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Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margoulis Kovály

The starting position of the police in 1950s Prague is that everyone is guilty of something. If they can't find evidence of a crime, it just means they're not looking hard enough. It's a wonder that there are enough detectives to investigate actual murders, since so many seem busy trying to catch people committing "political crimes." In Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margoulis Kovály, the novel's protagonist, Helena Nováková, is the unfortunate target of Captain Nedoma—before Nedoma turns up stabbed to death on the street where Helena works.

Strangely enough, Innocence begins with another murder entirely. A young boy has gone missing. The police follow his trail back to the Horizon Movie Theater where Helena and a more or less motley bunch of Prague citizen. The boy turns up murdered by the theater's projectionist. No one saw it coming. At one point, Helena muses:

Twenty-nine years ago, by some terrible accident, two cells that should never have met joined to create something that should never have existed...Maybe it was something you could see. Maybe a little black dot...and if I were a brain surgeon I could point to it with the tip of my scalpel and say to my assistant, "There, you see? That tiny spot on the cortex? That's the death of Josef Vrba, age eight, of Prague." (Chapter 1*)
This seems to be the perspective of Captain Nedoma. It's only a matter of time before everybody slips up. In contrast, Helena herself is repeatedly described as an innocent person. While other characters are revealed to have negotiable respect for privacy or are cheating on their spouses, Helena virtuously waits for her husband to be released from prison. (He was sent to prison because of sheer bad luck. He drew a map to help some guests find the Novák's vacation house. Two of the buildings turned out to be military installations.)

After this murder and before Nedoma's, Kovály bounces between Helena and the perspectives of two other women who work at the Horizon. The detective investigating Nedoma's death, Lieutenant Vendyš, is also pressed into service as a narrator. In a few scant chapters, these characters create a chilling portrait of life in Communist Prague. In this Prague, as the introduction by the author's daughter, puts it:
People had to adopt a double life, a public one in which they supported the communist regime, and a private one, rigorously guarded, where they expressed their true opinions and misgivings only to close relatives and friends. (Introduction**)
Worse, for Helena, the double life and having an innocent husband in prison and the constant surveillance and police interference with her life, are giving her symptoms that sound a lot like schizophrenia. The only hope a person in such a state (or State) can have is that there is a reason for the accusations and punishments. But looking for the reason behind it all is:
a dangerous drug. You begin to see nothing but ambiguous symbols wherever you looked, interpreting everything from the perspective of some higher plan, forgetting that if there was any order to the world, it was created by an intelligence too sophisticated for human beings to comprehend. (Chapter 4)
Unfortunately, Helena never discovers the reason. Instead, she is battered back and forth by Nedoma and his allies' machinations. Until he is murdered. Helena is the chief suspect, but only for a moment. It seems that more than one person had good reason to see the Captain dead.

The introduction reveals that Kovály was a big fan of Raymond Chandler and the dialog of this book has more than a whiff of Philip Marlowe. The noirish vocabulary of mid-Century Prague citizens is jarring; I never got used to it. The dialog was so incongruous to the setting that I think it ruined the book for me. Apart from the dialog, Innocence is a moody meditation on the dangerous surrealism of communist life. The parts where Kovály stops copying Chandler are the best.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 June 2015.

* Quotes are from the 2015 edition published by Soho Press, translated by Alex Zucker. Page numbers are not provided because this was an advanced reader copy.

** This is supported by several anecdotes from Anna Funder's Stasiland.


The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts
The original "girl with all the gifts" was Pandora, who opened a box that released evil, plague, sorrow, and all the other bad things into the world. In M.R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts, the eponymous girl is Melanie. Ten year old Melanie has a genius level intelligence. She's conscientious, modeling her behavior on the heroes of the Greek myths her teachers read to her. One might think it's very strange that she's locked in a cell most of the time and that it takes at least two soldiers to secure her to a wheelchair before she goes to her lessons. Everyone who comes in contact with her douses themselves in a chemical deodorant. Even stranger, she only eats once a week.

Within a few chapters, however, we learn why everyone is so very, very cautious around Melanie and her fellow students. Twenty years before The Girl with All the Gifts opens, a fungus jumped species. The fungus, a mutation of Ophiocordyceps, has turned humans into zombies (known in this book as hungries). For some reason, a small group of children have some resistance to the fungus. They feel an all consuming hunger when they scent human sweat, but they are otherwise fairly normal children. The school is actually a research facility where Dr. Caldwell and her team are trying to find a cure or a vaccine for the Ophiocordyceps fungus.

Of course, it is inevitable in a horror story that things go to hell. Just as Melanie is scheduled for dissection by Dr. Caldwell, surviving humans attack the facility. Melanie flees with her favorite teacher, Helen Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, and two soldiers. The Girl with All the Gifts rapidly changes tone from chilling science fiction to zombie story. Dr. Caldwell maintains her monomaniacal quest to research the mutant Ophiocordyceps. Ironically, she's as relentless in her quest for brains as the hungries that litter the abandoned British landscape.

Carey frequently shuffles narration duty between Melanie and the four humans in their party. From Private Gallagher, we learn about the sorry state of Beacon, the only safe place mentioned in the book. Sergeant Parks teaches us the brutal art of surviving outside Beacon's borders. Dr. Caldwell's feverish (literally, at times, as she's suffering from septicemia) thoughts reveal more and more about the true nature of the Ophiocordyceps infection. Helen Justineau is the conscience of the group. The other humans will kill anything that presents a danger, but she constantly reminds them that Melanie and others like her are children above all else. They may be infected with Ophiocordyceps, but they should be treated like human children. If they slaughter them, Helen asks, doesn't that make them monsters, too?

The big showdown is in London. I don't know how much I can say here without ruining a beautiful and perfect ending to this expectation- and genre-breaking novel. The Pandora references at the beginning of the book hit me hard when I realized what Carey was up to. I will say that there really is no other way for this story to end. Anything else would have been a cheat.


Girl at War, by Sara Nović

Girl at War
Ana Jurić has spent the last ten years not talking about what happened to her and her family in 1991, when Yugoslavia collapsed and war broke out. In Girl at War, by Sara Nović, Ana returns to Zagreb to find any friends and family who survived the war, hunger, and genocide. Girl at War is the story of a girl who has been surviving, but not living, for a decade. Ana is looking for a home, but where can she find people who can understand what she's been through?

Girl at War begins in 1991. Ten year old Ana and her family live in Zagreb. The language in this section is simple, as befits a young narrator. Ana is unaware of the political tensions brewing between the different ethnic groups in what would soon become the former Yugoslavia. She is bewildered when the man she buys her godfather cigarettes from asks her if she's buying Serbian or Croatian cigarettes (6*). As Ana tells it, the war officially began while she was running errands for her mother. Air raids soon become a part of Ana's daily life. She and her friends cope well. The family's luck runs out when her younger sister, Rahela, starts to die from renal failure. The only way to save her life is to have Rahela evacuated from Sarajevo to the United States. On the way back from Sarajevo, Četniks (paramilitary Serbian forces, named for Yugoslav fascists who fought during World War II) stopped the family in a roadblock. They murdered every Croatian they stopped. Ana only escaped because her father thought of a way to trick the Četniks.

