Book Reviews

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

the transcriptionist

The Transcriptionist was not what I expected and I mean this in the best of ways. It is a New York City novel, but resides in unknown places and lives that have yet to be portrayed in fiction.* Lena is a transcriptionist at the New York Record–a position that seems a relic in our digital age. In 2003, the city is living in a time that seems both close and faraway to the present day reader. Post 9/11 concerns are red hot (the staff of the Record  are absurdly given “escape hoods” in case of further mass emergency) and the daily news cycles whirl around Lena as she sits alone on the eleventh floor transcribing recorded interviews and reports from abroad.

She lives in this shadow state, always reading the news she knows over the news that makes it into print, and not just reading the shadows, but also living in them, somewhere between waiting and searching. This is what chills her…

Lena lives alone in a room she rents where the sink is also in her room. She keeps to herself and even the one person, Russell, who speaks to her socially at work thinks her name is Carol (a mistake she leaves uncorrected). Lena is filled with words and language so much that her conversational skills are composed mostly of quotations.

But then everything changes. A news report on page 3 of the Record catches her eye. A woman is mauled to death by the lions at the Bronx Zoo one night. The death is a suspected suicide. Lena sees the woman’s photo and identifies her as the blind woman who spoke to her three days prior on the city bus. With a migraine, Lena didn’t pay the woman full attention, but now in death Lena is rapt.

The parallels that Lena finds between herself and the dead blind woman, begin to make her move out of the shadows. Words and language compose her life, but as she attempts to find more information over the death, she quietly begins to unravel the mundane life she had been living and the contradictions at the Record and the world around her.

In Lena, debut novelist Amy Rowland has constructed a character that is able to see beneath what has become everyday life. As a former transcriptionist herself, Rowland provides wonderful information and details on the goings-on of a major newspaper. She portrays a liminal space where technology and the human touch are still needed. The Recording Room where Lena works is still made up of audio tape, telephones, and people. Dictations are important and the accuracy of a person’s ear is paramount to correct copy. Lena is part of the Record‘s “institutional memory.”

Lena finds in the blind woman a person who can see more than anyone else. Before reading the short news report, Lena would have continued on in her mundane, liminal space of the shadows until she faded away and was forgotten. Instead, she wanted to learn things and in doing so, shook herself from the trappings of her solitary and almost obsolete life (and employment).

The Transcriptionist is a novel that finds its energy in the forgotten and unknowable. It is not the glamour of New York City that entices the reader, but the monotony of a single person’s everyday life and the subsequent search to find comfort and meaning. Lena finds her solutions in language. She is able to finally see other people’s failings in their use of language and reactions to it. We have our memories, but when we, too, are gone, it is language that is left to carry us away from being forgotten.

This novel will be released in the US on May 13, 2014 by Algonquin Books.


*Although, completely different NYC stories, part of me had a similar indulgent feeling when I read The Rules of Civility.

 

The Bureaucrat’s Recommended Reading List

The unending and illogical madness of government bureaucracy didn’t truly hit me until I worked for the government. For one year, the term kafkaesque permeated my life and my unfortunately battered psyche. Sure, I had read plenty of Kafka’s works up to that time, but they didn’t resonate in the same way until I found myself running in circles only to ram head first into a wall of slow policies and paperwork covered in absurdity resulting in bad handwriting and 4:30 martinis. But this sort of insanity can be found in other works by other authors as well.

Bureaucrat's Reading List

According to Merriam-Webster, Kafkaesque is defined as :  of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially :  having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality <Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays>

***

Catch-22. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” One of the great American novels of the 20th Century, Joseph Heller’s World War II-set narrative finds bombardier Yossarian caught in an illogical roundabout that exams the insanity, idiocy, and other problematic facets of war.

Metropole. When a linguist boards the wrong plane in Budapest, he arrives in an unknown city where he can’t seem to understand anything anyone is saying. There is excessive queuing and official information is constantly changing from one day to the next.

The Passion According to G.H. A claustrophobic, ecstatic stream of consciousness begins when the maid quits, leading G.H. to go into the former employee’s room to find it spotless save for a cockroach that she goes on to kill. Language, memories, and philosophies are tangled around the lifeless vermin for inspection.

