trying to wrap my head around what I'd just read.   It begins quite simply as the unnamed narrator ("In Málaga I called myself Luisa; in Barcelona, Lola") reveals something of herself in the first paragraph:
"It's the same thing time and time again, shamelessly, tirelessly. It doesn't matter whether it's morning or night, winter or summer. Whether the house feels like home, whether somebody comes to the door to let me in. I arrive, and I want to stay, and then I leave."  
Her arrivals and departures move her to a series of cities over the following decade; she will go from Buenos Aires, away from her life with her father,  to different cities in Europe and then back to Argentina again, where she ends up in Patagonia, on a farm near El Bolsón.   Within those places she's lived in different rooms of different hostels and houses, taken on different jobs and different lovers, yet there was a sameness about her "pilgrim years," in that
"..staying put was not an option, those years spent in a kind of conspiracy with habit and daily routine, despite myself, but always with a ticket under my arm, or perhaps up my dirty sleeve, always with a passage to somewhere else at the ready. I would always arrive with the intention of staying. And even then I wouldn't stay."  
As she also says, "it was all about arriving," something to keep in mind as you read.

Then on page two we learn that after
"all those years lost and won and lost again, after testing a thousand times the raw stock of my being, which never seemed to cook; when at last I had found a man and I had loved him, they called me up so I could see how the story ended, the living room covered in blood from wall to wall, the ransacked house, the abandoned axe. " 
All My Goodbyes is not written chronologically, however, so while we do get glimpses of her life here and there as she sifts through her memories while going over the murder in her head,  the emphasis is on place rather than on time.  There are short bursts of her recollections of  Heidelberg, Berlin, Málaga, etc., sometimes made all at once, as she offers observations about herself and the people in her life during that time, the people to whom she said all of her goodbyes during those years.   She views herself as a woman in pieces, a woman of different identities always on the move, searching for something, never finding it.   It's only when she comes back to Argentina at the end of that decade that she realizes that she has the opportunity to finally become "a magnificent animal: soft, compact, whole;" it is at the farm where she can see herself with a chance to
"recline without a shred of skepticism, trusting completely in the resilience of chairs and beds" 
 but obviously, things don't quite work out as planned.

I get that some people weren't so enamored with the style, the nonlinear approach and lack of any particular chronology, and to each his/her own,  but actually I don't think the book would have turned out to be as powerful as it was had it been written any other way.   Admittedly, it does take a bit of time to get into the rhythm of the writing style and it is a bit disorienting at first before things start to click.  The lack of a timeline didn't bother me -- I had the feeling that time was less the issue as the author allowed past and present to exist side by side in the form of these brief bursts of  memory. 

Movement, detachment, alienation, and dislocation in this story all loom large here but at the same time, the author also lays down the foundation for a suspenseful read at the beginning and allows it to build slowly.  While I have no intention of spoiling things, the ending is a bit of a shocker that left me thinking for quite a long time about the implications of what I'd just read.  I  very much appreciate the originality in terms of style and story; I get so tired of same old same old and this book is dark and refreshingly different .  And while there's way more to talk about here, I'll call it a day and link to a couple of reviews by people whose intellect goes well past that of my casual-reader self and who actually know what they're doing. 

Recommended for patient readers who appreciate originality and inventiveness.

 Kirkus
James Errington at Mascara
Anna McDonald at 3:a.m. Magazine




Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield


 

9780743298070
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2018
461 pp

hardcover

"...he must exist forever in between the two states..."

"Grief is a powerful force, and who knows to what a man might be driven when his child is lost to him." 



England, at some point in the late nineteenth century.  It is solstice night, the "longest night of the year."  Everyone knows that it is 
"a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen."
Whether or not the solstice had something to do with the "strange events at the Swan," well, that is but one of the questions that arise in this story, and as we're told,  the answer is a matter of judgment on the part of the reader. 