Part II of Girl at War jumps us to 2001 in New York. Ana is on her way to give a speech at UN Headquarters; the topic of her speech is hidden for a few pages as we wonder what happened after the massacre and how Ana managed to escape. We learn that in America, no one could help with her grief and her anger. At first, Ana would speak of her traumas to the Americans who adopted her and her sister but:
After those initial bursts of curiosity, no one spoke to me about my past, even within the family. Laura developed euphemisms for me "troubles," the war and its massacres reduced to "unrest" and "unfortunate events." (127)
When Ana later tells her boyfriend about her parents' murder and her time as a child soldier, he suggests she go back to Croatia because "It might give you some closure" (160). The few Americans Ana talks to often trot out this kind of pop psychology because nothing like what happened in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia ever happened in the United States.

All of Ana's bitterness and sorrow and pain have been festering for ten years. The only relief she gets is from books by authors who discuss the trauma inflicted by war and war crimes. A sympathetic professor gives her books by W.G. Sebald and others. The bibliotherapy is some help. The UN speech, however, brings her memories of Croatia up from repression. Within a few days, Ana decides to go back.

The bulk of Girl at War takes place after Ana's return to Zagreb and begins searching for her godparents and old friends. Nović also gives us flashbacks to reveal how Ana survived the months between her parents' murders and being returned to Zagreb, before being spirited out of the country entirely. In Croatia, Ana finds an entire nation of more or less successful survivors. The war is no longer her "own personal tragedy" (193). Traveling reveals that most towns have their own memorials to the dead. Though Croatia is no longer the home Ana longs for, she doesn't have to hide her past the way she did in America.

I have a feeling that Girl at War will frustrate some readers. The ending is ambiguous. There is none of the closure that Ana's American friends and family would want. That said, I find that Girl at War has intriguing things to say about the nature of memory and healing. In Girl at War, there is no closure, but there is resolution. Ten years after tragedy, Ana's healing process has begun.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher's publicists, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 12 May 2015.

* Paraphrases and quotations are from the 2015 hardcover edition by Random House.


Written in the Blood, by Stephen Lloyd Jones

Written in the Blood
Written in the Blood, by Stephen Lloyd Jones, is a story of unfinished business. In The String Diaries, Lloyd Jones introduced us to the hosszú életek, long-lived creatures capable of changing their appearance. Written in the Blood picks up the story of Hannah and Leah Wilde fifteen years after the fiery ending of The String Diaries. Fifteen years have given Hannah a chance to try and save the dying hosszú életek, in spite of her blindness. Her daughter, Leah, recognizes that their efforts are not enough. She goes in search of hosszú életek exiles, not knowing that her good intentions will draw the attention of enemies the Wildes didn't even know existed.

The kirekeszett are hosszú élet who were cast out for their crimes or the crimes of their families. When Leah approaches their leader, the kirekeszett are understandably wary and angry. But the chance to have children is too tempting for most of them. Of course, nothing is ever simple in the world of the hosszú életek. As Leah invites kirekeszett women into the—for lack of a better word—breeding program, the hosszú életek's predators come out of hibernation and an old enemy turns out not to be dead.

Written in the Blood bounces back and forth between Leah and Hannah Wilde, hosszú életek named Etienne and Izsák, and a few temporary characters that introduce us to the tolvajok—creatures that can possess humans and hosszú életek. The plots and subplots can be little hard to follow as Lloyd Jones jumps from narrator to narrator and location to location and time period to time period. I highly recommend reading The String Diaries before attempting Written in the Blood. Lloyd Jones and his characters don't give up information easily. I know this isn't easy on new readers, but I appreciate that Lloyd Jones doesn't try to download gobs of information via dialog or exposition.

Written in the Blood wraps up a lot of stray plot threads and seals a lot of characters' fates. However, I thought that The String Diaries did the same and now there's a sequel. I wonder what Lloyd Jones has in store for the Wildes in the future.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 May 2015.


The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter

The Strangler Vine
"Strangler vine" is a common name for several different species of Ficus—what they have in common is that they latch onto a host plant and and use it to climb into sunlight. Sometimes, they kill their hosts. Given than M.J. Carter's novel, The Strangler Vine, is about the British East India Company and the Thuggee, it's a very apropos and evocative image to summon.

India in 1837 is the place that younger sons with no prospects go to make their fortunes. William Avery, a third son from Devon, is the very model of a junior officer of the East India Company, rotting away in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta*) and racking up gambling debts. Because there is no one else to send, Avery is sent to drag a former Company man named Jeremiah Blake out of his house to respond to an official summons. Then Avery is dragooned into following Blake on his mission to find a author and poet who went missing in Thuggee territory. Both Avery and Blake have to be threatened into taking the mission. On top of it all, Avery is given the task of keeping an eye on Blake. The man has "gone native" and is no longer entirely trusted by the Company.

Because Avery is a typical British officer, we see India through prejudiced eyes. Avery finds the people bizarre, superstitious, and criminal. Their customs are mostly abhorrent. Only the Company, Avery thinks, can bring "civilization" to India. Blake thinks the complete opposite and, for a while, their journey towards Jabalpur (formerly Jubbulpoor) reads like the Odd Couple in India. Blake shuts Avery out of his search for the missing author Mountstuart. Once they arrive in Jabalpur, Avery has started to win Blake's trust (barely) and is starting to learn that their mission may be about more than tracking down a wayward author.

In Jabalpur, Avery and Blake meet William Henry Sleeman, who is in charge of the Thuggee Department. Sleeman has an impressive reputation for making the roads safe from dacoits (bandits) and Thuggee, but the city of Jabalpur simmers with unrest. Avery and Blake are repeatedly told that, for their own safety, they must be locked in at night. They are escorted by Sleeman's men everywhere. It doesn't take much for even the trusting and loyal Avery to work out that something is very wrong with the operation in Jabalpur.

The Strangler Vine takes some time to ramp up, but once it does, it's a terrific ride. Carter captures something of old India in this book. There are tiger hunts and zenanas, open air cataract surgery, racism, radical politics, and a lot of hair-raising fights. Carter's use of the old style spellings, while jarring at first, really helped me sink into the setting. The only criticism I have of this book is that it was too short. I wanted more time with Avery once he wised up about the Company and got over his distain for all things and people Indian.

* Place names and Hindustani words are written using the historical spellings. I spent an instructive half hour or so on Wikipedia working out where this story was taking place. I'm using the modern spellings in my review.


The story web

There's a story my mother likes to tell—probably to demonstrate that I've been pedantic from a very young age. She says that when I first saw the 1987 movie, Roxanne*, when I was about 10, I asked her if the movie was Cyrano de Bergerac. To this day, I have no idea where I first learned about Cyrano de Bergerac. At any rate, I've been seeing connections between stories for almost twenty-four years**. I have always been a bookworm. And a pedant. I have made my peace with this.

This bit of autobiography also shows that I've always been practicing comparative literature. And, lately, I have been reading a lot of books that—at first blush—don't have much in common with each other. Earlier this year, I saw parallels between The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, and Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood. Now it's Yann Martel's The Life of Pi and The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne.