Invitation to a Beheading. I’ve always maintained that if you covered up Vladimir Nabokov’s name on the front cover and gave it to a new reader, they would immediately assume it was written by Kafka based on the style, tone, and premise. In an unnamed country, Cincinnatus C. is sentenced to death by beheading for being found guilty of “gnostical turpitude,” an undefined crime.

The Joke. This is Milan Kundera’s first novel and written during the brewing Prague Spring. Ludvik is sentenced to hard labor after sending a friend a joke written on a postcard that pokes fun at the communist regime. He is turned in and his trial is nothing more than a kangaroo court. 

The Garden Party.  The young Hugo is sent by his father to a garden party to meet a local bureaucrat who his father is certain will employ Hugo. The party-goers mistake him for a seasoned employee and soon Hugo is put in charge of liquidating the liquidation office. He fools them all by quickly mutating his language to that of the bureaucracy.

The Castle. This list wouldn’t be complete without Kafka, right? There are so many to choose from, but The Trial and The Castle are always cited as the most “kafkaesque” of them all. K. is a land surveyor who has been summoned to an unnamed town. He keeps trying to get into the castle to speak with a mysterious and unseen official. Paperwork and the unknowable are just two blockades to his pursuits.

These are just a few selections. Do you have any further recommendations?

Selected dialogue from The Garden Party,

The Garden Party

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

all the birds, singing

Isolation, buried secrets, and what lurks in the shadows are the unquestionable foundations upon which this novel is built. Jake Whyte lives on a remote British island, tending to her sheep on a farm she purchased three years prior. She keeps to herself except for the occasional visit from Don, the previous shepherd who owned her farm, and who doesn’t leave a chance to remind her that she really should ingratiate herself into the rest of the rural community, instead of staying alone at her farm.

Jake seems content with her solitary life, but then a recent spate of worrying days have befallen her. She has woken up to the unpleasant fact that her sheep are being killed at night. Not only are they killed, but they are gutted and sliced open, giving the reality of it being a fox too much doubt. Everyone in the town seems happy to agree that it’s just a wild animal, but Jake can’t get past the brutality of the killings.

Once the reader becomes sufficiently comfortable even in this most sinister of circumstances, author Evie Wyld pulls the narrative back in time to Jake living in her native Australia. She is a drifter working as a hired hand on a sheep farm with other unattached youth. Wyld goes back and forth with alternating chapters between the present day of the English farm to scenes from Jake’s past. An interesting facet of the background chapters is that they unfold in reverse. This was reminiscent of the 2002 French film, Irréversible, which was told backwards with the horrifying event having already taken place, leading the characters and the viewers to do the painful yet necessary task of looking at everything that had already been. Wyld employs the same technique, resulting in Jake’s adolescent years to be reverted back to an earlier, more naive state — or is she really that naive, could be another question.

The present day story took a while to build in tension. Even with the gruesome sheep slayings, no real threat enters until a mysterious stranger named Lloyd arrives on Jake’s property. He clearly has his own secrets, which he is happy to hide and with this man’s new presence, the shadowy threat becomes more prominent to Jake, who might see the killer around corners or off in the dark distance.

Utilizing a non-linear narrative for the alternating chapters was an intriguing choice. It pushed the secret of Jake’s past and how she ended up where she now is in a way that, perhaps, would have fallen flat. Part of this second narrative was toeing the line, however, with being tired and played out. I won’t reveal elements of this plot, but All the Birds, Singing could have been easily placed with all of the other recent media and entertainment that finds its plots in the sexual abuse or exploitation of young women. An author can write whatever they desire, but there is such an overload of this plot nowadays, that it made the novel feel like just another one of these. It wasn’t particularly original in this aspect, nor, in its execution.

The more engrossing part of the novel was in the present day. The threat is unknowable and not quite corporeal. Mysterious strangers with their own pasts is too good, but like the threat, the ending to this storyline is never fully formed. Recently, I find myself drawn to literature and movies that leave me with less than concrete answers and conclusions. With that said, however, this path can only be a success when other notions and ideas are a part of the narrative. Wyld didn’t build a world where I was capable of inserting my own philosophies and form unspoken possibilities. There were no connections to be made…unfortunately.

