Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Night Theater, by Vikram Paralkar

We'll call this one fiction from India.  Although the author lives and works in Pennsylvania, he was born and raised in Mumbai, and the novel is set in his home country.  

Catapult, 2020
originally published in 2017 as The Wounds of the Dead
206 pp


I can honestly say I've never read anything like this book, and that's a very good thing.  I seriously get tired of same old same old, and Night Theater is anything but. I have no idea how the author came up with this idea (unless it was from reading a lot of Kafka) but it's pure genius. I'll caution anyone contemplating reading this novel  that there are elements of, as the dustjacket blurb notes, "magically unreal drama," requiring a suspension of disbelief.  Let yourself go with this "fabulist" novel in that regard, and you will be rewarded many times over. 

The first words of the book offer a clue as to the strangeness to come:

"The day the dead visited the surgeon, the air in his clinic was laced with formaldehyde."

The surgeon, who remains nameless throughout the story, has been running a  four-room clinic in a small, rural village in India for the past three years, with neither the amenities of a modern practice  nor a budget big enough to keep on hand what he needs to do a proper job.   The walls have cracks in them, the windows have gaps, and he has been spending his own money just to keep the place "from turning into an archaeological ruin." There is no nurse to help him (his budget request for one remains in bureaucratic limbo);   he relies on the pharmacist for assistance.  After a visit from his supervisor, an official dropping off vaccines and angling for a payment to ignore nonexistent "irregularities," he decides that he'll give it two more months "at the most" before leaving, vowing  "No more."   Tired and desperately needing sleep, he'll have to wait as a teacher, his pregnant wife and her son walk into the clinic asking for help.  They are strangers from another district, the victims of thieves who had taken their valuables, stabbed them and left them on the roadside just an hour or so earlier; they're also quite dead.  If the doctor can operate on them and fix their wounds before sunrise, when the blood will flow again, they can remain in the world of the living; if he fails, they must return to the afterlife from whence they'd come.   

To say that the surgeon is overcome is to wholly understate his situation; it's much more as if the floor just dropped out from beneath him and he is left trying to find something to hold on to before he falls through.  It's the pregnant woman and her young son that convinces him, and enlisting the help of the pharmacist and her husband, he decides that he will do as they ask.  For him, it is an "inescapable madness" that he "would have to get through;" he would have to 
"pretend that the visitors had been wheeled in on gurneys, with lolling heads and frothing mouths, victims of some mysterious accident. He would just do his job, and let the pieces fall as they would."
 Once he begins, the surgeon becomes locked into what is best described as a ticking time-bomb  situation, and the tension builds as the clock slowly counts down the hours until sunrise.  As he makes his way through this challenging night,  he finds not only his medical knowledge tested in ways he could never imagine, but also his beliefs as he gleans from his patients, as the dustjacket notes, "knowledge no mortal should have."  

I had to set aside time and put everything on hold once I started Night Theater because I couldn't tear myself away from it.  I also had to jerk myself back to earth and reality once I'd finished as I was so caught up in the tension here as well as the off-kilter premise and the blurring of the lines between living and dead.  It is definitely a high-stakes story, one that will have huge ramifications for everyone involved.   Surprises abound, but what also kept me riveted was the way in which the author wove into his story important and relevant issues such as corruption, inequality and health care, especially the idea of bureaucrats having power over whether one lives or dies.  

Very well done, and the more I've thought about this book since reading it the more it's grown on me.  It was so good that now I'll look forward to reading anything Mr. Paralkar writes in the future. Night Theater likely won't appeal to readers who need straightforward realism, but for everyone else it's a no-miss.   And no, there are no zombies here. 

very very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi


Riverhead, 2020
256 pp


A terrific choice for Pride month, but The Death of Vivek Oji makes for good reading any time.  I've been struggling over how to write about this novel without giving too much away, and it's become an impossible task.  This story unfolds into something approaching the mystical, something tragic and yet something beautiful all at the same time, and to know ahead of time would just ruin the discovery.  What came out of this novel was wholly unexpected.  This will be a short post, because this is a book a person really needs to read and to experience and nothing I can say here will do it  justice.   

The first page in the book tells us that  "They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died."  There is no information as to how or why; all we know is that Vivek Oji's father Chika was left "shattered," his mother Kavita  "gone mad" and filled with 
"hungry questions bending her into a shape that was starving for answers." 

She is desperate, as any loving mother would be,  to know how Vivek ended up on her doorstep, naked,  covered in blood and missing the silver Ganesh charm he always wore around his neck.  What she doesn't understand is that there are no easy answers;  the questions surrounding how Vivek died must actually first yield to the questions surrounding how he lived.   The story unfolds via three different and interweaving points of view belonging to a third-person narrator,  Vivek's cousin Osita who probably knew Vivek better than anyone, and short but powerful interludes from the deceased Vivek speaking from beyond the grave,  one of which that cuts straight to the heart of this novel when he says

"I'm not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. I didn't have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong, to change the things I felt I needed to change. And every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them.  It didn't exist to them."

