Embracing and Fleeing Complicity

The Train to Warsaw: A Novel, by Gwen Edelman, Grove Atlantic, 208 pages

The Train to Warsaw is an interesting work in both content and style. Jascha and Lilka, Jewish lovers who met in the Warsaw ghetto, escaped separately, and reunited in London years later, are the passengers on this train. Jascha has become a famous writer and is invited to Poland to give a reading. He has no desire to return to the country that nearly killed him—and did kill so many. Lilka, with fond memories of prewar Warsaw, wants to return “home” and convinces him to accept the invitation. Of course, the home she remembers ceased to exist years ago.

The plot of this novel is predictable: Jascha and Lilka remember the horrors of the past, and on their journey both reveal parts of their stories to they’ve hidden from one another for more than forty years. But the fact that the reader can predict the overall arc of the novel, doesn’t make it any less engaging. Edelman presents these two characters with such care and specificity that their experiences seem new precisely because these are their experiences.

A major theme here is complicity: the complicity of the Poles who handed Jews over to the Nazis for the benefits this would bring them; the complicity of the Jewish police within the ghetto; the complicity in the suffering of others that no ghetto resident could avoid. Both Jascha and Lilka view their survival as a betrayal of sorts. They lived when so few did, and both lived because they found ways to construct new, non-Jewish identities for themselves.

Jascha and Lilka keep their sense of complicity close at hand, probing it the way one probes any physically or emotionally painful area—to confirm the pain and to keep reminding one’s self that the pain has been survived, if not escaped. The Polish nation they return to, unlike them, is determined to forget the past. When Jascha challenges his Polish audience by reading a particularly devastating section of one of his novels set in the ghetto, everyone finds a way to distance herself or himself from the genocide. The young say they weren’t born then; the old say they suffered as well during the occupation; those in the middle claim they were too young during the war to have any kind of responsibility. And the reader, of course, is left to wonder if such deliberate forgetting may lead to repetition.

The novel is composed primarily of conversations, both in the present and the past, and because Edelman doesn’t use standard dialogue formatting (no quotation marks here), the reader is forced to be attentive to the shifts in the narrative being constructed. The prose is deceptively simple, obscuring at first the fractal-like complexity of events, time, and emotion.

This is a book that can be read in an evening, but one that will require a much longer period than that to fully absorb—the sort of book that remains satisfying long after one has finished it.

I’ll Keep this Review Brief so You Don’t Have to Delay in Rushing Out and Buying a Copy of this Mystery Novel

A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows (Dundurn)

Steve Burrows’ A Siege of Bitterns introduces Inspector Domenic Jejeune, a detective recently assigned to the village of Saltmarsh who is deeply ambivalent about his work. Yes, he’s something of a prodigy when it comes to solving murders and missing persons cases, but he’s also a cipher of a man—one who would prefer the rather isolated life of a field ornithologist to his own.

A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a promised series of “birder mysteries” featuring Jejeune, and I can’t wait for more.

Well, I suppose I will have to wait for more, but I don’t want to. I’d much rather there were already a dozen volumes in the series that I could pore through, watching his character develop, seeing his changing relationships with colleagues, listening to his frustrated, conflicting internal dialogues.

Whether or not bird-watching interests you (I grew up in a house of birders, but never became one myself), if you like high-quality police procedural mystery novels, you’ll be deeply satisfied with A Siege of Bitterns. Enjoy it now, then join me in waiting eagerly for the next volume.

A Birthday Party Ruined by Katrina

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, by Julie T. Lamana, (Chronicle Books)

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is one of those luminous YA reads that bookstores would do well to stock with adult fiction, as well as YA. It’s a “problem novel,” but the problem isn’t a distant boyfriend or a fight with a bestie; the problem is Hurricane Katrina.

Armani Curtis’s family has yielded to her imploring and decided to remain in New Orleans, despite the pending storm, to celebrate her birthday. This is a bad decision. A very bad decision that puts everyone involved through all the worst that we’ve come to associate with Katrina: being stranded on the rooftop of their flooded house, losing (and not always finding once again) family members, traveling across and in badly polluted water, facing the misery and incipient violence in the King Dome, and trying to avoid child protective services, so the family won’t be broken up further.