This was a difficult one in that my excitement was letdown. The writing is crisp and solid, and Wyld does an adequate job of making Jake’s sheep farm eerie.

“This is a wild place, there could be all sorts of animals you don’t know about–”

Both plots in the novel are wild places, yet, they don’t make up for that fact that something was missing. Nothing was ever quite realized. The fact that the book had an interesting premise and was populated with instances of intrigue and unknowing didn’t make up for the large portion that was tired and stale in the contemporary conscience. This uneveness left something to be desired.

This novel will be released in the US by Pantheon Books on April 15, 2014.

 


**I’m curious to know others people’s opinions on the overload of plots in movies,  television, and books in regards to the aforementioned sexual exploitation components. Of course, this has always been around in our entertainment (re: Law & Order: SVU), but lately I think we’ve just been inundated with this. To me, it almost feels cliché and an easy path for a creator to take to add gravitas or horror to their work. With that said, I love Twin Peaks and the recent True Detective, so perhaps I am just spouting hypocrisy.

 

Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill

I first heard about this book last year when I read it was being adapted for film (photo above showing the main character portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe). The novel’s premise seemed right up my alley. It is a blend of the fantastic, horror, absurd, and revenge, which novelist Joe Hill pulls off so very, very well.

Ig Perrish wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to find that horns have sprouted out of his head. While still in the fog from the night before, the reality of these horns can, of course, be questioned because “it wouldn’t be the first time he’d confused fantasy with reality, and he knew from experience that he was especially prone to unlikely religious delusions.” However, Ig and the reader soon realize that his world is no longer normal. Are the people he encounters seeing the horns or are they oddly invisible to others? Everyone starts to tell Ig the unfiltered truth, even divulging deep, dark secrets and feelings.

But what is said to Ig while he is adorned with these new horns is usually filled with disgust and vitriol, because the year before, he was accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Merrin. The power of the horns are even more useful as Ig tries to uncover what really happened to her.

The novel is filled with dark premises and reprehensible secrets, but Hill’s writing takes the despicable and winds absurd humor around it that is delightfully indulgent.

Lee and Ig had been friends in another life, but all that was behind Ig now, had died with Merrin. It was difficult to maintain close friendships when you were under suspicion of being a sex murderer.

As the novel goes on, Ig continues to metamorphose both with the powers the horns give him and through the author’s language, choosing to even further equate Ig’s new anatomy with that of a devil. He is the dark confessor for all of those who lent a hand in condemning him during the investigation into his girlfriend’s murder. I also think it’s an interesting idea from the writer’s perspective to introduce a conceit that allows for the unrestrained revealing of information. Joe Hill writes, “It was, perhaps, the devil’s oldest precept, that sin could always be trusted to reveal what was most human in a person, as often for good as for ill.”

Horns plays a lot with the idea of Church (big C), and the dichotomies between good and evil and what is godly and what is damnation. Ig is an anti-hero, both marked as one by the horns and the difficulties arising when archetypes are ripped apart and redesigned. This is an entirely absorbing novel and the ending (which I shan’t give away!), had whiffs of a plot point in Twin Peaks. Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know, but I enjoyed the possibility.

I am curious to see the film adaptation. Does anyone know further information about release dates?


 

*Top images from Wikipedia and IMDb.

 

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy

The Devil I Know

“Everyone thinks you’re dead, son, I may as well tell you now.”

No, that’s the other Tristram St. Lawrence.

Kinship to Tristram Shandy is hard to avoid in Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, a deliberate satire of the Irish housing boom from not so long ago. In both real life and the world of the novel, financial bloat and lack of responsibility lead to devastating ruin. However, the novel itself is more concerned with the lead up. It’s conceit is that it is told in the year 2016 during a mysterious deposition of Tristram St. Lawrence, a recovering alcoholic and broken noble who most assumed dead for one reason or another and the lynchpin to some airy real estate scheme in his hometown.

