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!


The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

The Lace Reader
The Whitney family is legendary in Salem, Massachusetts. They are said to be mad as hatters for three generations running, but the women in the family are the best fortune tellers around. Towner Whitney, the protagonist of Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader, is perhaps the oddest of them all. She's been gone from Salem for fifteen years, but when she returns after her great-aunt's death, people are still whispering about her. Towner's return is a catalyst for reckonings that have been a long time coming.

I tagged this book as a mystery, though it doesn't follow many of the genre conventions. There is some question about whether Towner's great-aunt was murdered and another woman disappears in suspicious circumstances. If this was an ordinary mystery novel, the detective—Rafferty—wouldn't have such a hard time finding clues that point to a culprit. Rather, the real mystery in The Lace Reader is what happened to Towner and her sister fifteen years ago. So, while we learn about the sinister born again preacher, Cal, who was Towner's uncle, the plot ends up taking us in a completely different direction.

Towner never wanted to come back to Salem. She really only came back to go to the funeral. Her great-aunt Eva's will makes it impossible for Towner to cut ties once more. When she was a teenager, Towner suffered a mental breakdown and underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Consequently, she doesn't remember much of what happened to her or her dead twin sister. Being back in Salem mostly makes her feel afraid, paranoid, and physically ill. We spend most of the book in Towner's head as she tries to come to terms with Cal and her history. Rafferty also takes turns as our narrator. We also get to dip into old police reports and Towner's journal from her time in a psychiatric hospital.

As if the possible murder, disappearance, and past crimes weren't enough, The Lace Reader also treats us to a family tradition of prognostication via lace, an underground railroad for abused women, legal wrangling, witches, latter-day faux Calvinists, lots of swimming and sailing, and hallucinations. It's a lot to be getting on with.

On the surface, it's hard to know what we're meant to make of The Lace Reader. While it was interesting, the plot bowed under the weight of all the things Barry was trying to include in this book. If the book had been longer or if there had been a completely omniscient third person narrator, The Lace Reader wouldn't have been so confused. But then, the story would have lost the ambiguity it needed to be a psychological thriller. Still, I think this book could have been better executed.

Cover Story, Part IV: Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

When I review public domain titles, I link to the generic entry on GoodReads and pick my favorite cover to put in my post. This hasn't been an issue until I read Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel. Red Cavalry was published in 1926, so it's public domain in the United States. But I got an advanced reader copy of a reissue from Pushkin Press. I suppose I ought to have used the Pushkin Press cover, to give them a bit of cover advertising. I chose not to because the cover Pushkin Press is using didn't fit what I read.

2003 edition by W.W. Norton & Co.
I used this cover (at right) instead. The cover from the W.W. Norton edition uses Soviet propaganda, with blocky text for the title, author, etc. The red (and Red) cavalryman on the cover is crushing his opponents—and Ukraine—beneath his boots. The cavalryman is meant to be idealized, but he strikes me as incredibly sinister. This representation of a Red soldier captures the soldiers depicted in Babel's stories and vignettes. I wrote about the unreconcilable divide in the men's characters that I saw. These were men who did unspeakable things to their fellow human beings, but who would become nearly suicidal with grief if their horses were killed. The cavalryman on the cover looks savage, like the kind of person who could execute another person out of hand or violate a woman without a second thought. To me, Red Cavalry was a welter of these kinds of acts and brutality.

I had a quick look at the other editions listed on GoodReads and many of them are curiously bland. A few of them have soldiers on the cover. One had a picture of the author, which might be the worst choice. Isaac Babel, in most of his pictures, looks like a professor—the last man one would picture as a soldier. (See?) To my way of thinking, covers are not just advertisement; they prepare a reader for the experience they will have with the book. A good cover will put a reader in the right frame of mind.