Even more serendipitous, I recently read an article Rachel Cordasco wrote an article for Book Riot about reading books in chronological order so that readers could see how books referenced previous literature. (We have no evidence of this, but there was probably some Greek critic saying that Homer was derivative.)  

Reading chronological might help other readers spot references and parallels, but apart from not being practical for most readers***, I don't think it's enough to prime a reader to see all the strands that connect disparate stories. The more I read, the more I see the written world as an infinitely tangled web. The connecting strands are rarely intentional. (Most of them probably are unintentional.) It's almost as if there's a big meta-narrative forming out of literature.

Let me explain with an example. The link I see between The Life of Pi and The Girl in the Road is the question that unreliable narrators force readers to confront, but with a twist. Rather than asking whether or not to believe none, some, or all of what an unreliable tells us, these two books, I think, ask why we should make a deliberate choice between literal truth and narrative truth. These books also ask whether it's possible to believe both truths at the same time. (I think it's possible, by the way.) I chose to read The Girl in the Road because the reviews were excellent and the plot synopses I saw hooked my interest. I was stunned to find that it asked the same question The Life of Pi asks at its conclusion. It was serendipity. It was also the appearance of a new strand in the story web.

Seeing all these connections between stories is making me really want to write official literary criticism again.

* Still one of my favorite movies.
** Yeah, you can do the math.
*** I don't know about other readers, but I tend to read what I'm in the mood for most of the time and try to bounce around through different genres.

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road
When I first learned how to analyze stories, my teacher taught us Gustav Freytag's Pyramid. A story opens with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and finished with a dénouement. Graphically, the plot forms a lovely triangle. The more stories I read, however, the less this model works. It definitely doesn't work for Monica Byrne's stunning The Girl in the Road. If I had to map out the plot of this one, it would end up looking like a spiral.

Byrne drops us right into the middle of things with Meena. Meena is running away from what she believes is an assassination attempt. She makes her way, under the radar (tough to do in 2068 India), to Mumbai. Along the way, we get clear signs that Meena is not a reliable narrator. She tells us that she has manic phases, paranoia, and unresolved issues from her childhood. And she's started to hallucinate a barefoot girl in a hijab. The only one that can keep her on an even keel is her girlfriend, Mohini, but Mohini is conspicuously absent as Meena travels north.

Meena is not the only troubled protagonist in The Girl in the Road. Mariama is a very young girl who has just run away from her mother's hut after seeking a blue snake (similar to the gold one Meena says she saw). She has the unbelievable luck to run into two men who won't immediately take advantage of her. Together—along with a woman who calls herself Yemaya—Mariama and the oil truckers head east from Nouakchott, Mauritania, to the fabled Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Meena decides to go West, also to Addis Ababa. Meena explains the draw of the city thusly:
Africa is the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so forth. Now we’re back to Punt. (106*)
Addis Ababa is the center of it all, even though it's not the safest place for anyone. From Mumbai, she heads out on the "Trail"—a miraculous new machine that harnesses energy from waves. It's highly illegal to walk on the Trail, but that hasn't stopped anyone. The Trail isn't easy. It's constantly in motion, plus there's the sun, the salt water, the lack of food, and the other people on the Trail to make it even more dangerous. At times, Meena faces the same sorts of hardships that Pi faced in Yann Martel's The Life of Pi.

And, like The Life of Pi, things get a bit mystical once the physical hardships have started to take their toll. For Meena, she equates her journey along the Trail to traveling through a series of interconnected chambers, a Hindu pilgrimage towards one's most deeply wished desire. Mariama comes to see Yemaya as a goddess come to earth. The woman, who renamed herself for a West African orisha, dazzles everyone around her. Without a mother or anyone else to care for her, Mariama gravitates to her. Yemaya becomes her whole world.

As the novel continues, the parallels between Meena and Mariama stack up: the snakes, the quests for a mother, the affinity with languages, their jealousy, the shared pain in their solar plexus. There are even words that keep popping up in their stories, like saha. Mariama hears the word as she leaves Nouakchott. Meena hears it in a hallucination. Eventually, it is revealed that saha is a Sanskrit word with multiple meanings. It can mean "powerful." It can also mean "let us be together."

As I read, too, I saw connections to The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson. Yemaya is one of the names of the orisha—goddess—from the same pantheon as the one who runs through The Salt Roads the way that Yemaya (as mother goddess and sea goddess) runs through The Girl in the Road. To return to the idea of the spiral, I pictured the sort of spiral that collapses in on itself only to immediately start circling back out. As the lines of the spiral draw closer to the center, the resonances between Mariama and Meena became ever more pronounced.

The Girl in the Road becomes ever more dreamlike, until nearly the of the book. At the end of The Life of Pi, we are presented with a choice between the literal truth and story that's a lot more heroic and entertaining. Unlike The Life of Pi, however, a "witness for empiricism" (281) is there to probe Meena about her story of the assassination. Her story crumbles as she confronts the trauma she was running from all along.

When I closed the book after the epilogue, I had to start off into space for a while while the impressions and connections The Girl in the Road had stirred up for me. The book is beautifully written, with layers I'm sure I haven't identified and understood yet. This book is one of the best I've read this year. But be warned, readers, there are disturbing subjects in The Girl in the Road. This is not an easy book to read.

* Quotes are from the 2014 hardcover edition by Crown Publishers.



Librarians help people find information and then send them on their way. We deliberately distance ourselves from what our patrons might do with that information. The distance helps us neatly sidestep a lot of tricky legal and ethical considerations. I admit to being curious about what students end up writing by the end of the semester, but until these last two weeks, I haven't done much about satisfying that curiosity.

These last two weeks, I have been to two readings and a paper presentations. At the first reading, students opened their notebooks and read a terrific selection of poetry. I confess to being anxious about poetry readings. I always end up feeling like I know too much about the poets afterwards. The second reading was of selections from my university's literary magazine. There was poetry and prose and even a dramatic monologue. One of their stories particularly struck me. I could have sworn that the story was heading towards a miserably cliched ending, but the short work kept on surprising me. One of the poems was full of the cuttingly critical things that a women's magazine might say to its readers, if it could. The audience laughed at nearly every line, but the poem stung.

The paper presentations thrilled me. The papers were written by students in the literature class that I've been helping to teach this spring. I taught them how to use the library. I helped them find additional sources. I met with them and talked about how they would use the sources to construct their arguments. The papers these students wrote floored me. At the beginning of the semester, I recall several students worrying about having anything unique to say. Every paper presented this week (half the class) was different. Some were in direct conflict with each other—while still being completely convincing. I was so proud of them.

I need to go to more readings and read the university's nonfiction literary journal. Most of the students I see in the library are at the very beginnings of their college careers or at the beginnings of a project. I won't see the vast majority of what they produce. The ones I have heard from, however, are brilliant. And I sincerely hope that I see them in print again.

Chloe Cushman


97 Orchard, by Jane Ziegelman

97 Orchard
Tonight, I had Italian wedding soup as a dinner course. Italian wedding soup is a broth with kale and meatballs and onion. As I slurped, I reflected on the last chapter of Jane Ziegelman's 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Each of the five chapters discusses a different ethnic group: Germans, the Irish, German Jews, Russian Jews, and Italians. The Italians, Ziegelman writes, were often criticized for their food, particularly their habit of eating "weeds." Those weeds, in this case kale, were in my bowl tonight. And they were delicious. Italian food, of all kinds, is one of America's most beloved imported cuisines. Tonight, I got to taste a bit of immigrant life with my wedding soup and my gnocchi. It was the perfect finish for reading 97 Orchard.