Much like Sterne’s eponymous character, St. Lawrence is unable to easily explain his situation and instead tells a convoluted tale about his business dealings with a childhood friend, Desmond Hickey, and the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, whose identity becomes quite obvious as the narrative goes forward and onto its final pages.

St. Lawrence begins his story with his airplane being diverted to Dublin and, much to his dismay, he is now stuck in Ireland. He hasn’t returned to his home for years, even missing his own mother’s funeral, letting his ancestral home and his elderly father fall apart. A recovering alcoholic, it’s Kismet when he meets up with an old school peer in a bar and what proceeds is an ever-growing scheme to build, build, build.

The Devil I Know does that wonderful thing where it has the ability of leaving the reader in a narrative purgatory (pardon the pun). You’re never quite sure what’s happening to Tristram St. Lawrence. Everyone in his hometown, including Desmond Hickey, keep repeating the fact that they all thought he was dead, which gave my readerly brain slight tingles thinking about Flann O’Brien. St. Lawrence keeps insisting that that was the other Tristram St. Lawrence. Also, the absent M. Deauville, whose page time is mostly conducted over a phone call with the narrator is in a word intriguing even as his identity becomes both clear and more difficult by the novel’s end.

St. Lawrence is a classic unreliable narrator. His deposition can easily be picked apart and nothing that St. Lawrence actually says is concrete. Here, however, is where the novel feels thin. Clearly, a deal with the devil is occurring; one that the narrator can never escape. Kilroy is lampooning Ireland’s financial bust through this idea, one that I think is clever in general and also poignant for a country filled with folklore.

Yet, the Faustian plot was pulled for too long. Sometimes, as I was reading, the narrative suffered from not having any sort of tension. You would think such a pact would elicit more salacious doings and undoings. Yes, St. Lawrence is secretive and his flamboyant testimony hides the real deeds underneath, but not enough of it poked out.

Kilroy’s satire and tongue-in-cheek were an interesting route to present Ireland’s bust, but it wasn’t enough to carry the whole novel. This was a tricky one. I enjoyed much of it and the teetering concept of real and imagined was an exciting element, yet, these factors, perhaps, were not enough to keep the novel on sturdy legs.

Throttle and Duel

Homages are an interesting thing. Often enough they are created to tickle our fancy for the original. With the short story, “Throttle,” the reader gets just that. I think we can all agree that Richard Matheson has produced some fine works (I am LegendThe Shrinking Man, episodes for The Twilight Zone to just name a few for the uninitiated). One of his great anxiety inducing stories is “Duel,” which also was adapted for television and film by Steven Spielberg.¹

If you’ve never read “Duel,” I suggest reading Matheson’s story first, not only for the references in King and Hill’s story, but for the sheer fact that it is highly enjoyable.²

It sounds simple and maybe not as horrifying as one would imagine, but “Duel” literally races down the highway taking the reader along with it, leading to intense page turning. The story is about Mann, our leading driver, who finds himself impatiently trying to pass a truck on the highway. What ensues is a death-defying cat and mouse duel between Mann and the truck driver, who Matheson focuses on as a truck and less like a man (Man vs. Machine?). Matheson strips the characters of their identifying humanity, creating battling creatures.

Then, unexpectedly, emotion came. Not dread, at first, and not regret; not the nausea that followed soon. It was a primeval  tumult in his mind: the cry of some ancestral beast above the body of its vanquished foe.

So, you can see why Stephen King and his son, author Joe Hill (who is a completely wonderful writer in his own right; I hope to have some reviews of his work soonish) would take on the task of creating a story influenced by “Duel.” Homages can be fun when done right (no one likes a copy cat) and this one certainly is just that. In “Throttle,”³ we have a gang of hard-living motorcyclists with more back story than Matheson’s Mann. While on the road, they must maneuver down the highway while outracing a dueling tractor trailer. The motorcyclists have a seedy story to hide and it all comes to deadly fruition during the final duel. Oh, and there are illustrations to supplement the spinning tires and Army tats.

I’ve never seen Sons of Anarchy, but I’m sure fans of the show will like this one. I know I certainly had a good time. Also, I kept thinking of the grumpy Hell’s Angels in the East Village who yell at tourists, who dare to sit on the bench outside of their clubhouse on East Third Street. For all non-New Yorkers, even though absolutely no member ever sits on that bench, they don’t want you to, either.

