FARTHEST SOUTH by Ethan Rutherford

Farthest South
By Ethan Rutherford
A Strange Object (Deep Vellum Press) — 13th April 2021
ISBN: 9781646050482
— Paperback — 184 pp.
Cover Design: Nayon Cho; Illustrations: Anders Nilsen


I have such a fondness for surreal short fiction, stories on the edge of familiar and unsettling. If dreams are the product of the mind’s processing of events and emotions, dream-like fiction represents an ideal format for writers to pierce the veils of the human condition, the assumptions and ignorance of our everyday interactions that shroud from insight. In Rutherford’s new collection Farthest South, his stories provide a foundation for magical lyrical prose intermingling with a frugal simplicity. Like bedtime stories, his style cuts to the core of the mundane while still meandering into asides, conveying tantalizing flashes of the fantastic.

Rutherford frames the collection with two stories that integrate that concept of a child’s bedtime story into the plot itself, with the same characters. Both are outstanding stories that start and conclude Farthest South in a perfect way, introducing readers to Rutherford’s style and leaving them with uncertainties to ponder. In some respect, the stories feel more unsettling after their conclusion, as they stick with you.

“Ghost Story” (originally published in Tin House) begins things, where a father is asked by his son to tell a scary story before bed. Prior to this ghost story getting underway, the father and mother discuss normal marital concerns; the father considers the art of telling a story, how to strike the right balance between something being ‘scary’ for a child, but not over so, and how to still include a valuable lesson. Soon the story settles in with the father telling his story of the ‘Seal Woman’, a witch-like creature he encountered when younger while working one fishing season on his dad’s boat. “Ghost Story” is two stories in one, meta-fiction in a way; though I enjoyed all the parts (the relationship side between the parents, the father-son interaction, the Seal Woman tale) I still am not sure how they all fit together.

The final story in the collection, “The Diver” (originally published as “The Soul Collector” in Conjunctions) returns with the same story for another ocean-set tale featuring ‘Old Gr’mer’. Shorter than “Ghost Story”, “The Diver” doesn’t feature the mother-father interactions as much, and that tighter focus made it seem more cohesive in comparison.

These, and the other stories in Farthest South, are reminiscent of fairy tales in style, but with important functional distinctions. Most focus on adults, over children without guardians. And they aren’t written to convey a morale, so much as invite insights, subtly. The stories all revolve around family matters, the anxieties of people not acting just for themselves, but also for a unit, a pack. “Fable” takes this most literally in a story where a fox couple without any kits of their own adopt a human child. However, like in “Ghost Story”, this fable becomes nestled within a larger framework of friends coming together. One, a translator and storyteller, relates the fox fable to her friends.

The uncertainties and unease of families, of parenthood in particular, crop up again and again in Rutherford’s stories. “Family, Happiness” delves into that specific theme in a very short, but lush and emotive handful of pages. “The Baby” (originally published in Post Road) uses the same theme from an opposite, almost nightmarish, perspective. A couple bring their feverish child into the hospital emergency room:

“The weather outside is feral and snow-clotted. And when the doctor says hold the baby, they do.”

In probably my favorite story of the collection, Rutherford depicts the frightening unease of any patient putting their trust into a doctor, having no choice but to do what the doctor says, even amid doubts or evidence that the doctor can’t be expert in all. The story is the most absurd of the collection, with details that will ring familiar to anyone who has ever faced a medical bureaucracy that seems to prioritize everything but patient care and communication.

“Holiday”, approaches the parenthood theme from yet another angle, the haunting of possibilities and chance encounters. This eerie tale almost reads like a horror story, but never goes into full darkness.

A couple of stories do focus on the childhood perspective of the family relationship. In “Pools, I am a Hawk” a young girl goes with her mother to a fancy club where the woman’s more affluent friends have invited them as guests. There, the girl goes off on her own and encounters other children who think she’s a ghost of a dead classmate. In “Angus and Annabelle”, two siblings deal with the trauma of a lost mother. Amid a flutter of sparrows, Annabelle practices a skill that their mother had taught them, making stick-and-berry dolls that disquiet Angus (and perhaps the reader.)

