Fantasy, Folklore, and the Contemporary Vietnamese Experience

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith (Spiegel & Grau)

The Fangipani Hotel is an interesting creature—an atmospheric collection of ghost/supernatural stories that are contemporary in their setting, but grounded in centuries-old Vietnamese folklore. I’m not usually a reader of supernatural fiction, but having read a fair bit of non-fiction about the war in Vietnam, I was curious to see what the author would do in creating post-war narratives that drew on both recent and more distant history. The war itself was certainly more horrific than any Stephen King novel—and “our” war was only the latest in a long history of struggles for Vietnamese independence.

These aren’t really stories that will surprise. The tropes of this sort of literature are familiar enough, even to people like me who read very little of it. But these are definitely stories that will unsettle—and in more ways than one. First, they offer that seductive pull of a situation that begins just a little bit off, then takes the reader further and further from reality as she knows it. I found that the added glimpses of contemporary Vietnamese culture and experience (both in Vietnam and the United States) turned the collection into a sort of other-worldly diversity training: this combination of supernatural “real” and “real” real made for an interesting read.

This is Violet Kupersmith’s first book, and it feels like a first book. Some moments are exquisitely presented; others seem a bit flat-footed, as though the writer couldn’t quite move beyond her initial idea to a fuller embodiment of that idea. In some of its best moments, the collection has a thread of humor running through it that illuminates many of the cultural contrasts underlying the stories. In “Guests,” set in Vietnam’s community of European and American ex-patriots we are told about one character, an American teaching at an Australian international university, that “If he ever worried about color it was over whether or not he should spell it with a u.” In the same story, the characters spend endless evenings in bars and clubs that embody the cultural hybridization they experience, including one bar in which “the back wall was taken up by a lovingly rendered mural of Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh frolicking together in a swimming-pool-sized bowl of pho. Marx was wearing water wings and a snorkel.”

Another story, “Turning Back,” features a Vietnamese-American narrator who works night shifts at a local convenience store while her brother engages in low-level gang activity. This piece is related in first person and opens with the wry observation that “Though one fortunate consequence of my father’s disappearance was that we became estranged from his family and whatever nuptials they might incur, given the size of Momma’s side there are still at least four weddings to attend each year. Weddings of cousins, weddings of second cousins, weddings of people who are most likely cousins because their last name is Nguyen and they live within a sixty-mile radius.”

My hope is that Kupersmith will continue to write—and continue to be published. I expect the imagination she brings to her work will continue to yield interesting narratives and that her prose will become increasingly rich and complex.

Forensic Medicine During the Blitz

Murder on the Home Front: A True Story of Morgues, Murders, and Mysteries, by Molly Lefebure (Grand Central Publishing)

I suspect that a year or so from now, the latest British import on PBS will be Murder on the Home Front, a BBC series based on the book I’m reviewing. The book, a memoir, recounts the experiences of Molly Lefebure, who worked as a secretary to a medical examiner during WWII. From a historical perspective, the material is fascinating—though I would welcome even more about the blitz and day-to-day life in London during this time. The forensic cases are interesting, and I was impressed to see how many of today’s best practices had already been established at that time, despite the significant differences in technology.

The author, Lefebure, is a strong, eccentric character, at times delightful, at others very off-putting. Despite strenuous efforts by any number of boyfriends and potential boyfriends to push her into a more ladylike profession, Lefebure, gifted with a strong stomach and endless curiosity, delights in her work. At one point she tells us, “You could spend a hundred years in London’s mortuaries and never be bored.”

My complaint about the book is that Lefebure is also a creature of her time, coming across to today’s readers as deeply callous. Early on, she describes the range of cases she worked on:

[T]he coster’s wife who killed herself because her husband sold his pony, the one creature in the world she had ever really loved and been loved by. There is the baby whose mother left it to starve while she had a good time hitting the hay with American soldiers…. The old lady who put her head in the gas oven because she was sure the wireless had given her cancer. The airman who bailed out and his parachute didn’t open. The bright young thing who didn’t want a baby. The tart who picked up a killer for a client. The pansy who couldn’t face life anymore.

Really? The tart? The pansy? This is the way we want to describe the victim of violent crime and the social outcast? I know I’m being ahistorical, but would it have been so wrong for a modern-day editor to mitigate this flippant unkindness?