He ends this brief utterance by asking the question 

"If nobody sees you, are you still there?" 

Set in the author's home country of Nigeria, the story of Vivek's life and eventual death unfolds like a "stack of photographs." He is loved by all but there are people in his life, including his biological family who mean well, but ultimately fail to understand who he really is.   At school he doesn't fit in so is brought back home, he suffers from periodic blackouts, grows his hair long, and nobody knows what's going on with him.   His mom believes he's going through a "phase," his aunt believes he can be "cured" by getting his demons exorcised.   At one point he finds himself lonely,  "drowning" and planning to give up; through all of this and more, however, he remains steadfastly true to himself.  A measure of salvation in one form comes as he reconnects with a group of childhood friends, one of whom reaches out to him and offers to listen.  This is  his "chosen family," children of the Nigerwives,  where despite all of the social/cultural forces and standards working against him, he finds a place to belong and a place where he can start to fully bloom -- that is, before his life is tragically cut short, as the dustjacket notes, "in a moment of exhilarating freedom."  

The Death of Vivek Oji is, as the dustjacket blub also states,  a novel of "family, friendship, and the self that challenges expectations."   It  also encompasses coming-of-age, grief, spirituality, and belief, but most importantly, I think, it is a book about belonging and not belonging, about finding or creating safe spaces or  building communities and finding love and unquestioning support while locating oneself within them.    And while the book starts with the physical death of Vivek Oji, after finishing it I came to the conclusion that there is a dual nature to this title, which I will leave for others to discover.  It is hauntingly beautiful, ending on a positive and hopeful note, and it is a book I very highly recommend.  It is also a book that everybody should read, so very pertinent to here and now.  

Friday, May 14, 2021

The Lost Village, by Camilla Sten

  read in March 

Minotaur, 2021
originally published 2019
translated by Alexandra Fleming
340 pp


The first US edition of this novel came out earlier this year, and when it came to my door  I was beyond excited to get into it. It was that blurb that got me, you know, the one that says that The Lost Village is a "disturbing thriller" in which "The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar."  I've never actually watched Midsommar (horror movies just aren't my bailiwick) but I had read several synopses and read through a number of watcher reviews so I sort of had an idea of what I should look for;  The Blair Witch Project I saw long ago. Oh, I thought, this sounds sooo good; the description inside the dustjacket cover made me feel like I had the perfect escape novel in my hands and I seriously needed that at the moment.  Later that night it was off to bed, nightstand light off, booklight on, doggie curled up at my feet;  ready to be simultaneously disturbed and thrilled.  

The first chapter sucked me right in.  It's August, 1959, and two policemen are making their way through the streets of Silvertjärn, "a village in the middle of the forest."  One of the two men noted that Silvertjärn  seemed like a
"pleasant, unassuming place, with dainty houses in even rows, a river meandering through the center and a white stuccco church spire that soared up over the rooftops, gleaming in the August sunshine,"
 But something is off -- there are no people anywhere to be seen.  At the village square, one of the men feels a "surge of relief" when he finally spots someone, but the relief is short lived when they discover a body tied to a pole, blood coagulating at its feet. Amid the silence that permeates the place, they hear the cries of a baby through an open window at the school.  Flash forward to the present, and Alice Lindstedt has decided to put together a six-episode documentary about Silvertjärn. It seems that her grandmother had once lived there, and Alice had grown up hearing stories about the village. Her grandmother, as Alice notes, "had already left Silvertjärn when it happened, but her parents and younger sister were among the missing."  Her documentary aims to answer the question of how the village could "just drop off the face of the earth."  The plan is for Alice and her small crew to head to Silvertjärn to "explore the village and film some test shots," hoping to entice potential backers with what footage they get; she also hopes to "delve into" a number of possibilities,  
"everything from a gas leak that supposedly caused mass hysteria and delirium, to an ancient Sami curse."

Arriving in the village, Alice and colleagues set up a base camp in the main square, and it isn't long (as the dustjacket cover blurb reveals)  until strange things begin happening. One of the group sees a figure in the darkness. Another is badly injured.  Alice starts hearing things that shouldn't be there, someone sabotages the equipment, the crew start to disappear.  As all of this is going on, Silvertjärn's past is slowly being revealed in chapters labeled "Then." 