97 Orchard, New York, is now the home of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Weirdly enough, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast recently interviewed the museum's curator (part 1, part 2). From those episodes, I know that 97 Orchard is one of the best preserved tenement buildings. It was essentially boarded up after the last families left. What I didn't know was that there was so much extant information about the Glockners, the Moores, the Gumpertzes,  the Rogarshevskys, and the Baldizzis—including photographs that are reproduced in 97 Orchard. What Ziegelman knows about the five families supplements the wealth of research she did about immigrant world of food. (To be honest, the families only make brief appearances in the chapters named after them.)

The families provide a starting point and a lens for discussing various aspects of immigrant food. In some chapters, especially the chapters about the Jewish Gumpertzes and Rogarshevskys, cover the origins of their cuisines. Ziegelman discusses kashrut and the slow relaxing (among some Jewish) of their complex dietary laws. The chapter the German Glockners looks at the food culture the immigrants brought with them. The Germans brought their beer halls and clubs. Weirdly enough, the Irish only claimed corned beef and cabbage (now closely associated with Irish immigrants and St. Patrick's Day) once they came to America; no one could afford much of anything back in Ireland.

In the last chapters, about the Russian Rogarshevskys and the Italian Baldizzis, Ziegelman turns to the attempts by American officials to get immigrants to give up their traditional foods—on health grounds, oddly enough. Jewish food was particularly alarming. This sentence about the Jewish, German, and Slavic love of pickles made me laugh:
The taste of the standard Jewish pickle was so aggressive – briny, garlicky, sour – and so foreign to the native palate that Americans like Ms. Wood wondered how anyone, children especially, could eat them by choice. Instead, they saw pickle-eating as a kind of compulsion. The undernourished child was drawn to pickles the same way an adult was drawn to alcohol. More than a food, the pickle was a kind of drug for tenement children, who were still too young for whiskey. (151*)
A few pages later, Ziegelman reports on one woman's strenuous efforts to re-educate immigrants by teaching cooking courses for the families' daughters:
Promoting the foods that Kittredge felt were best suited to the East Sider, the lessons were also designed to wean immigrants away from their less desirable culinary habits. For Jews, that meant forsaking their over-spiced pickles and delicatessen meats, while Italians were asked to cut back on their beloved macaroni and olive oil. Returning to their real-life tenement flats, the girls shared what they had learned, teaching their mothers how to poach eggs, or cook vegetables in boiling water rather than goose schmaltz. Teachers also made home visits to reinforce lessons and monitor their students' progress. As one contemporary described it, the girls served as missionaries to their foreign-born parents, a role that the public schools exploited for all it was worth. (165) 
Many of the foods mentioned in these quotes and in other parts of the last two chapters are staples of the mishmash that is American food. (Personally, I adore deli pickles.) Italian food, as I mentioned earlier, is near and dear to most Americans. It's painfully humorous that so many well-meaning Americans tried to get immigrants to stop eating their wonderful food.

I started to read this book on Sunday during the long stretch of time between lunch and dinner. The first pages of the first chapter sent me to the kitchen for a snack. Since then, I've always reached for this book while I have a full stomach. Wrapping up my reading with a bowl of Italian wedding soup and another of gnocchi was the perfect ending.

Before I return this book to the library, I'm going to go scan the entire notes section so that I can look up the vintage cookbooks for later.

* Quotes are from the 2010 hardcover edition by Smithsonian Books. 


Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

Earlier this spring, I read a short article by Cynthia Ozick about the duties and responsibilities of Holocaust literature. Her primary argument was that fiction was not the right medium for talking about the Holocaust—other subjects, sure, but not the Holocaust. Ozick concludes with damning statements against Holocaust fiction:
In the name of the autonomous rights of fiction, in the name of the sublime rights of the imagination, anomaly sweeps away memory; anomaly displaces history. In the beginning was not the word, but the camera—and at that time, in that place, the camera did not mislead. It saw what was there to see. The word came later, and in some instances it came not to illumine but to corrupt. (n.p.*)
Ozick's article came back to me in full force as I read Yann Martel's unusual novel, Beatrice and Virgil. The novel begins with Henry, a writer, explaining his follow up to a successful debut. This second work is a flip book. One half is narrative fiction. The other half is an essay. The whole is meant to promote an opening in Holocaust fiction. Henry complains that the genre is flooded by historical fiction. There are other ways to tell the stories of the Holocaust. His grand experiment is shot down by his editor and his editor's allies. Not only will the format not work, but the text doesn't work. Henry's critics aren't as harsh as Ozick might have been, but they essentially kill Henry's creative spirit. 

Beatrice and Virgil
After abandoning fiction, Henry and his wife emigrate from Canada to an unnamed European country. While his wife finds work, Henry drifts through various creative pursuits. He takes up music and acting in a local troupe. He does not write. He doesn't even attempt to write, except to answer the fan letters forwarded by his publishers. One brief letter asking for help, accompanied by a strangely annotated copy of a story by Flaubert and a portion of a play manuscript, proves impossible for Henry to ignore or brush off like the rest of his fan mail. This letter brings Henry to another Henry, a dour, close-mouthed taxidermist. 

Henry the taxidermist is writing a play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. And he's stuck. He need's Henry the writer's help to finish it. Henry the writer reluctantly agrees to help.

Beatrice and Virgil is a curious text to read. There are long passages in it from other works, like Henry the taxidermist's "Beatrice and Virgil" and the Flaubert story. As Henry the writer helps the taxidermists, he begins to commit the cardinal sin of English majors: psychoanalyzing the author through the medium of the author's writing. English majors are taught that, while there might be useful outside context, a text stands alone. The author is not the narrator. And yet, Henry the writer keeps probing the taxidermist about elements in the play that clearly reference the Holocaust. 

Henry the taxidermist, for most of Beatrice and Virgil, stubbornly insists that his play is about animals and the terrible crimes humans have committed against other species. At one point, Henry the taxidermist tells the writer in an essay about taxidermy that:
What I am actually doing [as a taxidermist] is extracting and refining memory from death. In that, I am no different from a historian, who parses through the material evidence of the past in an attempt to reconstruct it and then understand it. (96-97**)
Then, on the next page, the taxidermist claims, curiously, "That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness" (98). What an incongruous reason for a taxidermist to give for his profession! I don't blame Henry the writer for pointing out the parallels to the Holocaust in the play and questioning the taxidermist about them. It's clear from the way the taxidermist behaves that he's trying to work out a past trauma. He can't talk about it directly, so the taxidermist came up with his Beckett-like allegorical play. 

As I read Beatrice and Virgil, it became clear to me that I was being led to a number of thematic echoes and parallels in the text. There are two Henrys, both trying to tell stories about the Holocaust via non-traditional means. The metaphors in the play are too numerous to count. Fiction and nonfiction intertwine all over the place, like Henry the writer's failed double book. Throughout it all, character dialog returns to the inability of language to communicate exactly what happened.

