mini-review · stuff I read

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin

Summary from Goodreads:

The internationally acclaimed author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov now returns to gift us with Forty Rooms, which outshines even that prizewinning novel.

Totally original in conception and magnificently executed, Forty Rooms is mysterious, withholding, and ultimately emotionally devastating. Olga Grushin is dealing with issues of women’s identity, of women’s choices, that no modern novel has explored so deeply.

“Forty rooms” is a conceit: it proposes that a modern woman will inhabit forty rooms in her lifetime. They form her biography, from childhood to death. For our protagonist, the much-loved child of a late marriage, the first rooms she is aware of as she nears the age of five are those that make up her family’s Moscow apartment. We follow this child as she reaches adolescence, leaves home to study in America, and slowly discovers sexual happiness and love. But her hunger for adventure and her longing to be a great poet conspire to kill the affair. She seems to have made her choice. But one day she runs into a college classmate. He is sure of his path through life, and he is protective of her. (He is also a great cook.) They drift into an affair and marriage. What follows are the decades of births and deaths, the celebrations, material accumulations, and home comforts—until one day, her children grown and gone, her husband absent, she finds herself alone except for the ghosts of her youth, who have come back to haunt and even taunt her.

Compelling and complex, Forty Rooms is also profoundly affecting, its ending shattering but true. We know that Mrs. Caldwell (for that is the only name by which we know her) has died. Was it a life well lived? Quite likely. Was it a life complete? Does such a life ever really exist? Life is, after all, full of trade-offs and choices. Who is to say her path was not well taken? It is this ambiguity that is at the heart of this provocative novel.

Books with a unique construction are kind of a thing I like. How can you tell a story without using a traditional point-A-to-point-B narrative?  In Forty Rooms Olga Grushin has chosen to tell the story of her protagonist – who is never actually referred to by her given name at any point in the story – using only the forty different rooms she will inhabit over her lifetime.  Her childhood bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom.  A college dorm room, a boyfriend’s dorm room.  A first apartment.  A shared home.  The rooms of the “perfect” house.

I really loved the structure.  After a while the rooms began to feel like cages or ways to define the main character from the outside.  The inner life of the character, the poet she intended to be, becomes smaller and smaller, swallowed by the wife and mother she becomes.  I also feel like the character uses those same definitions as an easy “out” when she failed to become a spectacular poet – by her own yardstick –  like her childhood heroes (which is a tall order for pretty much any person in any profession, to outshine one’s heroes).  I didn’t like a couple of the minor characters (Mrs. Simmons was unnecessary, I think) although the decision made near the end of the book with the school friend Olga was an interesting one.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC provided via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

Summary from Goodreads:

An unforgettable debut novel about a boy who goes missing, a family that is torn apart, and a nation on the brink

During the rainy season of 1995, in the bustling town of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, one family’s life is disrupted by the sudden disappearance of seventeen-year-old Paul Utu, beloved brother and son. As they grapple with the sudden loss of their darling boy, they embark on a painful and moving journey of immense power which changes their lives forever and shatters the fragile ecosystem of their once ordered family. Ajie, the youngest sibling, is burdened with the guilt of having seen Paul last and convinced that his vanished brother was betrayed long ago. But his search for the truth uncovers hidden family secrets and reawakens old, long forgotten ghosts as rumours of police brutality, oil shortages, and frenzied student protests serve as a backdrop to his pursuit.

In a tale that moves seamlessly back and forth through time, Ajie relives a trip to the family’s ancestral village where, together, he and his family listen to the myths of how their people settled there, while the villagers argue over the mysterious Company, who found oil on their land and will do anything to guarantee support. As the story builds towards its stunning conclusion, it becomes clear that only once past and present come to a crossroads will Ajie and his family finally find the answers they have been searching for.

And After Many Days introduces Ile’s spellbinding ability to tightly weave together personal and political loss until, inevitably, the two threads become nearly indistinguishable. It is a masterful story of childhood, of the delicate, complex balance between the powerful and the powerless, and a searing portrait of a community as the old order gives way to the new.

I stumbled across And After Many Days via Rebecca mentioning it at some point on a Book Riot podcast.  And it sounded really, really good.  The intersection of Western drives/interference and traditional Nigerian family and cultural traditions told through the lens of one family’s experience seemed like a good fit for my reading mood at the time.

I really liked the book’s construction and how the reader kept getting bits and pieces of how the Utu family is connected or not connected to the political upheaval in Nigeria in the 1990s and whether Paul’s disappearance is connected to those events.  It mimicked the viewpoint of a child who does not have the same knowledge or scope an adult would. I wished, though, that Ile had also included one or two chapters set between Ajie being brought home from school by his mother and the final epilogue-like three sections. I would have liked to see how Ajie and Bibi were impacted by the loss of their older brother as they finished school and went to college rather than see an end product at the end of the book.

