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 "┼╝yds 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 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.