2015 edition by Pushkin Press
The cover that Pushkin Press had designed for Red Cavalry tells a different story than Norton's propaganda cover. Red hoof prints form a border around a pair of broken glasses. The metaphor I pick up on hints at Babel's biography. Babel was a writer, one of the intelligentsia, before he was assigned to Semyon Budyonny's First Cavalry Army. The broken glasses signal, to me, that the experiences of the Polish-Soviet War broke him. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that there is no single first person narrator in Red Cavalry. The 'I' changes from story to story as Babel slips into different personae to tell the stories of his fellow soldiers. There is also no reflection on the time before the war. That kind of reflection doesn't fit the collection. Everything in Red Cavalry is war or a direct result of the war. One gets the impression that there has always and will always be war.

I'm glad (sometimes) that the advanced reader copies I get arrive on my kindle looking like raw manuscripts. I won't form hard notions of what I'm about to read. When I'm recommending books, though, I want the cover in my reviews to send signals to potential readers. Covers are meant to be judged, contrary to popular belief.

The Magician's Lie, by Greer Macallister

The Magician's Lie
Last week, I declared my love for meta-fiction: fiction that lets one know that the story is fictional and invites the reader into the illusion. I said that I liked being in on the joke. When I said that, I wasn't thinking about stories told by magicians. The illusion, perhaps ironically, doesn't hold up here because one can never be sure if there is a trick or not. In The Magician's Lie, by Greer Macallister, the Amazing Arden tells her entire life's story to try and convince a policeman to let her go. Like that officer, I'm not sure if I've been lied to or if Arden's story is true or if it's something in between.

Officer Virgil Holt was horrified when he saw the Amazing Arden's Halved Man illusion. Who wouldn't be shocked to see a man apparently chopped in half by a woman wielding an ax? When the body of the magician's husband is later found stuffed inside the Halved Man cabinet, it's logical that Arden was the one who did it, either accidentally or on purpose. Then Holt captures Arden fleeing the scene. When she's safely locked to a chair with a series of handcuffs, Holt asks Arden why she did it. By way of proving her innocence, Arden takes us back to the beginning, when she was Ada Bates, the daughter of a cellist who ran away with a poor man.

Ada always had a knack for performing. She wasn't a talented musician like her mother, but she was a skillful, self-taught ballerina. Mother and daughter work to harness Ada's talent to get her out of the Tennessee backwoods where the family lives. It might have worked if it hadn't been for Ada's twisted cousin, Ray. Ray hasn't been right since a fever killed his sisters and nearly killed him. He believes he has healing magic and hurts animals to prove it, before turning on Ada. She repeatedly flees Ray before finding sanctuary as a laundress, then New York dancer, then magician's assistant.

Holt frequently interrupts Ada—now Arden—urging her to get to the murder. Arden puts him off as much as possible, while ridding herself of handcuffs. Most of The Magician's Lie, in spite of Holt's urgings, is autobiography. A few facts here and there make Holt (and the reader) question Arden's account. There are a lot of montages. The real action doesn't happen until the 75 pages (or so) of the novel. I felt almost as frustrated as Holt while Arden spun out her story. Then, at the very end, everything happens.

Was there a trick? I suspect there was, but I'm not sure what it was. We only hear what Arden wants us to hear. As a murder suspect, she has no reason to tell the truth and her story is a little too good to be true. And yet, if her story is true, Arden becomes a hero and a villain was vanquished. I suppose one can read the story either way.


Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

Red Cavalry
Last January, I read The Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin and was horrified by the rapid emotional cycling of the main character. The same man who, in the morning, could commit rapes and beatings and executions would be the same man who wept at the beauty of an opera. What I didn't know at the time was this kind of character is part of a Russian character. I saw several of his type in Isaac Babel's short story collection, Red Cavalry, soon to be reissued by Pushkin Press.

Issac Babel's stories are drawn from life. As a young man trying to become a writer, Babel was assigned to the First Cavalry Army in 1920. Red Cavalry began as Babel's war diary as he fought with the First Cavalry in the Polish-Soviet War—a tidy name for a conflict in which every faction is fighting every other faction and the civilian population, as well. The man in the cavalry mourn their slaughtered horses and weep when they are particularly moved by a song, then turn around and commit mass murder or atrocities on the civilians. The stories in Red Cavalry document a world gone mad.