This is not a pleasant book to read. Animals, as metaphors for Holocaust victims, are brutally tortured. The coda, "Games for Gustav," is a series of dark games that represent various experiences of the Holocaust. I wavered between crying and swearing as I read them. This is not a book to disappear into, either. It's a book that requires rigorous thought. Readers have to be on their mental toes to catch all the parallels Martel puts into the book, the themes, the metaphors, and all the other rhetorical devices. The sheer density of the text ends up whacking readers over the head with the notion that it doesn't matter how literally true a story is as long as it contains a particle of Truth. By the end, I saw Beatrice and Virgil as an argument wearing the clothing of a novel. 

Requested by AM.

* Ozick, Cynthia. "The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination." Commentary Magazine. March 1, 1999. Web. April 28, 2015. 

** Quotes from the novel come from the 2010 hardcover by Spiegel and Grau. 


Daughters of Shadow and Blood, by J. Matthew Saunders

I've always thought that the three brides of Dracula were a wasted opportunity in Bram Stoker's novel. They only show up a couple of times and are meant only to titillate and serve Stoker's thesis that lust <=> vampirism <=> unclean. They never get names, only receiving the most rudimentary of descriptions, and then they get killed. I chose to request J. Matthew Saunder's Yasamin (the first book in the Daughters of Shadow and Blood series) because the plot synopsis promised me a story about one of Dracula's brides. I'm a sucker for books that give badly needed backstories to classic female characters, whether they succeed or not.

Yasamin is a novel of frames, often reminding me of the structure of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. Adam Mire (or Dr. Mire, as he keeps insisting on his title) is an expert in early Romanian history. His quest to find a medallion reputed to belong to Vlad Țepeș has brought him to a mysterious woman named Yasamin. They tell each other their stories, a quid pro quo to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. From Mire, we get a story of being chased all over the Baltic, from Bucharest to Dubrovnik to Thessaloniki to Berlin, by various groups representing the old Ottoman Empire and Islam, Serbian and Romanian nationalists, and a certain man with distinctive dark hair who leaves dead bodies wherever he goes.

Yasamin's story is, if less thriller-ish, more interesting to me. Her story begins in 1599, when she left Salonica (now Thessaloniki) to marry the son of the pasha of Budapest. She is an unhappy bride and woefully unprepared for harem politics. As janissaries fall ill of a strange anemia and women start to disappear, Yasamin falls in love with a soldier who bewitches her. Yasamin and historical documents tell us more about Dracula and his part in Romanian history.

I wish Yasamin had been the sole narrator. She is fascinating, where Mire reminds me of a Robert Langdon clone most of the time. I understand that this book is meant to set Mire up to find the other two brides of Dracula, but I am really starting to tire of having male narrators tell women's stories. Mire's research hints at a tantalizing story for Yasamin. Her own actions in her narrative show me that she is not a character who will remain naïve for long. She is also not a woman who will let men fight her battles for her. In fact, she first begins to doubt her janissary lover Iskander because people who give her a hard time tend to go missing. By the end of Yasamin, Yasamin is a deadly force in her own right.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 May 2015.


Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith

Gorky Park
Arkady Renko is an honest man. But he lives in a place at a time when honest men just don't fit. As a chief investigator for the prosecutor general of Moscow in the late 1970s, Renko is surrounded by careerists, villains, thieves, murderers, psychopaths, and schemers. While everyone is looking out for themselves, Renko stubbornly pursues the truth—no matter who it pisses off. Though when Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park opens, Renko is doing everything he can to pass along a case of three murder victims to the KGB.

The KGB really should have this case. Not only are there hints that the victims were involved in some kind of illicit trading, one of the victims has American dental work. And yet, Renko's boss, prosecutor general Andrei Iamskoy, will not let the cup pass from the investigator. Renko reluctantly starts by trying to identify the victims, hampered by a junior investigator who Renko knows is his own personal watcher from the KGB. While the watcher is sent on time-consuming errands, Renko uncovers layer after layer of conspiracy and greed. The three people found murdered and frozen in Moscow's Gorky Park are just the tip of the iceberg.

Before long, Renko knows who is responsible for the murders—he just can't prove it. Evidence keeps disappearing. His other junior investigator is murdered along with a key witness. The murderer is protected from on high and Renko refuses all advice to let the case go. His friends encourage him to let it go. His soon-to-be-ex-wife wants him to let it go. Everyone wants him to let it go, but Renko resists at every turn.

I honestly thought Gorky Park was going to wrap up during a big confrontation with the murderer and his cadre of protectors and co-conspirators. In another other thriller or mystery, the showdown would be the end. There might be an epilogue tacked on the end if the protagonist was injured or the author wanted the reader to know just a little bit more. But that's not what happens in Gorky Park. Instead, we get an entire third act that takes Renko's investigation to new heights.

It's not just this third act that sets Gorky Park apart from other examples of its genres. The narrative has a literary style that gives it depth. Throughout the book, characters comment on Renko's honesty and the book as a whole is a commentary on how honesty puts a good man into dilemma after dilemma. The book also ruminates on the pre-perestroika Soviet experience. In the late 1970s, people were still arrested and sent to gulags for political crimes; but less than 15 years after the events of Gorky Park, the whole Russian Soviet experiment would be over. The characters tell each other Soviet fables that illustrate the absurdity of their society and government or highlight the dangers of sticking one's neck out for others.

Gorky Park was originally published in 1981. The series continues to this day and the latest book in the series, Tatiana, was published just two years ago. Unlike other 33-year-old mystery/thriller series, there are only eight books in the series. (Most authors in the genre churn out books almost annually.) Something about Arkady Renko weathers changes in readers' tastes. I hope that the rest of the books in the series continue to astonish me, because I am definitely hooked.


Kicks, streaks, jags, benders...and ruts

Since this past Sunday, I have been spending all my free time in the former Warsaw Pact—via books, of course. This is partly Anna Funder's fault (I read Stasiland on Sunday) and partly the fault of my curious obsession with the failed experiment of communism. Since this past Sunday, I have watched Der Tunnel and Good Bye, Lenin! and gotten halfway through Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park. I still have Das Leben der Anderen to watch. I have a wicked urge to re-read Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, as well.

By Sara Riches
This isn't the first time I've been on a communism kick. Something about idealism gone terribly wrong appeals to me. My mini-streak is going to have to end soon; I have too many other things to read. But the experience has gotten me to thinking about reading jags.

Now that I review books for NetGalley and Edelweiss and my readership has grown over the last few years, I feel an obligation to read even more widely. If I notice that I'm reading several works of historical fiction in a row, I'll deliberately switch to another genre. If I decide that I like an author enough to try and read their entire oeuvre, I'll space the books out over months or years so that the content on my blog maintains a nice variety.

I don't miss my old reading kicks as much as I thought I would. The problem with a streak is that it so often turns into a rut. I remember reading nothing by mysteries in my late teens and early twenties. I got to know the conventions of the genre so well that I could see the resolution coming from chapters away. There are still some authors I don't ready anymore because I just know how the story is going to play out.