***

  1. You can read a little recollection by Spielberg about the story and adapting it here.
  2. “Duel” is available to read for free online at Google Books.
  3. “Throttle” is available for .99 cents as a Kindle Single or in the anthology, He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson.

**Many thanks to Rory at Fourth Street Review for pointing this one out. I was a bit busy this month and I know I’m a day late and buck short, but maybe this one will count as my contribution to her month-long, King’s March.

The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie by Thomas Disch

robotic alien

Down and out sci-fi/fantasy writer Rudy Steiner is approached by his agent Mal Blitzberg, who offers him the chance to write a UFO abduction book. The fact that it is April 1st isn’t lost on Rudy, but he soon believes that Mal isn’t playing a joke on him. Apparently, previous books presented as true life alien abductions have gone over well and sold many copies. An editor at Knopf, Janet Cruse, is eager to have Rudy write the next big thing. What does he have to lose? He’s overweight, perpetually in AA, three months into a wicked writer’s block, and a frivolous lawsuit is all that Rudy has going on.

With the help of editor Janet Cruse, Rudy writes about the completely “true” alien abduction of his imaginary daughter, Bunny. The fact that Rudy has no children to speak of is not a problem; Janet will take care of everything.

“Oh, I think you’d always have written it, Rudy. The only difference now is that you’ll sign your name to it.”
“You think I’m shameless.”
She nodded.
She was right.

And who can pass over a Knopf payday? Everything seems so perfect–an easy gig for a writer fallen on tough times–but while he’s halfway through writing the manuscript, the real truth begins to unravel. Janet Cruse isn’t representing who she first says she is, the mysterious and imagined Bunny Steiner, blonde curls and all, is starting to pop up on television interviews, and there is a vengeful cult called The People who have their hands deeper in these events that one should feel comfortable with.

When he starts to become aware that not everything is okay, Rudy awakens in the middle of the night and has “an obscure sense that something terrible had just happened to him but he didn’t know what.”  For a short story, so many unsettling things are happening in “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie.” There is the obvious lie snowballing into something completely out of the control of the protagonist and the even more uncomfortable UFO cult that is more prominent than Rudy is first led to believe (aside: The People are an interesting example of strange UFO cults that were featured on the 5 o’clock news in the 1990s and the ones that still persevere today like Raëlism and Scientology).

Although, Thomas Disch’s story first appeared in April 1992 (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), there is an element that rings so relevant to some of today’s publishing schemes and the desires of the book reading public. When Rudy is first presented with the idea by Janet Cruse of writing the true tale alien abduction, she tells him,  “Strieber’s book shows that the audience is there, and Hopkins’s book shows that anyone can tell essentially the same story.” She is referencing recent releases that had captivated readers and made a killing for the publishers (whether they are truthful or not isn’t relevant). Why not jump on the bandwagon is her initial pitch to Rudy. This feels entirely in line with the recent smorgasbord of dystopian youth novels that are invading bookshelves. You can’t go on the internet without reading about some new post-apocalyptic trilogy’s breakdown of a not-so-distant future society (and just a few years ago, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into some teenager vampire romance). Even in Disch’s story, when a publisher sees a lucrative venue, they’ll milk it till it’s bone dry.

“The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie” is not a science fiction story onto itself. True, the protagonist is a sci-fi writer and he’s penning an alien abduction book, but the story is completely set in reality with the horror and anxiety coming from very real, albeit, bizarre sources. As Disch stacks one more bit of the strange on top of another, the reader will be hooked until the final page.

Further Information…
  • Thomas Disch (1940-2008) was extremely prolific. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and poetry.
  • On TheMillions.com, David Auerbach writes of Disch: “He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares.” You can read the complete article here.
  • Update: This story pops up in a few anthologies. I read it in Decades of Science Fiction (ISBN13: 9780844259956).

Nagasaki by Éric Faye

Before the novel even begins, the reader is notified that it is “based on a story which appeared in several Japanese newspapers…in May 2008.”¹ This, of course, makes the words which lie beneath the cover even more titillating.