The pacing of this novel is just right. At first, we see the world simply, through Armani’s eyes. She chafes against some of the restrictions imposed by her parents, but respects the discipline and sense of personal history that they and her grandmother provide. The shift from normality to disaster begins gradually enough; we can see why the family might choose to remain. But when Katrina hits, things change quickly and dangerously.

Yes, this is fiction, but it does a wonderful job of placing readers in the middle of a challenging, devastating disaster that may be beginning to slip out of current memory. This is a book we—adults and teenagers—need to help us grasp the magnitude of natural disaster. We also need it just so we can meet Armani and watch her, sometimes unwillingly, rise to the occasion.

Sacred and Profane

The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish, by Allan Stratton, (Dundurn)

The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish is an odd sort of creature, rather like the result of some mad gene splicing experiment combining DNA from Nathaniel West, Carson, McCullers, and Horatio Alger. It is at once innocent and deeply cynical, a romance that litters the road to true love with all sorts of wreckage.

Mary Mabel, stuck with a drunken, uncaring father, and living at the finishing school at which he serves as handyman, is both unhappy and genuine: dreaming of a different life, while seeing both the best and the worst in the world around her.

The characters in this novel are types most readers will recognize, but they’re painted with enough detail that at their best moments they transcend stereotype. Besides Mabel’s father and the woman who runs the school (and later poses as a titled gentry) we have a half-crazed, going on fully crazed revivalist preacher; a sanctimonious con man; a newspaper man who will do anything for a story, and who hides a a streak of decency beneath his opportunism. There’s also the ghost of Mary Mabel’s mother.

The story opens with a resurrection. Mary Mabel impulsively lays hands on and reanimates a boy struck by lightening during a revival held in a tent that was previously the site of an adultery-inspired double murder. And the story goes on from there: complex, ridiculous, mocking.

At its best moments Mary Mabel is humorous and engaging, but at other times (those most West-like) it feels heavy-handed and deliberately provocative. The characters are never quite fleshed out enough to carry the weight of the narrative. Instead the author gets by keeping readers off balance and throwing one knuckle ball after another their way.

This isn’t a book to read when you’re hungering for a narrative you can get lost in, but when you’d like some narrative pyrotechnics you may find it amusing.

Worth Buying in Hardback

Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman (Simon and Schuster)

Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follows soldier Lauren Clay on her first few days home following a tour of duty in Iraq. There’s a strong arc to this story: unsatisfactory meetings with old friends and family leading to Lauren’s decision to take her younger brother on a survivalist journey through a remote area of Canada in midwinter.

Suspenseful as that narrative is, the real heart of the book is the characters and their wrestling with questions of identity. What makes this book exceptional is what people think, not what they do. Lauren, not surprisingly, has the roughest time of it, unable to drop her vigilance and expectation of command (she was an NCO) as she returns to civilian life. For her, entering the military was an economic, not an ideological, decision and she questions what exactly it was she fought for. In her old church, she redefines the faith in which she was raised:

The stained glass windows were dimly lit and she looked at them pane by pane; the long slow journey of Jesus, dragging his cross from window to window, until the Roman soldiers crucified him. It was a storyboard, she thought, like the kind you have to make and go over with your CO when you get back from a capture or kill. The stations of the cross were so everyone had their story straight, created agreement and uniformity in reporting the event. […] Insurgent Jesus. […] The stations of the cross made sense now, one more common war story hiding in plain sight.

The characters around Lauren struggle with their own displacements. Her high school boyfriend has moved on to college and resents reminders of his working class origins. Her best friend’s early motherhood has limited her to minimum-wage jobs despite her outstanding high school record. There are “the Patricks” three brilliant, but failed men and a choir director who lost a promising career to alcoholism. All of these characters are drawn with a detail and honesty that makes them simultaneously sympathetic and irritating.