All that said, kicks, jags, streaks, and benders are a great way to force one to think about what draws one to certain stories or characters or settings. Most people who know me know that I love to riff on the absurdities of communism—even though I'm an American who has never come close to even visiting a communist country. Why do I keep returning to this setting? Sure, there's my love of idealism gone wrong, but there's also the appeal of characters who maintain individualism and act subversively. There's the chance of putting myself in the head of someone whose experience is so alien to my own (despite the best efforts of the NSA).

After I finish Gorky Park, I will have to break the streak and get back to my review schedule. And there's a book I promised another reader I would have a look at. And there's always my mountain of a to-read pile. So, good bye, Lenin, from me, too!


Stasiland, by Anna Funder

The statistics tell us that the East German population was the most surveilled population in history. In Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, Anna Funder tells her readers that there was a Stasi officer for at least every 63 citizens. The ratio gets closer to 1:6 if the part-time informers are thrown in (57*). In the 1990s, Australian Funder took a job at a German television program responding to viewer mail. Letters from a viewer condemning the lack of coverage about life in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) resonated with Funder's own interest. When she failed to convince her bosses to film a program about former East Germans and their surveillors, Funder placed an ad in a newspaper asking ex-Stasi agents for information about their old occupations. She also followed leads to people whose lives had been touched by Stasi influence.

The Stasi were formally founded in 1950 as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. (The nickname "Stasi" comes from Staatssicherheit or "State Security.") Their internal mission was to monitor the population and use any means at their disposal to prevent dissidence and opposition to the government. But, as one ex-Stasi officer comments, "as time went on there was more and more work to do because the definition of ‘enemy’ became wider and wider" (199). Between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi used electronic surveillance, informers, blackmail, and other tactics against any potential "enemies" of the state. In her investigations, Funder uncovered the deep psychological trauma the Stasi inflicted on the people, in the name of the People.

Funder explains her own fascination with East Germany as she travels to Leipzig, the city were the first demonstrations that lead to the collapse of East Germany began:
It is a country which no longer exists, but here I am on a train hurtling through it—its tumbledown houses and bewildered people. This feeling needs a sticklebrick word: I can only describe it as a horror-romance. It’s a dumb feeling, but I don’t want to shake it. The romance comes from the dream of a better world the German Communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. The horror comes from what they did in its name. (4)
In Leipzig, Funder also meets with Miriam Weber, whose husband was murdered by the Stasi in the 1980s. As if losing her husband wasn't enough, Miriam also had to fight with them to get her husband's body for a viewing at the funeral. At the time Stasiland was written, Miriam was trying to find out exactly how her husband died and if it's really his body in the coffin they buried.

After the Berlin Wall came down, former East Germans fought for the right to be able to read their own Stasi files. There are even people working to repair files that were haphazardly shredded in the weeks before the Wall came down. Many of the people Funder talked to—the non-Stasi people—deeply repressed their experiences with the Stasi. Funder's landlady, Julia, only spoke to Funder after getting to know her. Julia had an Italian boyfriend that she met by accident. Her Westkontake (contact with Westerners) sparked interrogations and attempts by the Stasi to turn her into an inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (an unofficial collaborator). One Stasi agent, known only as Major N., had Julia summoned to an office where he revealed just how much the Stasi knew about her and her boyfriend. They knew everything, absolutely everything. Only a threat to complain at the highest levels and the fact that it was the late 1980s saved Julia from further harassment. Julia also spoke about the impact of the repressive regime on her father:
Many people withdrew into what they called ‘internal emigration’. They sheltered their secret inner lives in an attempt to keep something of themselves from the authorities. After 1989 Dieter retired from teaching as soon as he could. He was depressed, and required medication. ‘I think one could count him too, as a victim of the regime,’ Julia says. Living for so long in a relation of unspoken hostility but outward compliance to the state had broken him. (96)
Some of the stories Funder tells have a twisted humor to them, but the vast majority reflect the psychological scars the Stasi inflicted on the East German people in the name of protecting their socialist fantasy.

The most disturbing moments in Stasiland come when Funder interviews ex-Stasi men and the host of the notorious Der schwartze Kanal, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. Von Schnitzler in particular sees nothing wrong about East Germany and how it was run. In fact, according to them, everything has gone to hell since the Wall came down. Some of these men are still diehard believers in the brand of communism practiced in East German. Others speak of "doing their duty" without recognizing that they're saying almost the same words that members of the SS and Wehrmacht used after World War II to explain their actions.

The parallels between East Germany and Nazi Germany mount up as Funder crisscrosses the former German Democratic Republic. When Funder began her project in the mid-1990s, it seemed that many Germans wanted to move on by not talking about the Stasi and their crimes. The letter writer who helped spark Funder's project wrote:
issues were being swept under the carpet in East Germany, and people along with them. It took twenty years after the war, he said, for the Nazi regime to even begin to be discussed in Germany, and that the process is repeating itself now. "Will it be 2010 or 2020 before what happened there is remembered?...Why are some things easier to remember the more time has passed since they occurred?" (13-14)
Museums that preserve the history of East German were, by the 2000s, suffering from lack of funding. Few people visited them. The only people interested in the past were more concerned with finding their own history in the former Stasi archives than seeing reminders behind glass. Other former East German citizens celebrate their old country in a phenomena known as Ostalgie—nostalgia for the East.

Funder's own story in Germany winds its way through all the other stories she shares in Stasiland. This is as much a book about historical investigation as it is about the actual history. Some readers may be put off by this, especially as Funder's story has much less pathos than the stories about Stasi men and East Germans. Me, I didn't enjoy these interruptions so much as I got used to them. There was one exception. I did enjoy Funder's tales of drinking with Klaus Renft, one of the founding members of an East German rock band, the Klaus Renft Combo.

The best way to sum up Funder's experiences is in her own words, "I’ve been having Adventures in Stasiland…I've been in a place where what was said was not real, and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard from again, or were smuggled into other realms" (120). By talking to so many East Germans, Funder got to vicariously feel what it was like to live in the most surveilled country in the world. That's what Funder gives us in Stasiland, too. The past is gone, no matter what the Ostalgie folks want, but its effects are still felt. And, no matter what some modern Germans might want, the past is still worth talking about.

* Paraphrases and quotes are from the 2002 trade paperback edition by Harper Perennial.


The Shore, by Sara Taylor

There was a passage from The Merchant of Venice that played on a loop in my head as I read Sara Taylor's The Shore:
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? (Act III, Scene I)
The Shore is a series of interconnected stories about a group of families who live on three barrier islands in Virginia between 1876 and 2143. With one exception, characters are wronged in each chapter. Some character bide their time before taking their vengeance. Others flee and start over on the mainland. For the most part, there are more villains than heroes and lives are hard—harder than they should be. But there's always the slight hope that tomorrow will bring an opportunity to get one's own back.

The Shore
It takes a while to get one's bearing in The Shore. The stories are not arranged in chronological order. Character names and family stories come up more than once, establishing the connections between the narrators in the various chapters. To make things more difficult, one story is narrated in first person. Another is in second person. Fortunately, most stories are told with a limited third person perspective. All this is by way of explaining how hard it is to summarize The Shore.