Meteorologist Shimura Kobo, a fifty-six year old life-long bachelor living in Nagasaki, Japan, begins to realize small changes in the house he lives in by himself: small portions of food are going missing, the level of juice in the container is going down between the time he leaves for work in the morning till when he returns in the evening. Like the meticulous scientist he is, Shimura records all of his observations down in a notebook. However, his rational mind tries to make sense of these strange occurrences that can’t possibly be happening.

Hadn’t the bottle of water been slightly closer to the sink earlier on? A matter of fifteen or twenty centimetres, it seemed to me. No sooner had I convinced myself of this than I changed my mind again. You’re making things up, trying to rationalise your unconscious thoughts. For that matter, are you really sure those yogurts disappeared after all?

Even though Shimura is so precise, even going so far as to measure his juice levels with a particular ruler, he can’t help by shake the thought that his brain is just fooling him. Sprinkled throughout are Shimura’s not completely realized regrets of not having a wife and family. In his first person narration, he posits several times the idea that if he had a wife, he would… There is also the occasional mention of his sister and brother-in-law who have not visited in some time, often writing letters informing him that their unable to come to Nagasaki for a visit.

Because Shimura spends his days analyzing weather patterns and utilizing technological instruments, it is of no surprise that he sets up camera equipment in his house to monitor his home while he is away at work. While watching from his office desk, he swears to see a shadow at first and then, perhaps, the visage of a woman. This uncanny moment when he is surveilling his own home, with only glimpses of a possible intruder, are unnerving.

Faye’s prose rendered in English translation by Emily Boyce is direct and simple. The sparse diction only adds to the heighten sense of insecurity the reader feels while piecing together Shimura’s rationalization and what might actually be happening.

Beyond the surveillance, there is another bit of story being told and that is Shimura’s briefly aforementioned longing for a wife. This is often manifested in sentiments of loneliness with glances of memories of young women from earlier life moments painted with an unconscious longing. Shimura is also shown watching television where news reports detailing the advancement of robotics upset him; the idea that in the near-future that humanoid machines will take over places where humans once dominated is disturbing to him.

For a man who uses technology so profoundly in his career and then ultimately in his own home, the idea of these robots taking over where humans should surely remain is uncomfortable. While watching one such broadcast, he imagines himself in old age, alone, with one these automatons. As he dies, it will “place a hand on [his] shoulder and gently whisper [his] name; it would pass this same hand over [his] eyes and mouth, dial the emergency services, and set the funeral arrangements in motion.” All of this, of course, are the familiar actions done by family, but have instead been replaced in Shimura’s lonely mind by a robot.

Nagasaki won the 2010 Académie Française novel award and like the imagined automaton, the book whispers in the reader’s ear even after the final page is read. As the events become clearer as the story goes on, there is still a mystery that lies within the emotions of the characters. This visceral feeling, perhaps, might be what led to the novel’s distinction in France.

At the beginning, I must admit, there were a few stumbling blocks. The text felt a little bit like it was a translation with a few clunky sentences and French idioms that were, perhaps, presented a little wobbly. However, these were few and once the text took off, the sentences and images were portrayed with language that swam in the haunted and curious corners of Shimura’s thoughts. A particular favorite was when Shimura, who had been having restless sleep since he realized things were not right in his home, finally begins to dream,

The unconscious was bursting through. The past seeped out through hidden fault lines and names came back to me with white-hot intensity. Hizuru, Mariko, or Fumiko, forgotten goddesses reappearing with a mocking laugh to say, ‘We’re still here. You won’t get rid of us that easily.’ By the time I awoke they had returned to their hiding places, leaving behind them, as they always did, a thin sheen of anxiety.

Like Shimura’s dream, anxiety and unconscious desires are what make this book creep into the reader’s mind, depositing its tale of the uncanny and upending the notion of home as being the one comfortable place we, as humans, expect to rely on.

Nagasaki will be released in English by Gallic Books on April 14. It will be available as both a paperback and e-book for UK readers and it will also be available as an e-book for US readers on that day with a January 2015 paperback American release.