The Swan at Radcot, just a day's walk from the source of the Thames, is a "very ancient inn," well known for its centuries-old "specialty" of storytelling.  As this story begins, Joe Bliss, the husband of the landlady, is just beginning a story of his own to entertain his customers when, as the dustjacket blurb reveals, something "extraordinary" happens.   At a time "late for a newcomer," the door opens, and in walks a man carrying what turns out to be a little girl.  He collapses, the local nurse is sent for, and finds that the girl is dead.   However, as the dustjacket reveals (so this isn't a spoiler), while the locals at the Swan are contemplating these strange events, a "miracle" occurs:  some time later the little girl opens her eyes, fully alive but mute.   As the word gets out about this "impossible event," at this point in the story, as in the case of the "streams and rivulets" that feed into the Thames,  the author brings in "tributaries" to add their own "volume and momentum" to this strange story.  These come in the form of the people who may have some claim on the child at the Swan.   I do believe that's all I should say at the moment about this book, since everything later, if you will, begins to flow from that point.

The author nicely interweaves folklore, superstition and legends into this book, which is at its heart a story about storytelling and grief; it is much more character driven rather than one relying on plot.  The legend that continually pops up, unsurprisingly, is that of  of Quietly the ferryman.  As the story goes,  his daughter went missing, and three days later was found dead downstream.  A year later, her mother gets a shock when her daughter returns, telling her mother she'd been "on the other side of the river," where her Daddy had come for her. But a price had been paid: it had cost him his life, and "it cost him his death too."    The ferryman, it is said, "for all eternity,"  exists "forever in between the two states,"  watching the river, helping those who "get into trouble" there to make it home safely.  If it is "their time," though, he "sees them to the other side of the river."  An understanding of this particular story among all of the stories told here, I think, is part of the key of reading these characters, who each in his or her own way, sort of exist "in between...two states."  I won't go into it so as not to wreck things,  but my own reading took that particular approach and it worked very well.

I do have to admit that after the initial events occur at the Swan, the story sort of meandered (it seems I can't get away from the river metaphor here) a bit, picking up for me somewhere around page 150, where, coincidentally, the full story of the ferryman appears.  At that point things started to click in my head and come more into focus, and then I didn't want to put this book down.  There were times I felt that where a particular story (this is after all a book of several stories) was heading became  a bit too obvious, and toward the end I ran into what I felt was a bit of awkward, even cringeworthy  (actually, pretty bad) dialogue between a father and his son that could have come right out of the The Empire Strikes Back. On the flip side, though,the story of the little girl captured me and   I did enjoy the focus on the natural world as well as the interplay, again quoting the dustjacket, of "folklore and science, magic and myth."   In her two previous novels, she has focused on these elements, as well as the nature of grief, a huge theme here,  in crafting some pretty captivating stories within stories, and she's done it again here.   Don't worry if you're not into what just might be a supernatural edge in your reading; as I said in the beginning, if it is or isn't is up to you.

Just a final word:  if you play by the 50-page rule and give up on this book early on,  you'll be sorry.  I know, because while I don't have a set limit about when to let go, I ended up giving it a chance when I thought it was going nowhere,  which was in my case, a very good decision.

Monday, November 26, 2018

continuing to work through my shelves of long-neglected books: The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster, by Robert Edric





0312288891
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press,1992
first US edition, 2002
hardcover
369 pp


"She's seen us coming, opened a door for us and then slammed it tight shut behind us." 



The US edition of this book came out in 2002, so it has been sitting on my shelf for the last sixteen years, and it's another one I'm kicking myself for not reading sooner.    In The Broken Lands, as the dustjacket blurb says, the author has chosen as his subject the 1845-1848 Franklin mission to discover the Northwest Passage and "re-creates what may have happened to this doomed expedition."



To this day nobody really  knows what happened to the men who sailed with Franklin on HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.  Along with important scientific discoveries, there has also been a lot of speculation and theorizing, but despite everything that's been discovered since this book was first published (including the discovery of the two ships in the Canadian Arctic),  the mystery remains.  Truth be told, I love a mystery, and it's that sense of the unknown that has drawn me to anything written about the Franklin Expedition, fiction or nonfiction.  The author has given us what I feel is a  plausible story here, and his research is highlighted throughout this book in which  he incorporates the historical facts into his account, which begins and ends with James Fitzjames of the Erebus  It is largely through his eyes that the story unfolds.