She also narrates the case of a young man who kills his girlfriend so that “no one else could have her” because he fears her father will break them up. What I found troubling was how readily the author seemed to embrace this murder as an appropriate, even romantic response to the perceived threat. When the young woman’s father testifies in court, Lefebure tell us “this display of outraged fatherly virtue, sincere and perfectly appropriate as it was, annoyed the court, whose sympathies clearly lay with the lovers.” The young woman had defensive wounds. Her boyfriend strangled her while pounding her head against the floor. Yet a reluctance to classify the crime as murder is equated with sympathy for the lovers?

I am hoping that the television series will be able to build on the more interesting parts of the book and to avoid the book’s lack of empathy. If it doesn’t, I suspect I won’t be watching it–just as I found myself having difficulty reading the book in its entirety.

Hogwarts for Troubled Women

The House at the End of Hope Street: A Novel, Menna Van Praag, Penguin

Many days, I find myself wishing I could go to Hogwarts: someplace magical and removed from the day-to-day world where I can focus on developing the skills I need, while building friendships and receiving guidance from those wiser than me. That’s exactly the sort of place the titular house at the end of Hope Street is—but instead of providing a home to young wizards and witches, the house at the end of Hope Street offers temporary (99 days) accommodation to women facing particular challenges.

The house has hosted a remarkable series of women over the years: Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, Beatrix Potter, Virgina Woolf—even Agatha Christie for eleven days in 1926! We enter the house along with its newest resident, Alba, a brilliant young woman who has just flunked out of a graduate program at King’s College, Cambridge. Her fellow residents are Carmen, a singer who is escaping a violent marriage, and Greer, a failed actress who is trying to decide whether she should attempt to adopt a child on her own, now that she’s been dumped by her fiancé.

To extend the Hogwarts comparison, the house is like a multi-chambered room of requirement that offers exactly what one needs—though not necessarily what one wants. Books appear on bookcases, messages flutter down from the ceiling, and pictures of former residents offer advice. The house’s resident “head” is Peggy Abbott, who can also advise—and listen, and question—who has a particular fondness for chocolate cake, and who has spent the last two decades with a lover she’s kept at arm’s length.

This book is one of the most genuinely fun reads I’ve encountered in the last few years—and one that should appeal to a variety of readers. I found myself singing its praises to friends and coworkers while I was reading it, and several people will be getting a copy from me for a birthday or holiday gift.

One of the particular pleasures of this book was the range of characters it includes. I was particularly appreciative of its inclusion of lesbian, as well as heterosexual, relationships. This inclusiveness isn’t preachy; it’s just an acknowledgement of the real breadth of what we think of as “normal.”

I was also particularly comforted by the hopefulness (the house is on Hope Street) of this novel. The tone, the playfulness of its story line made it clear from the beginning that this book would end happily, though what “happy” would mean wasn’t revealed right away. I have a fondness for novels in which people in impossible situations agonize about the right path of action. Hope Street isn’t one of those novels. There are difficult situations, but the characters find workable solutions, and no agonizing on the part of the reader is required. Instead we can enjoy the process of self-discovery and redefinition along with the novel’s characters.

The Game’s Afoot

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall: The Paranormal Case Books of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Vaughn Entwistle

I delight in the many ways Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character has evolved over the years, first under Doyle’s hand and then again and again as others have picked up the character. Yes, there are a million Holmes variations out there, but there’s always room for another good one. My personal favorites are Annelie Wendeberg’s Anna Kronberg series (a woman who cross-dresses in order to pursue a career as a Victorian-era epidemiologist and who crosses paths with, then works with Holmes) and Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series (another cross-dressing young woman, who fist studies under, then partners with, then marries Holmes). I’ve also enjoyed Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler series (you may remember her as the only woman to ever defeat Holmes as related in “A Scandal in Bohemia”), though these keep lurching perilously close to the romance genre, which is not my cup of tea at all.

Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall makes a great addition to the Holmes canon. Holmes is actually a minor character in this, the first volume in the series. The real detectives are Arthur Conan Doyle himself and his friend (yes, they were real-world friends) Oscar Wilde. Holmes makes his appearance as an occasional hallucination who pricks Doyle’s mind, nudging him along the path to a solution.

The Doyle and Wilde characters are distinct and engaging, making good foils for one another, and the visual details make it easy to picture this unlikely duo on the case together. In reality, Doyle was interested in (perhaps hoodwinked by would be a more accurate way of putting it) the paranormal “research” going on in his era. He accepted the Piltdown hoax as a genuine anthropological find. He also advocated in support of the Cottingley fairy photos. Given this, a “paranormal casebook” strikes one as just his sort of thing.

Entwistle does a particularly good job of extending the mystery’s resolution with a series of complications that add some real surprise to the narrative. The reader thinks the case is closed, then—Bam!—one more revelation, and —Bam!—yet another revelation after that one. This is the first volume in what promises to be a series, and I’m quite glad more volumes will be coming along.