If I resort events chronologically, we see a story of a group of people—most related to each other, but some not—who've stolen what they have more often than not. Medora, the character furthest back in time, took advantage of a con man who was hoping to use her father as a mark to get away from her abusive parent. She has the con man set up a new plantation for them on Parksley Island. Things turn violent, but Medora gets the best of the scheming con man. Decades later, a segment of the family sets up shop distilling apple brandy just before Prohibition takes effect. Fifteen years or so after that, the family sees a repeat of Medora's "two husbands" play out before the family splits into more and less respectable branches.

By the 1980s, poverty, drugs, and sex have stripped away most of the families' pretensions. The stories set in the 1980s and 90s are the hardest to get through, emotionally speaking. The women are abused by so many of the men around them it's a wonder they don't all give in to despair. One of the few characters who has more than one chapter, Chloe Gordy, is one of my favorites. Chloe grew up with a meth-addicted father and learned quickly to beg, borrow, or steal to keep herself and her younger sister fed. When she takes her own rough vengeance on the men who would hurt her, I felt like applauding.

Two stories in The Shore take us into the future, in which a sexually transmitted disease becomes an apocalyptic pandemic. I wasn't expecting these chapters at all. Most of the book is firmly in the literary and historical fiction genres. The two stories set in the future catapult us into alternate history and speculative fiction. They are, strangely, the most hopeful chapters. In them, characters aren't seeking revenge. Instead, they are looking to start a new, better life. (On a side note, I loved the regressive language that Taylor used in the story set in 2143. The vocabulary and grammar hark back to the earliest stories and have a beautiful rhythm.)

Through all the stories in The Shore, the islands are more than a background. Their isolation makes the human community its own society by necessity. One gets the impression that the islands are all there is and the mainland might as well be on Mars. Perhaps that's why the characters seem to have no one else to turn to and must shift for themselves as best they can. The psychological scars the characters bear are echoed in the ecological depredations the islands suffer. And, given enough time, all wounds can be healed.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 May 2015.


Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

I've been avoiding Yann Martel's Life of Pi since it was published. It's nothing personal. I avoid stories "that will make you believe in God" (x*) like a person with a peanut allergy in a Thai restaurant. I finally caved when a colleague at my university's English department pushed it on me and told me that the narrator is unreliable.

Life of Pi
For the few people who haven't read Life of Pi and have managed to miss the movie, the book tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel. Pi was traveling with his family to Canada from Pondicherry, India, by cargo ship—along with many of the inmates of their zoo—when it sunk between Manila and Midway Island. Pi was lost at sea for months with only a 450 pound Bengal Tiger for company.

Pi's story is narrated by an unnamed writer who was trying to write another book before hearing about Pi. The writer tracked Pi down in Canada and recorded the survivor's tale. Pi begins in Pondicherry and the family zoo. As a child, Pi was always seeking the feeling of the holy. He was raised Hindu and considers himself to be Hindu, but he also practiced Christianity and Islam. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Pi's three teachers (a pandit, a priest, and an imam) find out about each other and get into a fight about Pi needed to choose one religion and stick to it.

The beginning of the book led me to expect that religion would play a bigger role in the story than it did. Though Pi credits his survival to God, he tends to use his reason to explain events—the algae island, for one—that another believer would call miracles. It's never stated in the book as such, but I wonder if Pi's early interfaith studies led him to a more basic form of belief. He lives on hope as much as he does fish and distilled water. His hope might founder, but Pi managed to soldier on.

For me, the least interesting part of the book was when Pi and the tiger were lost at sea. The first part had me hooked and the ending was brilliant. I was on guard for magical thinking through the whole of Pi's ordeal. I wrote notes in the margins when I thought Pi might be hallucinating or when "miracles" happened. There are parts of the story that are just unbelievable, as the two Japanese investigators point out at the end of the book. The tiger, for example. When other readers described Life of Pi to me, I got the impression that the book was allegorical. I was looking out for metaphors as much as I was looking for magical thinking.

There are hints early in the book that Pi is not the most reliable of narrators. Who would be, after the physical hardship of being lost at sea for months? But the writer comments near the beginning of his interviews that "Memory is an ocean and [Pi] bobs on its surface" (42). Even the writer is aware that he is getting the bare details of Pi's story. The writer's comment also led me to think that even Pi himself doesn't know the whole story. When Pi tells a briefer, more realistic story to the Japanese investigators after they refuse to believe his story about Richard Parker the tiger, he asks them, "So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?" (317). The investigators quickly agree that the story with animals is better. As readers, we have to answer Pi's question, too. Do we prefer the story of human betrayal and misery? The bare facts? Or would we rather believe the story of triumph over adversity and pure heroism?

Pi's question harks back to two characters he introduces us to at the beginning of the book: Mr. Kumar the biology teacher and Mr. Kumar the Muslim baker. The two Kumars represent reason and religion, two ideologies that are usually painted as irreconcilable opposites. And yet, the two men were able to stand side by side and feed a zebra. They had two different approaches, but the end result was the same. The chapter has a simple conclusion, so simple that it's easy to miss the significance of this brief bit of dialog:
Mr. Kumar said, "Equus burchelli boehmi."
Mr. Kumar said, "Allahu akbar."
I said, "It's very pretty."
We looked on. (84)
Unlike everyone else, Pi never has a problem reconciling all the contradictory worldviews. His answer to his own question is that there can be more than one story. After all, he points out, "Doesn't the telling of something always become a story?" (302).

At the end of Life of Pi, I have the choice of what to take away from the story. For me, this is not a story that makes me believe in god or religion. For me, Life of Pi is about the point of stories to shape our perspectives. Though I might be an atheist, I am a firm believer in the power of story.

* Quotes are from the 2001 trade paperback edition by Mariner Books.


L'esprit d'escalier; Or, trying and failing to discuss your favorite books

I was so excited about this evening's book group meeting. Last time, we decided to read Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, to make a change from all the depressing books we've been reading lately. Shortly after our discussion of the book began and some of the members expressed that they'd had a hard time getting into the book*, I told the group that it's probably the book I've re-read the most. Then a member asked me why it was one of my favorite books.

My mind went blank.

I can talk all day about books I've liked, hated, detested, enjoyed, etc. But it hit me in that moment: I apparently have no idea how to talk about books I love deeply. I managed to say something about how I loved the questions Good Omens posed. I first read it at a critical time, when I was about fifteen and finishing up confirmation classes. I love the humor of the book. Even after re-reading it for almost twenty years, it makes me laugh.

As I was driving home, esprit d'escalier hit me. I thought of all the things I should have said when I was asked why I love Good Omens so much. Good Omens is an integral part of how I think about religion, morality, intentions, and ethics. Yes, it's a humorous book, but comedy does more than just make us laugh. Humor turns things upside down to reveal absurdity and dissonance. The best kind of comedy speaks truth to power. Good Omens does that by raising questions about Christianity and its eschatology.

That's why Good Omens is one of my favorite books.

* I know!

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, by Amanda Downum

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters
Anyone picking up Amanda Downum's Dreams of Shreds and Tatters will be confused. The prologue opens with a cabal of artists gathering around a mysterious, powerful man. Chapter one shows us a magical disaster. Chapter two jumps us ahead in time once more to reveal the aftermath of humans meddling in things they do not understand. There were enough clues scatters in the book to send me scrambling to Wikipedia for background about the King in Yellow and Carcosa*. Downum's novel is a gripping reimagining of Robert Chambers' mythos.