**The [International] Reading List.

***

Further Information…
  1. The inspiration sounded extremely familiar, but I beat temptation to look up the origin story until after I finished reading the entire novel. I think you should, too.
  2. There is a 2011 Publishing Perspectives article about Gallic Books that is entirely informative and worth a read.
  3. The London-based publisher, Gallic Books, is a new one for me and I am ever so delighted about their publishing scheme. They are fairly new and are already doing a wonderful job of bringing foreign literature to an English reading public. They focus on French literature working with their own in-house translators and a slew of talented freelancers. In 2011, they had a mentoring program for up-and-coming translators, which awarded a contract to a new translation and if they weren’t busy enough, they also run Belgravia Books, an independent book shop in London that not only sells Gallic Books’ titles, but other works-in-translation. Bravo to everyone at Gallic Book and can’t wait for more of their titles! (take a look at their catalogue for their varying selection).

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

But there was always so much we didn’t know about people, lurking right below the surface where we couldn’t see it.

Secrets and kin are what tangle together the mysterious plot of Laura McHugh’s debut novel, The Weight of Blood. The story is told mostly from alternating points of view between Lucy, a seventeen-year-old girl living in the Missouri Ozarks, and Lila, her mother who disappeared sixteen years earlier when she was just a couple of years older than Lucy herself. The novel begins with the mutilated body of a local girl, Cheri Stoddard, whose corpse is propped up in a tree for all of the town to see. We come to find out that Lucy was Cheri’s one and only friend, and even that latter description seemed to be in flux. The murdered girl was often described as a “retard,” with most people treating her like a piece of trash much like her lifeless body eventually became. Cheri’s murder is what finally gives Lucy the momentum to find out what happened to her mother all of those years ago.

The heart of the novel lies with the premise that not everything is as its seems; the truth is found much deeper and usually in a much more frightening place. Lucy’s comforts and lifelong perceptions transform as she pulls back more of the story of Cheri’s murder and Lila’s disappearance. The insular town of Henbane where they all live in the Ozarks will feel backwards to us Yanks. Kin come first and outsiders are looked upon as threats. Some of the older folk had never seen “Negros” or “Orientals,” and when Lila shows up, half the town brands her a witch because she has an exotic look (dark hair, greens eyes, which happens to be the only description anyone ever gives about this new arrival to Henbane–an unfortunate, lazy cop out by the author) and she comes from a foreign place to the north called Iowa.

McHugh does an interesting thing with the novel’s structure. For the first part, there are alternating chapters between Lucy in the present and Lila in the past, allowing for a steady buildup to help explain pockets in the local mythology of Lila and the recent brutal murder of Cheri. As the book goes on, McHugh does add chapters that are told in third-person giving a different perspective from some of the other characters.

The town of Henbane, locked away in the Ozark Mountains, already has an unpleasant mood cast over it. Some of the natural landmarks are called Old Scratch and Devil’s Throat, obviously indicating that it is both a metaphorical and literal Hell. Violence, sex, murder, and prostitution are what make up this underbelly.

The secrets held beneath the surface are violent and unnerving. McHugh does a good job of concealing knowledge for just the right amount of time before letting Lucy and the reader in on the secrets that the townsfolk have been harboring. However, I was a little exhausted by the perpetual violence against women in this book. I know this is mostly due to the fact that lately we have just been so inundated with it in all forms of media and this is not the fault of the author. Luckily, the first-person sections of Lucy and Lila offer fully formed personal voices to tell their stories. The female characters, in general, are more developed than the men, which is a plus to alleviate this fatigue from the never-ending cycle.

The book was appealing and I certainly found myself whipping through chapters to see what new revelations would be detailed. Lucy is headstrong and doesn’t put up with the same bullying that her mother once did. For some of the men in the novel, women are meant to be locked in a box, whether this is a form of protection or for a more sinister reason. Lucy is always fighting against this and any taming that is tried on her is a failure.