According to the translator's note at the beginning of this reissue of Red Cavalry, the collection is considered a masterpiece of Russian literature. Wikipedia quotes the inimitable Jorge Luis Borges on the effect of one of the stories, "The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes. One of the stories, —"Salt"—enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart" (Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Nonfictions, page 164.) The translator, Boris Dralyuk, also comments on the "music" in Babel's stories. It is a rough music. The stories—vignettes, really—flow into each other. Characters reappear in later stories, lending some coherence to the chaos.

Because the stories tumble into one another, it's hard to pick any standouts. Many of the story titles were omitted from my advanced reader copy, so I actually read the book as one piece. (I'm not sure which method is more effective, to be honest.) As I read, I had bookmarks in the historical notes at the end so that I could understand the brief references to various commanders, heroes, and villains; the flashes of Polish and Yiddish; and the pertinent history of post-World War I civil war wracked Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.

I suspect that Babel's stories and vignettes are deliberately confusing because the events themselves were so confusing. Instead of putting political speeches into his characters' mouths, the combatants and civilians don't seem to know what anyone is fighting for. To an outside observer, it's sheer anarchy. (Possibly to an inside observer, too.) In the past, I've read Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard, which is set at roughly the same time, but Red Cavalry is only my second exposure to contemporary Russian Civil War literature. Because Red Cavalry was written as the author killed and avoided being killed, it feels truer to the time than The White Guard (serialized in 1925, but not fully published until 1966). That is to say, it feels as true as a war story can feel to anyone who wasn't there.

I received a copy of this collection from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be published 12 May 2015.


Ruby, by Cynthia Bond

I've been on my Spring Break reading vacation since 5:00PM on Thursday and have, with brief breaks, been mainlining fiction ever since. So far, I have completed four books by reading constantly, only pausing to sleep, eat, and do my taxes. But this afternoon, I had to set aside Cynthia Bond's Ruby because the book was too intense for me to handle all in one go—just like Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things.

Ruby Bell is the center of the eponymous novel, but our narrator is Ephram Jennings, a man who has known the strange, tortured woman since they were children. He was there in 1963 when Ruby returned to Liberty, Texas, after the death of another childhood friend. Her return reminded me of Janie Crawford's return at the beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God, but all similarities end there. Where Janie had discovered herself and her self-worth before coming back, Ruby lost every spark of herself years ago. Her story is so much darker than anything Janie faced.

For eleven years since that day in 1963, Ephram has watched Ruby deteriorate into madness. She is a wild thing who lives on her family's land and charity. It's well known that the men of Liberty—except Ephram—take advantage of her from time to time. This is just the latest abusive chapter in Ruby's life. When Ruby loses control of her bladder one day in the street, Ephram is shaken out of his watchful pity. The first third of Ruby is framed with Ephram's journey to the Bell house to take Ruby a cake. There rare frequent flashbacks into Ephram and Ruby's pasts. Ephram tells us about Ma Tante's warnings and her vodun ways and his disapproving preacher father. He shows how tightly the town of Liberty is bound to the religions both characters evangelized—and the stark differences between the rigid, unforgiving small town Christianity and the terrifying vodun practices that the people still follow in spite of their public professions.

The story grows more intense in parts two and three. (I had to take a few hours off during part three because I couldn't handle the revelations about the evil that's been haunting Liberty and Ruby.) In part two, Ephram begins his slow, beautiful attempt to rehabilitate Ruby. I was struck by a particularly profound passage when Ephram begins to restore Ruby's hair:
Her hair was hard in places like thick plastic. It had matted so that scabs had formed along the scalp, bled and dried into scars. Some of the hair had tangled into ropes, so dense, so solid that it would have been easier to shave her head and start fresh…Ephram had always thought of a woman’s hair as a living testimony to her life, her memories. Celia [Ephram's sister] kept hers twisted tight under bobby pins, bound by headscarves and wig nets. His mama had kept hers free and puffy, until, he’d heard, they made her tie it back at Dearing. He’d silently watched women and the complexity of their hair all of his life. He knew that some memories were better cut out, amputated. He’d seen women freed that way. But his bones told him that Ruby needed her past to find her way home. So he spent the night tending to her hair. (186-187*)
As Ephram untangles Ruby's long hair, he gets flashes of her past trauma. By morning, after hours of work, Ephram falls asleep thinking, "So this is the life of a woman" (190). I was floored by Ruby's story and marveled at Ephram's gentle acceptance of who Ruby is and what she's done to herself to stay alive.