As the dustjacket blurb reminds us,  "The Broken Lands" is "a treacherous labyrinth of ice through which the fabled Northwest Passage was sought for centuries."   The book is not unexpectedly bleak, with the men eventually succumbing one by one to their long ordeal.  While the expedition starts on a high note with hurrahs and hopes for success, as time goes by the mission becomes one of survival and desperation.  While there are ongoing mentions of possible human causes contributing to this disaster,  in the end it comes down to the ice as the true master of them all.  As Harry Goodsir, the assistant physician and scientist notes:
"We pin our hopes on brute strength and ingenuity and whereas the latter might be the most admirable and readily acknowledged of our qualities, deep down we are convinced that without the former it is all to no avail...Look around you. What have we done but pitted our strength against the ice, barging and blasting our way into this miserable dead-end? where is the ingenuity of that?" 
Or, even more fittingly, while ice masters  Reid and Blanky set out in late August to assess the nature of the ice and to seek out possibilities of a lead by which the ships might escape, Blanky realizes exactly what they're up against:
"Nine summers out of ten we wouldn't have come halfway from Barrow Strait to get here...She's seen us coming, opened a door for us and then slammed it tight shut behind us."
I see that several readers weren't as fond of this book as I was, and that's okay.  A lot of people found the first chapter of the book a bit boring, but I saw a lot of foreshadowing here in terms of attitudes toward the Eskimos and  of the fate of  the expedition itself.   As I said, I wasn't at all disappointed with this book. 

Since I'm just a casual reader and not a reviewer/writer,  I'll link to what I think is the best review of this novel, found here,  written by Russell Potter whose blog Visions of the North  I discovered a couple of years ago.   Not only is he extremely knowledgeable about the Arctic, but his review says everything I would say if I could actually write one.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, by Luigi Pirandello



9781943679072
Spurl Editions, 2018
originally published 1926 as Uno, Nessuno e Centomila
translated by William Weaver
paperback



"The capacity for deluding ourselves that today's reality is the only true one, on the one hand sustains us, but on the other, it plunges us into an endless void, because today's reality is destined to prove delusion for us tomorrow, and life doesn't conclude.  It can't conclude. Tomorrow if it concludes, it's finished." 


***
One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand is a novel which, in the author's words,  "deals with the disintegration of the personality. " It is a very dark read, in which a man  reaches a most extreme "cure" for the "sickness" that all started with  a conversation between a husband and wife about his nose.  Once his eyes have been opened to the awareness that his nose tilts, twenty-eight year old Vitangelo Moscarda finds himself  in a serious existential crisis.  While that may seem to be a somewhat absurd premise, the story that develops from that point is anything but, as Moscardo's sense of reality and self awareness veers off course and he becomes determined to untangle his true self from all of the others that have been constructed for him.