The Weight of Blood definitely finds its strongest moments with Lucy and McHugh’s lulling descriptions of a place that is anything but calming. Overall, I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend the book (especially for people in True Detective withdrawal who need another injection of Southern mystery and superstitious backwoods types who are up to no good), but I can’t rid myself of the feeling that some of the characters could have been drawn with more detail and that certain confessions were given too easily, especially with ones that had been guarded secrets for over a decade. But in a way, its shortfalls can be overlooked for McHugh’s creation of a place that is anything but trustworthy and where “a man with clean nails hides his dirt on the inside.”

The Weight of Blood was just released and is available from Spiegel & Grau.

Burning Girls by Veronica Schanoes

“I looked up at the flame-filled windows. There was no more jumping now. ‘I’m sorry, Mama,’ I whispered. I wept while the building flamed with girls burning, burning here in America.”

Veronica Schanoes’ novella is a bundled story mixed with religious mythos and folktale with a dash of immigrant journey. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Deborah lives with her family in the Polish town of Bialystock. As she and her sister Shayna grow up, they are each trained in different disciplines: Shayna, learning to sew from their mother and Deborah is sent to spend months with their grandmother, their bubbe, to learn an entirely different trade.

At first, the reader is led to believe that Deborah is learning the ways of midwifery. However, soon the reader learns that something much darker is happening. With the guidance of her bubbe, Deborah becomes a vanquisher of demons, the ancient lilit who comes for unholy purposes. The years go on and Deborah becomes much better at her job, but when Cossacks kill her grandmother, her family’s well-being becomes much more tenuous. The Jewish Quarter is under both the threat of the lilit and the very historical violence that comes with European antisemitism. She found her grandmother’s “village’s houses destroyed. Just cottages, built of mud and straw. Easy to kick apart. Easier to burn.” It is now up to Deborah to keep them all safe, including their newborn brother, who the lilit is intent on taking away.

The novella shifts from the past to a few years later when the two sisters settle in the immigrant NYC neighborhood of the Lower East Side. They find jobs as seamstress in a factory and everything seems shifted back to “the real,” but soon what haunted them back in the Old Country has found them in their new lives, where people work through the Sabbath and even eat ham sandwiches because they’re hungry.

Burning Girls blends the stories of the Old World with its talismans and amulets with that of the New World, which is filled with factories and progress and no time for gripping to the old beliefs. Deborah and Shayna hope that even with the loss of their entire family, the demons of old won’t reach them in America. These demons, of course, are taken both literally and figuratively. The lilit comes for every generation of Deborah and Shayna’s family. Schanoes takes a famous German fairy tale and spins something new without losing the essence of the original (I shall not tell you which märchen it is and spoil the novella!).

At times, I thought the backstory was a little rushed but that could probably be attributed to the narrator’s desire to get to the immediate action at hand. Although, I wish a little slowing down could have happened on the author’s part, because everything is so connected and I was happy to have highlighted earlier bits to remind myself.

The idea that, no matter where you are, the past will always be there is very present in Burning Girls. The young women escape their tormentors and lost home to come to the shining America we all like to imagine, but their notions of new and leaving the old behind are upended. Deborah is especially reaching to the past to survive in their new home in the Lower East Side (a place notoriously filled with slums and terrible working conditions). What I liked most about Burning Girls was Schanoes’ weave of fantasy and history. The deadly fire of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a horrifying and poignant moment in the novella, and the terror of this tragedy has been included in the recursive nature of Deborah and Shayna’s lives. By doing so, Schanoes has created a new myth for this historical event.

At first, Burning Girls appears simple with its direct language and swift action, but what Veronica Schanoes has here is a work that is vivid, making the images and characters stand out in my imagination.

Fire–a motif that runs throughout–often denotes the end of one generation’s story through their destruction. The characters keep running, trying to survive the demons that are out to get them and no one is safe. Deborah can’t seem to outrun the fire that chases her, but she tries with the help of the ways of both the Old and New Country, her sister, and the confidantes she finds on her way.

Burning Girls has just been nominated for a Nebula Award – For Best Novella. The publisher has now made it available for free.

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post script

I love unique and striking book cover art. The artists who did the cover of Burning Girls are the Italian twins, Anna and Elena Balbusso. They have more fantastical illustrations on their website and Veronica Schanoes has revealed their new cover for her next published work, Among the Thorns, which is another re-imagining of a Grimm tale.