If I were to call any book I’ve read this year a “must read,” it would be this one. The examination of the price paid by those who go to war on our behalf and of the compromises made necessary by poverty is rich—as is the prose in which it is presented.

Tales of Survival

Acts of God, by Ellen Gilchrist, (Algonquin Books)

Ellen Gilchrist’s short story collection, Acts of God, is a quick, interesting read that will leave you with lots to turn over in your mind. The characters in these stories face, as the title suggests, acts of God: floods, hurricanes, and smaller, but equally unnerving disasters. These characters aren’t heroic in any grand sense. They’re ordinary—sometimes irritatingly so—individuals faced with immense challenges outside their control. As the publisher’s write-up notes, these people “somehow manage to survive, persevere, and even triumph.”

In so many permutations, this cast of characters and their ability to overcome could lead to unsatisfactory results: sacchrine or histrionic or just plain unbelievable. Gilchrist’s achievement is that she allows her characters to overcome while keeping them human. Some of their triumphs are small, but they ring true. And together these stories build a sense of hopefulness that feels more like realism than like wishful thinking.

This is a good book to pick up when you’re feeling worn down, dissatisfied, and short on energy. It won’t transport you to any magical world—but it will make this world seem a bit less daunting.

Emily and Charlotte Go Sleuthing

Always Emily, by Michaela MacColl (Chronicle Books), novel, 288 pages, listed by publisher as for ages 12 and up

Always Emily is another book in the genre of literary figures, in this case Emily and Charlotte Brönte, turned detectives. Although it’s being marketed as a YA novel, this book offers fun reading for any fan of the Brönte sisters’ work.

The usual (though not necessarily inaccurate) characterizations are in play here: Emily is dreamy, unconcerned with others’ opinions, determined to spend as much time as she can wandering the moors, while Charlotte frets about propriety and attempts to direct the lives of others in the household. Their brother Branwell appears, too, playing an unwitting role in the case as he fritters away time and money drinking with friends of dubious loyalty. Charlotte and Emily squabble, but they also have moments when they realize their value to each other. Charlotte can be brave when necessary; Emily is capable of compromising her gruff individualism at necessary moments.

The book has elements one would find in a Brönte novel: a woman unjustly diagnosed as mad; a mysterious, handsome hero who’s been denied his birthright; self-righteous industrial barons. In fact, each chapter opens with quotations from the work of the Brönte sisters, which set the tone for each new stage in the action.

This book offers no great revelations, but it’s a fun read, and one could hope for more in the same vein—including, perhaps, some stories in which Anne also plays a role. Given the sisters’ short lives, this concept will have its limits as a series, but that doesn’t mean another volume or two wouldn’t be enjoyable. And we can hope that this volume will lead a new generation of readers to the works of the Brönte sisters themselves.

When Feral Children Become Debutantes

Savage Girl, by Jean Zimmerman (Penguin USA)

Savage Girl, set in the gilded age, is a fast-paced read, full of surprises. It’s populated by a rather remarkable array of characters including an unstable Harvard student, his precocious younger brother, his wealthy father who “collects” people (a berdache, a Chinese woman, the girl of the title), scions of old New York families, a murderous ex-sheriff, trusty and not so trust household retainers.

The plot is sort of a My Fair Lady/Jack the Ripper mash-up with a feral girl turned side-show performer turned debutante as the chief suspect. Or is it the Harvard student who grows less and less stable as the novel progresses?

Savage Girl is what I think of as a not-quite-five-stars book. It’s a gripping read with the sort of quirky details that bring a novel to life, but it never quite crosses over from good read to truly great read. Partly, I think that’s a result of our narrator, the Harvard student. He holds himself at a distance from most others, including his family, which means the reader walks the book in the sort of isolation he experiences. We can suspect his cynicism isn’t always warranted, but he doesn’t let us get close enough to anyone else to confirm this possibility.

The novel raises interesting ethical issues—nature vs. nurture, Malthusian economics, class struggle, gender—but it poses problems rather than exploring them. One of my favorite types of reads is the novel that makes us agonize over the right course of action in a situation without any clear right course. Savage Girl could have been this, but by time we get to the end of the novel and realize which characters are its ethical core (but its narrative fringes, unfortunately) it’s too late.