I am not claiming that The Revanant of Thraxton Hall is great literature, but I am most definitely stating that it’s a great read. Once you start it, you’ll want to keep going, so best to begin reading when you’ve got a full day open to get lost in the fun. When you need a book that’s the equivalent a self-indulgent stay at a seaside resort, you can count on these paranormal casebooks to deliver.

Pricking Historical Memory

Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory, and Justice in Guatemala, by Sebastian Rotella and Ana Arana (ProPublica) and Caminar, by Skila Brown (Candlewick Press)

Both Finding Oscar and Caminar focus on the decades-long genocide in Guatemala, purportedly anti-Communist and strongly supported by the U.S. government. Both are set in the early 1980s. Both are novella-length. Each centers around a boy who survives the massacre of his village.

Finding Oscar is non-fiction, an extension of what originated as a journalistic investigation of a massacre in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres. Caminar is a prose poem relating the story of a boy who survives a similar massacre in his own village; while based on history in a broad sense, it is a work of fiction. Finding Oscar is directed toward an adult audience, offering the sort of details and documentation one expects from good journalism. Caminar is directed toward children and young adults, relating its account in short bursts of narrative presented in a first-person voice.

I’m not writing this review to compare the two pieces or to argue that one is better than the other. They were written to accomplish different tasks, and each does its task well. Instead, I’m writing because both works deserve attention for pricking historical memory, for making vivid events that might seem distant to some readers.

I teach at a university and attended college and graduate school in the 1980s. The U.S. role in Central America was one of the burning political issues of that time. The money and lives the U.S. invested in upholding military strongmen and murdering peasants in the name of preventing communism was both criticized and mourned in the circles I ran in. Most of us were cynical enough that we didn’t expect much different from our government during this cold-war era. Those of us not given over completely to cynicism were also broken-hearted at the betrayal of democratic principles we’d been raised to honor and view as a global model.

Most of my students (who were born in the mid-90s) know nothing about this period unless they are the children of refugees or refugees themselves. This is what makes both Finding Oscar and Caminar so very necessary. Their two very different voices struggle against the failure of historical memory, demand that we remember the past so as not to repeat it.

We meet the Oscar of Finding Oscar as an adult, living in the U.S., who is unaware of his connection to Dos Erres. We meet Carlos, the protagonist of Caminar, shortly before his village is massacred, and we share his journey up the mountain to the village where his grandmother still lives. Both works highlight the role of forensic anthropologists in documenting the genocide. Read Finding Oscar for the historical context it provides and for the way it documents the parallel strands of violence and tenderness that run in all of us. Read Caminar to become acquainted with its protagonist. Make friends with him, travel with him, wrestle as he does with trying to find a way to name the horrors he’s survived.

You can use the above link to access Finding Oscar free of charge on ProPublica’s web site (a Kindle version is also available from Amazon for a small price). Look for Caminar to arrive in bookstores Beginning March 25.

My Favorite Read of the Year Thus Far

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, by John Boyne (Henry Holt and Co.)

John Boyne’s Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is an absolute gem of a book. It’s being marketed as a YA novel, but don’t let that fool you. This is a book that will reward readers of all ages, one that’s definitely going on the “essentials” shelf.

I don’t want to say too much about the contents because I don’t want to spoil them for you, but I do want to say enough to convince you that this is a book you should track down and read—and soon!

Alfie Summerfield is five when his father volunteers for the British Army at the start of World War I. He’s an interesting, quirky kid, with a child’s sense of time: “Georgie and Margie [Alfie’s parents] had been very old when they got married—he [Alfie] knew that much. His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger.”

At first, Alfie’s father writes regularly, but then the letters stop coming. Alfie’s mum tells Alfie his dad is on a secret mission, but Alfie grow less and less sure of her honesty as his father’s absence grows more extended. Is his father dead? If he’s on a secret mission, what sort of mission is it?

Alfie and his mum quickly become “perilously close to penury,” as she puts it. She works double shifts at a hospital, waking him before she leaves for work in the morning. Sitting alone eating his breakfast each day, Alfie props the newspaper up in font of him as he remembers his dad doing, but he’s only interested in one kind of news:

[H]e did what he always did in the morning. He turned to page four to read the numbers. The numbers of deaths on our side. The number of deaths on their side. The number of wounded. But there was only one number Alfie really cared about: 14278. His dad’s number. The number they’d assigned him when he signed up.