It is the initial short exchange that begins this novel between Moscarda [aka Gengè, a name (and likewise a self!)  given to him by his wife Dida] and his spouse that sets the stage for all that is to follow.  She wants to know what he's doing standing in front of the mirror looking at his nose.  He tells her he's looking inside one of his nostrils, which, when pressed, makes him feel a little pain. It is then that Dida changes the course of Moscarda's life by saying that she thought he was "looking to see which way it tilts." She clued him in to other things as well that he didn't know about himself: 
"My eyebrows stood over my eyes like two circumflex accents, ^ ^, my ears were badly placed, one protruded more; and there were other shortcomings..."
It isn't so much that the "slight defects" have any importance to him, but Moscarda's personality is such that he is prone to "plunge...into absysses of reflection and consideration," so her comments start him pondering.  In serious contemplation of his tilted nose, he starts to wonder if it was possible that he didn't even know his own body, but even more importantly, he begins to question whether other people had been aware of his tilted nose all along. As he says,
"And I didn't know, and, not knowing, I believed everyone saw me as a Moscarda with a straight nose, whereas everyone saw a Moscarda with a bent nose."
It is then that the "first germ of the sickness" started taking root, as he became "obsessed" by the thought that "for others I was not what till now, privately, I had imagined myself to be."  And if that was the case, he wondered, "if for the others I was not what the one I had always believed I was for myself, who was I?"  This obsession begins to grow as he engages in "pantomimes ... at every mirror in the house," discovering "the outsider, opposite me, in the mirror,"  but never his "self," making him "no one." He also realizes that it is not his real self that others see, but rather the Moscarda who is constructed by different people from different points of view in different contexts,  "the hundred thousand Moscardas that I was..." In order to free himself from their perceptions, and to get down to truth of who he really is,  he comes up with the idea of an "experiment of the destruction of a Moscarda."   In short, as the blurb from the Spurl edition states,
"his self-examination quickly becomes relentless, dizzying, leading to often darkly comic results as Vitangelo decides that he must demolish that version of himself that others see."
What I've posted here is just the rudimentary plot, and doesn't even begin to convey the depth of this fine, dark, and mind-boggling novel. 

I love books which explore perceptions of self and others and the delusions inherent within  (my true raison d'être for reading), but  One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand is unlike anything I've read before, presenting a portrait of a fragmented and torn man whose understanding of his own misperceptions of  his self set him on a path that takes him smack into the  "endless void" of the quotation I placed at the beginning of this post.  It is frightening on one hand, comic on the other, and all the while we are caught in Moscarda's head as he undergoes his "sickness", in which was found the "remedy" that would eventually cure him. It's extreme, and for me, a bit sad,  to say the least. 

 I won't lie to you -- the book is challenging, philosophical in nature, and in my opinion, it requires the reader to stop and think along the way and even more so at the end of this story, which makes it right up my reading alley.   One more thing: for anyone who might wonder how a book written in 1926 is relevant to our times, I'll refer you to social media, an entire universe of constructed realities.

My huge thanks to Eva at Spurl for my copy of this book; it is so disturbing that it will probably never get out from underneath my skin.  I loved every second of it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

another hidden treasure discovered on the shelves: The Vet's Daughter, by Barbara Comyns

9781590170298
NYRB Classics, 2003
152 pp

paperback

I've been sitting here trying to think of ways to describe this book, and no matter what I write, it seems that nothing I can say can give it the justice it deserves.  It's one of the rare few novels that left me sitting  in my chair unable to move for a while, unable to stop thinking, and it followed me on into the rest of my day.  While I was completely absorbed in this story, I was even more impressed and carried away because of the writing.  It is, in a word, brilliant. 

The vet's daughter is young Alice Rowlands, seventeen, and she lives in a household completely dominated by her father.  It takes no time at all to discover that there is something utterly monstrous about this man, who, when given animals to be put down, sells them instead to the vivisectionist.  He has always been a cruel man, but the disappointment he'd suffered upon buying what was to supposed to have been a "flourishing practice" along with a "commodious, well-furnished house" only to discover it was nothing of the sort seems to have scarred him for life.  His frustrations are taken out on his wife and daughter -- his wife is timid, looks "scared," and is afraid to speak in his presence; she eventually falls ill and even then tries to hide her illness from her husband. Alice is treated much more like a servant than a daughter, sometimes subjected to cruel treatment at his hands, and mainly ignored.   Life is bad enough for Alice, but when her mother dies and is replaced three weeks later by a barmaid ("a strumpet if ever there was one"), things move from bad to worse.  Somehow though, Alice discovers something within herself that allows her to detach from it all, a power that manifests at her lowest moments.

At this juncture, just before Alice is about to escape from the tyranny of her father and his mistress, we move into the world of the strange. All along, Comyns writes so believably, eloquently mixing the mundane with the horrific so that when we get to the point of Alice's discovery, what happens now seems no stranger or any less plausible than anything in this novel so far.  Alice is so trapped in her world that her newly-found ability makes sense as way to escape for a while, or to detach herself from her situation, even if only for a short time.