Blake, a painter, is the first character introduced as a protagonists. Through his perspective, we see just how obsessed he and his fellow artists—under the tutelege of Rainer Morgenstern, their patron—grew about opening a door to magic and making contact with the King in Yellow. Blake is nearly killed during the group's most successful attempt and lies in a coma when the book's perspective shifts to Liz Drake. Liz has been Blake's friend for years and feels protective of the nearly broken gay man. She travels to Vancouver with her boyfriend, Alex, when she grows worried about Blake's months' long silence. Alex is a skeptic about Liz's dreams, but he loves her so much he won't let her go alone.

Liz and Alex; Rainer and his lover, Antja; and Blake take turns narrating Dreams of Shreds and Tatters. Rainer serves the King in Yellow in exchange for magic. Antja has made a bargain with a creature she calls the devil to try and protect herself and Rainer. Liz and Alex are the neophytes in this world. As such, they're our gateway into a bewildering universe of multiple worlds and hidden motives. Nothing is spoonfed to the reader.

The perspectives of the various narrators braid together to create a collision of quests. Liz's quest to rescue Blake from whatever he's gotten himself tangled up in is at the fore, but Rainer's Faustian quest for power via the supernatural is a close second. Rainer has been distributing a drug called mania to artists and seekers to try and force open the door between this world and the world of the King in Yellow. Nearly every other character knows this is folly, but the lure of magic is too much for most to resist.

I don't know how much Dreams of Shreds and Tatters takes from Chambers' stories; I haven't read them. So I don't know if Liz's abilities to dream herself into other worlds or the maenads and monsters or the female soldiers are a part of the mythos. It doesn't matter that much, but I suspect I would have understood the stakes the characters were playing for if I had more background knowledge about the King in Yellow and Chambers.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 12 May 2015.
* Some readers might recognize the names from True Detective. There is no link between Dreams of Shreds and Tatters and the HBO series.


How to Be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman

How to Be a Victorian
On the first work day of every month, I run a report to find all the new books, videos, and CDs that were added to my library's collection during the previous month. My perk for doing this is that I get first crack (usually) at the books I find interesting. Sometimes I just tweet about the standouts and sometimes I run all over the library, bugging my coworkers, to get my hands on a new book I must read immediately. This latter scenario is exactly what happened when I saw How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman pop up on the list. Thanks to the efforts of one of our paraprofessionals, I got to leave for my weeklong reading vacation (three days remaining) with How to Be a Victorian tucked into my messenger bag. Even having my mother visit me for a two days didn't stop me from reading it—though I was thrilled to have someone to share disturbing Victorian trivia with.

How to Be a Victorian's subtitle describes this as a dawn-to-dusk guide to Victorian life. Goodman begins with the morning ablutions, getting dressed, and breakfast before going to work and snatching a few hours of recreation and ends with a trip "behind the bedroom door" in the last chapter. Goodman explains her project in the very first paragraph of the preface:
I want to explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history, a history from the inside out: one that celebrates the ordinary and charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world. I want to look into the minds of our ancestors and witness their hopes, fears and assumptions, no matter how apparently minor. In short, I am in search of a history of those things that make up the day-to-day reality life. What was it really like to be alive in a difference time and place? (1*)
Goodman is a historical reenactor who spent a year working on a Victorian farm, wearing Victorian clothes, using Victorian products, and following (as closely as possible) the Victorian way of life. Those experiences make brief appearances in How to Be a Victorian. Most of the book is composed of more traditional academic histories about clothing, food, worklife, recreation, sex, medicine, and other topics. By the end of 440 pages, I think Goodman answered her question.

As I read How to Be a Victorian, I kept seeing connections and having small epiphanies about things I had seen in Victorian literature. Gaskell, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Wilkins, and Hardy make so much more sense to me now. For example, Goodman's discussion of Victorian foodways brought an added poignance to the most famous scene in Oliver Twist, the scene in which Oliver asks for more food at the workhouse. Goodman writes, "Twenty-first-century analysis of workhouse diets estimates that they offered 20 per cent less than the minimum calorific requirement today, and records that they were seriously deficient in a range of minerals and vitamins" (174). I wasn't surprised to learn that the average Victorian Londoner was shorter than modern Londoner, but I was shocked to learn that they "were also shorter than those recorded in the skeletons of earlier Londoners: excavations have shown that medieval Londoners were two inches taller than their Victorian counterparts" (170). The sections about food and work were probably the most depressing ones. While science and technology made gigantic strides in nearly every arena, the lot of nearly everyone except the rich was Hobbesian drudgery.

My favorite parts of How to Be a Victorian—aside from the medical history** and hair-raising work stories—were the ones were Goodman would report that Victorian washing and laundry practices work very well for greasy hair and strange fabrics. These moments bring history out of the realm of academia and help answer the question Goodman posed in her preface. Early in the book, Goodman writes about how clothing influenced behavior:
I have cut a field of corn with a sickle in dress of the 1620s, edged a field...wearing the clothes of the 1870s and cut down an overgrown allotment with a sickle in the 2010s. In the earliest of these sets of clothes I found that the best way to do the job was to stand with one foot in front of the other with the front knee well bent. I then leant my left elbow upon that knee, supporting my weight and saving my back...The 1870s clothes pinched and dug in when I tried to repeat the same motion wearing them, but I found that if I kept my weight more central and settled into the corset I could bend forwards and work more squarely on, with my back muscles relaxed, as the springy steels of the corset were supplying the support. The 2010s clothes required another adjustment; in the end I gave up trying to stand at all and shuffled along on my knees." (92-93)
Goodman also practiced Victorian calisthenics with her daughter (the same daughter who begged for a corset as a child because she saw her mother wear one), get into near fatal accidents with a coal cart, and makes Victorian recipes and remedies. My only criticism of this book is that there weren't more of these moments included in the book.

How to Be a Victorian is the kind of book I'm sure my family and friends dread me getting my hands on. They know that I'm likely to share things I find interesting every time I talk to them until I finish the book. I'm sure this wouldn't be so bad for them if I didn't find all the dirt, disgusting, and dangerous things interesting. I had a great time reading this book. (My mother assures me she also enjoyed me reading bits aloud to her while she was my houseguest. No, really!) When I checked it out, two of my colleagues were already politely sparring for the top spot on the hold list.

This is unrelated to the rest of this post, but I wanted to share a funny thing that happened. I went out for lunch yesterday. I was about 2/3rds of the way through the book at that point. The cook at the kebab shop asked if I was British while I was chatting and deciding between shawarma and a gyro. Books really do change how I speak!

* Quotes are from the 2013 hardcover edition by Liveright Publishing Corporation.
** For example, Goodman shares this gem:
In addition to the benefits of support, it was thought that a corset provided the warmth a woman’s vulnerable insides required, and that allowing the kidneys and other organs to become chilled as foolish and dangerous and could lead to a range of illnesses and disorders. (65)
My mother and I joked about avoiding kidney chills for two days. Corsets, ladies!