Now the man of the family, Alfie (who ages from five to nine years old over the course of the novel) cuts school and spends four days a week at King’s Cross Station shining shoes in order to make a few pennies to slip into his mother’s purse. But he never cuts school on Monday or Thursday—those are History day and Reading day, his two favorite subjects.

Alfie’s losses extend beyond his missing father and less-present mum: his best friend Kalena and her father are deported to the Isle of Man as enemy aliens because they come from Prague; Alfie’s father’s best friend Joe is first jailed, then regularly assaulted once he returns home, for being a Conshie, a Conscientious Objector; lots of young men leave the neighborhood, never to return. Alfie understand what is meant when a friendly passenger on a train comments on his age: “you’ll be ten soon enough, I imagine. Nine-year-old boys usually turn ten at some point. It’s the nineteen-year-olds who have difficulty turning twenty.”

The writing in Stay Where You Are is deceptively simple, communicating complexities in ways that will be clear to younger readers and intellectually satisfying to older ones. This isn’t a book that ends “happily ever after,” but it doesn’t rob readers of all sense of hope. People fail one another, but they do their best. They have courage to change as they see their own actions in different lights. “Less bad” is better than “more bad,” even if it isn’t “good.”

This book is being released in the U.S. on March 25 (it’s also been published in the UK). Look for a copy, read it, pass it on to a younger (or older) friend. You’ll have much to talk about as you share Alfie’s attempts to understand—and to affect—the adult world that he sees around him.

Patronage Society in Nigeria

Every Day Is for the Thief, by Teju Cole (Random House), on sale 3/15/14.

Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief is a quick read with a lingering impact. Set in present day Nigeria, the novel recounts an expatriate’s visit home. The narrator’s focus is corruption, specifically bribery and small-scale extortion: “I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy—certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process—and in that sense I have returned a stranger. What the trip back from the airport makes me think, and what is confirmed over the course of the following days, is the extent to which Lagos has become a patronage society.”

Within forty-five minutes of leaving the airport, the narrator experiences three attempts by officials to collect bribes. This ritual of extra-legal payment exists on all levels of the society. When traffic is congested, drivers are threatened with violence from groups of men working the busy roadways—pay now or you may not be able to drive away when the congestion dies down. Police collect unofficial tolls along roadways. Almost everyone seems to demand a little extra something.

The narrator’s attitude toward this corruption is mixed. He views it ironically, noting how often requests for payment occur alongside official posters or billboards decrying bribery. He resents it and tries to avoid making payments when he can. He also understands its necessity: it is often the only way to turn an inadequate salary into a living wage.

This novel is not so much story as meditation: meditation on the origins of patronage societies and the impossibility of establishing new economic models once that system is in place. Government, the U.N., NGOs, multinational corporations—all seem powerless to do more than give token objection to the system. When you finish the book, you’ll be left with a bundle of unanswered questions: about governance, about development, about commerce, and about individual survival.

“The Doctor Made Me Do It”

Hyde, by Daniel Levine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Daniel Levine’s Hyde is a retelling of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde told from the point of view of the “monster”—Hyde. Retellings of this sort, some more effective, some less, have become a popular genre. Hyde most definitely falls on the “more effective” side of the line.

This is one of those books I don’t want to write too much about because it is so striking on first reading. I don’t want anything I write to undercut that pleasure for others. That said, I can point out a few of my favorite aspects of Hyde.

• Hyde provides a pair of believable back stories motivating Jekyll: one from his childhood, one from his more recent professional career.

• While Jekyll has no knowledge of what Hyde does when in control of their shared body, Hyde witnesses everything Jekyll does—but is unable to influence Jekyll’s behavior.

• From about two-thirds of the way in, most readers will know how this version of the Jekyll/Hyde story will end, but the book never becomes predictable. Even when one can see what’s coming, the characters continue to develop, becoming more complex and more engaging through the last page of the book.

Hyde is available in bookstores as of today (3/18/14). If you’re looking for a great summer read, with richness of character and plot, as well as thrills galore, you really can’t do better than Hyde.

Ye Olde Masse-Markette Mystyree

A Traitor’s Tears by Fiona Buckley (Severn House)

A Traitor’s Tears, released at the beginning of the month,  is the twelfth book in Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard mystery series. Blanchard is an illegitimate half-sister of Elizabeth I who regularly finds herself stumbling upon mysteries and working for William Cecil and Frances Walsingham. In this case, what starts out as a murder investigation expands into a more complicated effort to bring Jesuits into Elizabeth’s England with the goal of putting Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne and restoring the country to Catholicism.