As I was reading, I was reminded of Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing in subject. The settings are quite different, obviously, but the way the “missing” child is presented within the family’s life and how the families are both disrupted was similar.  Even the way the older, missing sibling relates to the younger sibling(s) was very similar.  It provided an interesting contrast to how we in the US deal with a missing child, who has likely been abducted by a private citizen, compared to the possibility in Nigeria, at the time Ile set his novel, that the government or police may be the culprit.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

Summary from Goodreads:
• Costa Book Award for First Novel finalist
• Dagger Award finalist

“Kate Hamer’s gripping debut novel immediately recalls the explosion of similarly titled books and movies, from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, to The Girl on the Train to Gone Girl … “—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Keeps the reader turning pages at a frantic clip… What’s most powerful here is not whodunnit, or even why, but how this mother and daughter bear their separation, and the stories they tell themselves to help endure it.” —Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You)

“Compulsively readable…Beautifully written and unpredictable, I had to stop myself racing to the end to find out what happened.” —Rosamund Lupton (Sister)

“Both gripping and sensitive — beautifully written, it is a compulsive, aching story full of loss and redemption.” —Lisa Ballantyne (The Guilty One)

“Hamer’s dark tale of the lost and found is nearly impossible to put down.” —Booklist

Newly single mom Beth has one constant, gnawing worry: that her dreamy eight-year-old daughter, Carmel, who has a tendency to wander off, will one day go missing. And then one day, it happens: On a Saturday morning thick with fog, Beth takes Carmel to a local outdoor festival, they get separated in the crowd, and Carmel is gone. Shattered, Beth sets herself on the grim and lonely mission to find her daughter, keeping on relentlessly even as the authorities tell her that Carmel may be gone for good. Carmel, meanwhile, is on a strange and harrowing journey of her own—to a totally unexpected place that requires her to live by her wits, while trying desperately to keep in her head, at all times, a vision of her mother…  Alternating between Beth’s story and Carmel’s, and written in gripping prose that won’t let go, The Girl in the Red Coat—like Emma Donoghue’s Room and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans—is an utterly immersive story that’s impossible to put down . . . and impossible to forget.

I don’t know if you’d call The Girl in the Red Coat a “literary” thriller.  It’s not as “thriller-y” as the blurb makes it seem, so not a traditional thriller mystery.  However, this is an excellently plotted examination of a mother and daughter after the child is kidnapped. Each of them has to survive in less than ideal situations.  Beth has to work through loss and guilt; Carmel not only has to decide what to believe in her new reality but decide whether or not to take on a specific belief system since her kidnappers turn out to be religious fanatics (FYI: she is NOT molested, if that is a thing that you don’t want in your fiction; I was a bit “eeeeeeeee do I need to read this with one eye open?” when I started).

If you’re a little leery of child narrators – which are a tricky thing to pull off – I would suggest giving this one a try.  The narrative jumps back and forth between the mother and the child as the story moves forward in time.  The voices establish themselves quickly without Carmel sounding too old or too cloying.  Beth’s sections are outstanding.  Hamer really nails down how a parent goes through an ordeal like this, how one keeps living and believing when everyone else starts giving up. Carmel’s sections aren’t strong narratively, which makes since she’s a child, but are phenomenal in the atmosphere and imagery they contain. The “laying on of hands” sensation as narrated by a child was extremely interesting.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Summary from Goodreads:
Henry Lytten – a spy turned academic and writer – sits at his desk in Oxford in 1962, dreaming of other worlds.

He embarks on the story of Jay, an eleven-year-old boy who has grown up within the embrace of his family in a rural, peaceful world – a kind of Arcadia. But when a supernatural vision causes Jay to question the rules of his world, he is launched on a life-changing journey.

Lytten also imagines a different society, highly regulated and dominated by technology, which is trying to master the science of time travel.

Meanwhile – in the real world – one of Lytten’s former intelligence colleagues tracks him down for one last assignment.

As he and his characters struggle with questions of free will, love, duty and the power of the imagination, Lytten discovers he is not sure how he wants his stories to end, nor even who is imaginary…

Being my first experience with Iain Pears, I was expecting Arcadia to be a twisty, literary, very smart novel.  There’s a lot going on here: an Inklings-like writing group with fantasy elements (do you like Narnia?  There’s a Narnia call back.), time-travel, 1984-like totalitarian future.  Mixed in among the hard SF elements and the fantasy elements is a chicken-and-egg type question:  did Lytten dream up his Arcadia pastoral society which was then realized through Angela’s technology or did he dream up the futuristic world which seeded his own reality?  I don’t know.  This book twists and turns with characters that jump in and out and change as the narrative moves between settings.