All of this should have been right up my mystery/supernatural fiction-loving brain, but sadly, for me it wasn't.  It wasn't too long in before I decided that what's going on in the present has been the stuff of  any number of movies I've seen, so I had more than an inkling of where this all was headed. Honestly,  what stopped me from throwing in the towel here was that I needed to know what had happened in 1959.  There was no Blair Witch stuff going on here -- the little bit of film Alice had managed to shoot didn't amount  to a hill of beans. And the Midsommar connection is absolutely tenuous at best but you have to squint through the 1959 story to find it;  as she writes it, it had more of a NXIVM sort of feel. Even there though, my interest started waning, and I was neither thrilled nor disturbed.  When the ending arrived, well, let's just say the eyerolls came out in full.  I really wish I would give into my instincts and tell you why, but I won't.  Let's also just say that it was so over the top as to be completely unbelievable. 

This is another case in which the book and I did not get along.  First of all, I'm not sure what the author was trying to do here.  Is this meant to be a crime/thriller novel or is it a supernatural story?  Either way it just didn't work. It's like she tried to combine the two, which can be done and can be done well, but not here.  Second, that ending was just so far out there and raises a hell of a lot more questions than answers.  Finally, as I was reading it, I just felt like the author wrote this with an eye to a film or a tv series (complete with tearful reconciliation scene in the midst of all of the mayhem) and lo and behold, after I finished I discovered that pre-publication,  "tv and film rights have already been sold."  On the flip side, this is also another case in which the book seemed to have been well loved by everyone else, with a 4 average star rating on Amazon and high praise from readers at Goodreads and several reader  blogs.  I really really wanted to like it, but it's just not for me.  

Maybe she should have gone with the ancient Sami curse...

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner


Park Row Books, 2021
301 pp


I read this in March shortly after it was published, but a lot of stuff happening here at home has distracted me mentally so I'm just getting around to talking about this book now.   

I bought and read The Lost Apothecary while searching for books to round out my IRL book group's reading list, hoping to fill a mystery/crime slot in the lineup.   When I discovered this novel, it was the premise that grabbed me (from the dustjacket blurb):

"Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. Nella's dark world is no place for her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old girl named Eliza Fanning, but their unexpected bond sparks a string of consequences that echoes through the centuries."
That's just the first part of the blurb, but it's what got my attention immediately.   It goes on to say that in the present, a woman named Caroline Parcewell will find an old apothecary bottle and then discover a link between said bottle and "London's long-unsolved apothecary murders." Since I tend to enjoy books in which past and present collide with the added touch of more than a hint of mystery (the unsolved murders),  I bought it and then read it pretty much right away.  

I have to say that this book and I did not get along well.  

It starts out fine enough, back in the eighteenth century where we first encounter Nella and her "apothecary shop for women's maladies."   It had once belonged to her mother, who had admistered tinctures meant "only for good," dispensing "the most benign of herbal remedies" and taught Nella her craft in the process.  After her mother's death and a personal betrayal however,  Nella added her own particular spin to her work as an apothecary: she used her knowledge to help women in despair to eliminate the source of their problems.  The "cornerstone" of her trade was based on the idea that her work  was meant to "help and heal women, not harm them,"  but things change and trouble begins when young housemaid Eliza Fanning is sent by her mistress to procure a concoction in a hurry. 

Flash forward to the present, and Caroline is on a trip to London that was meant to be shared with her husband for their anniversary.  Plans changed, however, when she'd discovered that her spouse had been unfaithful, and she had come alone.  Once there, she is looking for a pub and finds herself joining a group planning to go mudlarking along the Thames later that day; just as she's about to give up she finds a blue vial, inscribed with "an animal of some kind."  Instantly she feels a "strange connection" with whoever had last touched the small bottle, and decides to track down its source.   Thus begins the movement crossing a dual timeline and entwining the lives of the three main characters.  

I knew I was in trouble by the end of Chapter two when Caroline, who hasn't even joined the mudlarking group yet, begins waxing about her issues with her husband and relates the following:
"I willed myself to leave all thoughts of home behind: James, the secret I'd uncovered, our unfulfilled desire for a baby. I needed a break from the grief suffocating me, the thorns of fury so sharp and unexpected they took my breath away."
Oh dear.  At this point I actually started laughing and did a super eyeroll. After that it's more of the same, and frankly I got really tired of her spending too much of her time blaming James for how her life's turned out.   This entire part of storyline could have been left out and I wouldn't have minded one bit.  It also seems that Caroline runs into luck every time she goes down a new avenue while researching the history of the blue vial; all a bit too pat for my taste.  And while the story of Nella and Eliza was at least interesting, Eliza's reason for staying with Nella and causing all of her trouble was based on something so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, a complete molehill made into a giant mountain.   Not that I'll say what that is, but jeez louise. Come on.  And there's more but that's enough for now. 