Liberty, Texas is a twisted town. It's people are twisted, too. On the surface, they attend church and warn each other stridently about temptation. They shun Ruby. When Ephram starts to tend to her, his sister Celia organizes the church to try and exorcise the devil out of the pair of them. None of this is metaphor, but Celia has misidentified the devil and its victims. Throughout the book, Ruby has been struggling against an evil being known as the Dyboù, been watched over by a preternaturally wise crow, and been haunted by the ghosts of murdered children. The supernatural is doing brisk business in Liberty.

I had no idea whether Ruby was going to be a tragedy or a triumph until I read the last pages of the last chapter.

After finishing Ruby, I don't know who I recommend this to. The abuses and traumas Ruby suffered as a child are harrowing, in the full sense of the word. It will take a stronger reader than I to read Ruby unscathed. I feel I can recommend it to readers who can understand that the fictional crimes perpetrated on Ruby were necessary for the story. This is a book about evil and Bond spares no one in showing us real evil. Nothing in Ruby is gratuitous, but this book is a hard, hard read, folks. Without evil, the redemption Ruby and Ephram claim for themselves and the love they find wouldn't have nearly as much meaning.

This book is going to stay in my head for a long time.

* Quotes are from the 2014 hardcover edition by Hogarth.

Unseemly Science, by Rod Duncan

Unseemly Science
Unseemly Science, by Rod Duncan, picks up some time after the first novel in the Gas-Lit Empire series, The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter. Private investigator Elizabeth Barnabas is muddling along when a new law is passed that could send her straight back to the Kingdom she fled as a teenager. As if this weren't complication enough, Elizabeth is also drawn into a strange case of missing ice in Derbyshire that becomes a lot deadlier than it has any right to be.

Ever since she fled a sentence of indentured servitude in the Kingdom of England and South Wales, Elizabeth has been living a double life. She earns money as an intelligence agent and private investigator while disguised as her fictional brother Edwin, because women in the Anglo-Scotch Republic are not permitted to work in such a rough field. She usually manages to keep her head down and avoid notice, but Unseemly Science opens with the arrival of a lawyer to disturb her equilibrium. This lawyer informs her that a new treaty will extradite all fugitives from the Kingdom back where they came from. For an outrageous sum, the lawyer will do his best to see that Elizabeth escapes her legal entanglements. After that, things go swiftly to hell.

Elizabeth spends much of Unseemly Science escaping from various captivities. In spite of this, she still takes on the case of the missing ice because it will bring her protection from connected politicals. It's really her only hope at this point. The case of the missing ice shouldn't be such a big deal, but Elizabeth's potential patron insists that she find out what is going on in Derbyshire. Slowly, Elizabeth uncovers a crime that's much, much worse than pilfering and thievery and we finally learn what the unseemly science of the title is.

But I'm not going to give the twist away.

What struck me about Unseemly Science most keenly was Elizabeth's growing loneliness. Though she has friends, she really can't trust anyone—not with a price of 400 guineas on her head. That kind of money will turn anyone. She's alone so much of the time, fighting against impossible odds. It seems that she would like to have someone to help her carry the burden.

I don't usually read the glossaries at the end of books, but I'm glad I skimmed through the one provided with Unseemly Science. In the entry for our protagonist, Duncan hits at even bigger adventures and struggles in Elizabeth's future.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 5 May 2015.