I absolutely recommend this book as a satisfying, thick, entertaining read. If you’re longing for something more than entertainment, you won’t get it here—but you’ll nonetheless enjoy every minute.

A Book Book Lovers Will Love

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel, by Gabrielle Zevin (Workman)

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is gem of a book: gentle in spirit, generous, intelligent. It’s one of those quick reads that one wishes could last longer because it would be a pleasure to spend more time between its covers.

The central characters are A. J., widowed proprietor of Island Books on Alice Island, just offshore from Hyannis, who has very particular tastes in literature and sells only what he loves; Amelia, the new rep for a minor publishing house; and Maya, a two-year-old abandoned in A. J.’s shop. Based solely on these descriptions, the reader can predict much of the plot of the novel. But here’s the thing of it: even when one knows what’s coming (and there are a few surprises in store) one can still enjoy the journey.

Gabrielle Zevin has a knack for creating quirky, believable characters that extends to those on the periphery, as well as those in the center. A particular pleasure of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is watching the characters grow as readers. Maya moves from picture books to reading on her own. The local police chief not not only moves from reading pot-boilers to more literary fare, he winds up leading the island’s largest book group.

The novel’s chapters are each prefaced by one of A. J.’s brief write-ups about a particular short story or book—the kind of thing you’d find on a shelf card. In this way, readers are invited not just to enjoy Zevin’s narrative, but to reflect on their own reading experiences.

This is a book that will leave you feeling a clear-eyed hopefulness, an understanding that, while many things can go wrong, those that go right can make even the most ordinary life worth living.

Images from the Current Cuba

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, by Julia Cooke (Seal Press)

The Other Side of Paradise offers a loosely structured, highly interesting portrait of the generation of Cubans currently coming of age. The author, Julia Cooke, has traveled to Cuba a number of times—most of this book is based upon a ten-month visit she paid there in 2009. She entered Cuba for this visit on a tourist, not a journalist, visa, which both aids and hinders her explorations. As a tourist, she’s under less scrutiny than a journalist would be and is able to spend time with a variety of Cuban citizens in a variety of locations—but she also runs the risk of being ejected from the country if it becomes clear her visit is primarily journalistic in nature, which limits the kinds of research and record-keeping she can do.

The Cuba she depicts is contradictory. Yes, literacy rates are high (99%), but college graduates have difficulty securing work appropriate to their educations, and unacknowledged racism exacerbates this problem. Cooke cites Esteban Morales Domínguez, a Cuban economist and political scientist, who found that while the country is populated by almost equal proportions of people of European descent, African descent, and mixed heritage “73 percent of scientists and technicians were white. Eighty percent of the professors at the University of Havana [are also white].” In contrast, Cooke notes Morales Domínguez’s data showing that “Blacks were unemployed at twice the rate of whites, which…led to more blackmarket activities, and therefore jails filled with 85 percent darker-skinned Cubans.”

A significant number of women in this Cuba rely on the support of foreigners euphemistically labeled amigos, and Cooke points out that “there aren’t many pimps or third-party intermediaries in the sex trade…. And few relationships between locals and foreigners are deemed prostitution.” In other words, prostitution is allowed to exist in practice, while being proscribed in theory.

This Cuba has a variety of thriving youth sub-cultures—the equivalent of our punk, emo, and grunge cultures. These groups exist outside the mainstream—clubs rarely play the kind of music they listen to, and clubs that do play such music are often quickly closed down. But the members of these sub-cultures gather nightly on particular streets or in particular parks, sharing their music, dancing, and talking until daylight.

Reading Cooke’s depiction of this modern Cuba didn’t leave me with a clear sense of the nation’s culture or its people—but this is as it should be. No nation is as simple as its archetypal citizen and, if relations between the U.S. and Cuba are ever to move beyond the current rhetoric and political stereotypes, we will need to come to an acknowledgement of the diversity within Cuban culture.