Chalk it up to my picky-reader self, but for me The Lost Apothecary just didn't deliver what it promised.  Based on the premise, I was beyond excited to read it but it just wasn't for me and while I'll offer my copy to anyone in my book group who may want it, it's not going on that list either.  Intriguing mystery it was not.   

On the other hand, the book has an average 3.89 rating on Goodreads, close to five stars on Amazon, and a large number of book bloggers LOVE this novel, giving it top marks and high praise, so once again I seem to be  that little red fish swimming against the tide.   It might be okay to toss in a beach bag over the summer, but it was just not that appealing to me, something that happens now and then. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Slaughterman's Daughter, by Yaniv Iczkovits


Schocken Books, 2021
originally published 2015
translated by Orr Scharf
515 pp


The year is 1894, or the year 5654 as reckoned by the Jewish calendar.  In the latest issue of the paper Hamagid Mende Speismann reads a notice entitled  "Wife Lost," which stated the following:

"A woman went out in the second hour after midnight and has not returned since. All of our efforts to look for her in villages and towns, forests and rivers have failed. Her whereabouts are unknown and there's not a trace of her to be found...She has left her husband, five children, and miserable mother-in-law in despair in their village home."

Mende sets the paper aside for a moment before she reads the rest of the notice revealing that the missing woman is her sister, Fanny Keismann.   Mende lives in the village of Motal, in the Pale of Settlement,  the only legally-authorized territory in which Jews could reside "within the borders of czarist Russia."  Mende's husband Zvi-Meir had left his wife and children some ten months earlier,  and on her birthday, Mende tries to kill herself.   Fanny, a woman who wants to "mend the entire world," understands that it's not soul mending (tikkun) that Mende wants, nor is it really Zvi-Meir, but rather "she yearns for the authority of a husband and for the life of a wife" to make her life meaningful.   Fanny decides that she will take herself to Zvi-Meir in Minsk, to make him sign "a writ of divorce," and make things right.   Leaving her own home and her husband the cheesemaker, she slips out "in the second hour of midnight" determined in her mission.   She travels the seven versts from her village of Upiravah to Motal where the boatman, Zizek Breshov awaits to take her across the Yaselda river.  From there she plans to hire a cart and horses to begin her journey, and is surprised when Zizek, who "never leaves the Yaselda" follows after her.  Another surprise is in store when she realizes that he had not only hidden a wagon and two horses in some trees, but after helping her into her seat, he grabs the reins and "starts turning the horses."   

Thus begins Fanny's journey, and despite the potential dangers of being a Jewish woman on the road, she's not too worried.  She had been known since her girlhood  as "die vilde chaya," the wild animal,  learning and practicing her father's profession of ritual slaughtering.  Although she'd given up the profession when she married, she still carried a knife "tied to her right leg" as she had since childhood, always keeping it sharpened.  It comes in handy early on when she and Zizek come upon "a band of thugs" out to steal their cart and their horses; unfortunately this encounter results in the unwanted attention of the authorities who are sent to capture them.

Enter Piotr Novak, a district commander for the secret police (Okhrana).  Novak had formerly had a brilliant career in the military up until a horrific accident which not only shattered his leg but also "destroyed his life's dream."   When he learns of the deaths of the bandits, he is not inclined to take up the case, believing it should go to the regular police agency instead; that changes when he learns that the knife had been used in the way that "żyds slaughter animals."  While he thinks it highly unlikely, he believes that "this style of slaying" is "distinctive, and therefore sends a clear message: the Jews are responsible ..." and that "these murders might have been spurred on by an ideological motive, after all," and that perhaps he's "uncovered a new form of insurgency."  The chase begins,  and while Fanny and Zizek continue on their mission, they encounter a number of significant people, each with his own backstory and history that highlight not only the acts of individuals as opposed to the collective, but also how it is that, as Fanny notes early on,  "silent acceptance" allows for injustice and worse.   

The dustjacket blurb calls The Slaughterman's Daughter a "rollicking and unforgettable work of fiction," and the pursuit that begins just a short time after Fanny and Zizek cross the Yaselda certainly earns the "rollicking" description,  but it is much more:  an examination of an empire on the brink of tremendous change, a meditation on the meaning of freedom, a portrait of the Jews who have set themselves apart in a Russia that doesn't want them, sharing "the same soil but not the same world."  Most of all though this is Fanny's story, one of finding her way in the world and discovering who she is.  Yes, it's a bit long; yes, parts of might have been pared a bit, but I don't care. I loved this book, and it's one I'd continue to love even if the rest of the world hated it.  The Slaughterman's Daughter is so  refreshingly different, reminding me somewhat of an old-fashioned adventure story mixed with history, but one still very much pertinent in our own time.  

It's really, really good.  

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 help  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.