Lots of meaty possibilities there, but they weren’t realized. I’d fantasized about discovering something along the lines of Iain Pear’s An Instance of the Fingerpost (definitely on the “Essentials” shelf), but what I got was more like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone transported to the 16th Century—with little in the way of period language or detail.

Bottom line: this is your standard mass-market mystery novel and Buckley uses all the techniques you’d expect in such a publication.

• She breaks the flow of her narrative to give us heaping platters of visual details that tell us very little about the situations and characters the novel presents: Roger Brockley, my reliable manservant, who had been my resourceful companion in many times of danger, had a high forehead, lightly strewn with pale gold freckles, a receding hairline and very steady grey-blue eyes.

• She plugs previous volumes in the series: [John Ryder] had joined us on our last adventure, which had taken us into dangerous Spain. But for him, we might not have got out safely.

• She uses the predictable show-the-reader-what-the-narrator-looks-like-by-having-her-look-in-a-mirror move: As I prepared to set out, I looked at myself in a mirror and noticed how the years were changing me. My hair was still dark and glossy, but my eyes, which were hazel, had little lines around them and a wary expression.

• She tells us what one character has done by having a second character describe to the very one who did those things exactly what she did: ‘We saw you run from the garden,’ said Gladys, ‘and Dale was there all of a sudden pleading and crying. You tried to argue with them, but they took no heed of either of you.’ Though why a woman who’s just run into a house needs to be told what she saw and did once she got there is a question without a satisfactory answer.

• She plays the put-the-two-conspirators-in-a-room-together-and-just-wait-for-them-to-discuss-their-every-illegal-thought-and-action-in-detail card.

I’d been hoping for some interesting religious wrangling, a look at the political uses of faith in Elizabeth’s England, a rich discussion of the complicated relations between legitimate and “natural” children, a sense of how a woman in the 16th Century might have managed to carve out and maintain an independent existence. What I got was a competent, but predictable mass market paperback.

If you like leaving a book with interesting historical and ethical questions to mull over—which is how my tastes run—you’ll be disappointed with A Traitor’s Tears. If you want airplane reading or a book to carry about while you run errands—the literary equivalent of an episode of a sit-com—well, that’s what you’ll get.

New for My Spring-Quarter Survival Kit, a Bit of 6th Century Constantinople

Ten for Dying: A John, the Lord Chamberlain, Mystery #10, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (Poisoned Pen Press)

We’re moving into the final week of winter quarter where I teach, with one more quarter left to go after that before summer opens up before us, wide and (at least in our fantasies) encompassing time enough for every read and project we can dream up. Mid-March is the point in the academic year when I begin to feel a bit like a boulder rolling downhill, building up momentum, with not much control over direction, chipping off bits and pieces of myself as I go. Mid-March is also when I start looking for promising new mystery series to help me survive the last three months of the academic year.

Lucky me, I’ve stumbled upon one—and there are already ten volumes in the series! This is the John, the Lord Chamberlain, series written by the wife-and-husband (see what I did with those pronouns?) team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. The series is set in 6th Century Constantinople, where Christianity is now the state religion, but where the old religions—in this case worship of Egyptian human/animal deities and the cult of Mithra, god of soldiers—still have a strong presence. Faith, as it has been in pretty much every era, is political, as well as personal.

I’ve just read Ten for Dying (the tenth book in the series), in which the John of the series title plays only a minor role. He’s been banished from Constantinople, and the lead player in this volume is Felix, one of John’s friends and captain of the palace guard, a man of middling ambition, who isn’t always quick to see the ways others are taking advantage of him or using him for their own political ends.

In this volume we get an attempt to resurrect the Empress Theodora, which involves a great many frogs; sightings of apes, demons, and lepers, some of this a result unwitting consumption of hallucinogenics; and the theft of the supposed shroud of the Mary, mother of Jesus. Basically, we get big fun, with serious issues a few levels down in the stratigraphy—where they can hold a reader’s interest without turning the reading experience into a more demanding philosophical wrestling match.

This isn’t a book (or series) that will be read in graduate literature seminars two hundred years from now, but it does offer several hours of very enjoyable entertainment. The central characters have some complexity (though those on the periphery are more one-dimensional); the plot won’t make your brain ache, but it has enough incidents of political manouevering to keep things interesting.

I expect I’ll spend a week or so of my spring quarter working my way through the previous volumes in the series in whatever free time I can carve out. I’ll get to know John, who remains a bit of a cipher to me at the moment, and I’ll see the emergence and development of Felix, who’s at the heart of the volume I’ve just finished. And, come summer, I can work my way back up to more demanding reading.