The Vet's Daughter is bleak, sad, and difficult to read emotionally, but at the same time it is hauntingly beautiful. The story told here is one of overwhelming loneliness and powerlessness, the stuff of many a novel, but recounted in a unique way that sets this book apart from others with the same themes.   Not one word of the author's exceptional writing is wasted here -- she has this knack of not only  making the horrific seem normal but also of turning the implausible into something believable in the world that her main character inhabits.

I can't recommend this book highly enough or offer enough superlatives about it.   It won't be for everyone, especially those people who insist on strict realism in their reading, but for it is perfect for readers who want a great combination of captivating story and superb writing.  This is my first book by Barbara Comyns but far from the last.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Watson's Apology, by Beryl Bainbridge

9780786709359
Carroll & Graf, 1985
222 pp

paperback

"I have waded in blood ... and it was not of my doing."  
                                                                               
July seems to have been the last time I made a post here which is like eons ago but I've been been gone, busy, gone, reading in other areas and what have you.  My current push is to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever so I'll definitely be filling up more space here from now on.  Seriously committed to this project, I started in the room that holds all of the British/UK fiction with J.R. Ackereley's charming and delightful Hindoo Holiday (NYRB) which I won't write about but which is a book I'd definitely recommend.

 Then it was on to this book, Watson's Apology, which is based on a real-life murder that took place on October 8, 1871 on St. Martin's Road, Stockwell.  The back-cover blurb reveals that the murderer was "a Victorian clergyman, John Selby Watson," and that he bludgeoned his wife "brutally to death." 


from The Sun
 Moving from the cover to the inside we discover right away what Bainbridge is going to be doing with this book from her "Author's Note," in which she says the following:
"This novel is based on a true story. The documents presented have been edited here and there to fit the needs of the narrative, but are otherwise authentic. Almost all of the characters are drawn from life, as are the details of the plot...What has defeated historical inquiry has been the motives of the characters, their conversations and their feelings.  These it has been the task of the novelist to supply."
 And what she supplies is a look inside of a miserable Victorian marriage, beginning with letters from Watson to the woman who he had briefly met "some years ago" while attending Trinity College in Dublin, Anne Armstrong.  Anne, whose socially-prominent family fell into decline when her father had "lost all his money," now  lives with her sister Olivia in a lodging house under destitute conditions, doesn't remember Watson at all, but with a "present so drab and the future so bleak," decides that "she would use him to free herself." She had written him
"telling him of the poverty of her existence and the vexations she endured, day after dreadful day, through being force to live, cheek by jowl, among people who were inferior to her in intellect and imagination." 
During their brief courtship it becomes obvious to each of them  that all is not quite right, but neither says anything to the other and they eventually marry.  At first she is convinced that she's made a "love match," while he is "astonished at how easily he'd adapted to marriage," but as time goes on, he finds himself in "an existence that is unpleasing," feeling rather victimized and at a point where he feels that "my marriage has destroyed me."  On her part,  Anne feels that all she's done has been "out of love;" at the same time she remains haunted by her family's past.  In the marriage, events begin to take their toll, sparking a desperate downward spiral for both Watson and his wife.   Where sympathy should lie is, I think, one of the big questions asked here, and the entire story made me wonder if the title of this book is meant to be a sort of "apologia" on Watson's behalf rather than an apology in the true sense of the word.  Whether Watson's wading in blood is or is not of his own doing is also a question, and the answer to that one will be down to the reader.

Very nicely done, and  although many readers thought that the courtroom scenes were dull, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from its beginning to the very last page.  Then again, I'm a huge fan of Beryl Bainbridge and have many more of her books on my shelves waiting to be read.   I'd advise patience in reading this book and would recommend it to thinking readers rather than to those who just want a rehash of an old Victorian crime. This book is not that.