I’m not quite sure Pears pulls the whole thing off – the fantasy and hard SF and Shakespeare and Cold War antics….it’s easier if you just go with it and don’t think about it too much.  The story doesn’t quite gel and some elements – like the “psychomathematician” stuff – pale next to novels where they’re used better (think the meta-physics David Mitchell handled in The Bone Clocks).  However, the ending of the book is excellent.  Pears leaves everything for the reader to piece together and I appreciate that greatly.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Summary from Goodreads:
Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

I don’t know if I can distill into words the experience of reading this book. This was a vivid, intense one-sitting read.  The line between reality and distortion kept shifting.  Is mental illness at the root of Yeong-hye’s behavior?  What about the brother-in-law?  Does it spread?  Three linked novella-like chapters constantly re-framed why Yeong-hye has stopped eating meat and also commented on societal expectations (I think I missed a few deeper points because I’m not familiar with Korean cultural norms as Korean readers certainly would, but it definitely didn’t detract). We are never given a portion of the narrative that is explicitly from Yeong-hye’s perspective.  We get snippets of dreams or visions, but no complete perspective so she is always presented through other characters.

The translation is excellent – shout-out to the translator Deborah Smith.

Dear FTC: I started with a DRC of this novel via Edelweiss and switched to a library copy.

Commonplace Book · dies · music notes · stuff I read

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Summary from Goodreads:
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all. As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.

The second I heard that Alexander Chee had a novel coming out about a Belle Époque opera singer with a secret I went on a mission to figure out how I might ferret out an advance copy.  I put The Queen of the Night on pre-order in hardback but I knew I was going to need time to read, and re-read, and digest.  Basically, I just want to snuggle the book and pet it because it is that good so I’ll try and write something reasonably coherent.

Lilliet Berne is what is known as a Falcon soprano (named for the first such singer, Cornélie Falcon), with a voice of incredible darkness and power but a very fragile physical instrument.  Lilliet’s secrets have secrets, secrets that could be deadly.  When she is offered an original role, an accolade that would cap her career, the opera’s libretto threatens to bring her secrets to light.  The librettist is an unknown, the novel it is based on unknown to Lilliet.  As she recalls her life, delving through many layers of intrigue and disguise to determine which person betrayed her, the reader begins to wonder: who is Lilliet and what will happen to her?

The Queen of the Night is a novel at the intersection of Romanticism and Realism, two major movements in nineteenth-century art.  The surreal nesting of Lilliet’s many-layered life inside the harsh reality of an orphan in Paris during the Second Empire.  The sturm und drang of the opera next to the monotony of being a grisette in Empress Eugénie’s vast wardrobe.  The glittering heights of celebrity outline the horrifying years when Lilliet is treated as a possession.  Were this to become an opera, Verdi would have to compose the music.

Throughout the novel, Lilliet muses on the ideas of fate, hubris, and vengeance, giving us a glorious line:

…the gods did not kill for hubris – for hubris, they let you live long enough to learn. (p46)

Lilliet is the Queen of the Night – a role she loves for its dark power and famous for the fiendishly difficult “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”/”The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,” is Carmen – trapped by the hand of cards dealt to her, is Violetta – caught between her heart and her past as a courtesan, is Leonora – the casualty of a revenge plot decades in the making.  As Lilliet notes: “victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat.”  As I was re-reading the book, I noticed that I wanted to listen to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Pucinni’s Tosca.  Odd, because Giovanni is a baritone role, clearly not something Lilliet would sing, and Tosca did not premiere until 1900, well after the events of the book.  But there is something echoed in Lilliet’s struggle against what she views as a curse brought on by hubris: Giovanni brazenly inviting his doom to supper and Tosca singing her haunting aria “Vissi d’arte” about art and prayer.

Tucked in among all the activity with circuses and Emperors and celebrity and opera, there is the simple story of a teenage girl who believes she is to blame for a karmic misfortune.  In her haste to get away she commits error after error as any inexperienced, grieving teenager might do, stumbling into misfortune and by sheer strength of will and cleverness keeping herself alive.  She becomes the famous Lilliet, leaving the adult woman to salvage what is left of the little girl from the Minnesota prairie.  Whatever your thoughts on opera as a music form, this coming-of-age tale with its mysterious twists and turns is the heart of Chee’s novel.  A brilliant book to start 2016. 

Bellissima.  Bellissimo. Bravo.

PS: If you aren’t familiar with opera – it isn’t all Valkyries with blond braids and Viking hats, trust me – I suggest the following list of discs to check out:
Renée Fleming, “The Beautiful Voice“, “Bel Canto“, “Renée Fleming
Jonas Kaufmann, “The Verdi Album“, “The Best of Jonas Kaufmann
Bryn Terfel, “Bad Boys“, 1996 Don Giovanni recording
Joyce DiDonato, “Drama Queens“, “Diva Divo
José Carreras, “Passion
The #1 Opera Album and The #1 Opera Album II – these are compilations with both older and newer recordings but wide range

Dear FTC: I did a first-read of this novel using a DRC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss and then I bought a copy because why the hell wouldn’t I?