The title story of the collection, “Farthest South” first published in BOMB can still be read there. It’s a fitting one to pick for the title of the entire book, as this story combines many of Rutherford’s elements into one tale. It’s surreal and has bits of comic absurdity, yet also is chillingly haunting. It also is a story nestled within another, though done far more quietly. It recounts the experiences of a man across the inhospitable terrains of Antarctica, a survivor among children and animals that inexplicably were among an expedition team. The survivors are plagued by the ghostly skulls of those from the team who died. But the man has a companion to help him in this ordeal: a talking Emperor Penguin named Franklin. Told from the perspective of a grandchild of this man, only a brief line(s) of the story suggest that what the tale in reality represents. While that detail may not be essential, it is a touch that lends added layers of appreciation to “Farthest South”.

Layers of appreciation is something that all of Farthest South offers readers. It’s imminently readable, neither dense nor pretentious. It capitalizes on key tricks of genre fiction to build something that’s certainly more in the literary camp – entertaining but giving things to intellectually unpack and ponder, even over multiple reads.

Ecotheo Review, a blog on ecology, theology, and art hosts an interview with Ethan Rutherford on Farthest South and his other work. It offers additional insights into the collection and what readers might take from the stories. It’s something that could be read after reading the book, but might also be useful to potential readers who still haven’t made up their minds if this is for them. There are also multiple upcoming events with Rutherford, including one at Madison’s Books in Seattle. If you happen to live near there, you can find more information on the event here.


Humans and the Environment in Translation: New Event for the Calico Series from Two Lines Press

I’m always excited to see additional literature in translation, and this in particular caught my interest in its intersection with ecology and climate. I am lucky to be able to read this for review, so look for it in the future. But also I wanted to share the news, copied below from Two Lines Press releases, about an event that should be of interest to others holding a passion for translation. Follow the link below to learn more, including biographies on the three translators of this international eco-lit collection.

CELEBRATE ELEMENTAL

“Join Point Reyes Books and Two Lines Press on March 11 for a special event celebrating the release of Elemental with contributors Jessica Cohen, Allison Charette, and Brian Bergstrom. Moderated by Cristina Rodriguez. A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Madagascar, Iraq, Germany, and more, this latest installment of the Calico Series maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the environment. Featuring fiction and reportage from eight authors working in different languages, Elemental is an awesome collection that speaks of climate catastrophe, geological time, and mythology; it’s a global gathering of engaged, innovative eco-lit. Register for the event on Point Reyes Books event page, and don’t forget to buy a copy of the book while you’re there!”

THURSDAY, MARCH 11

5:30 PT | 6:30 MT | 7:30 CT | 8:30 ET

About Elemental

A family’s heirloom stones unearth a story spanning war, illness, and radioactivity. A pipeline installed to protect a town from flooding results in a howling that disturbs the town’s inhabitants. A political prisoner embarks on an epic flight toward freedom, literally blown like a kite in the wind.

A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Norway, Germany, Madagascar, Iraq, Poland, and Israel, this collection of fiction and reportage maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the natural world. Do we set the limits on our existence? Or is it wind, water, fire, and earth that define–even control–us? Borrowing from eco-literature and mythology, Elemental unflinchingly takes up the earth.

“Stone, earth, water, ice, wind, and burning heat. The stories here dig deep and unexpectedly into life’s fundamentals—the elements and the passions—bringing into English, many for the first time, writers of stature from across the globe. A celebration of both storytelling and translation, Elemental is essential, a gift that opens up the pleasures of new worlds.” —Hugh Raffles, author of The Book of Unconformities

About the Calico Series

The Calico Series, published biannually by Two Lines Press, captures vanguard works of translated literature in stylish, collectible editions. Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of our present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world today.

AFTER THE PARADE by Lori Ostlund

After the Parade
By Lori Ostlund
Scribner Books — September 2015
ISBN: 9781476790107
— Hardcover — 340 pp.


Normally I’d introduce a book and its author, summarize its plot with mention of key characters, and only then go into interpretations, analysis, and critique. For Lori Ostlund’s After the Parade, I’m actually going to do things a bit in reverse.

After the Parade is a novel about emotion, about empathy. All literature evokes feelings of one sort or another in a reader, but for Lori Ostlund’s debut novel that seems its primary, if not sole purpose. Some minimalist, and experimental novels simply go for atmosphere, creating a distinct mood and emotions through setting and language, but leaving out all pieces of plot or character development. After the Parade also builds atmosphere, but goes a bit further to tie that atmosphere into characters and events so that the reader connects deeply with the cast.

Nonetheless, After the Parade still shies away from any grand plot, moving slowly to reveal a framework of history that has shaped the protagonist to be what he is, where he is at. Rather than using character development, the novel becomes a character study – both of its protagonist and its secondary characters. The development comes for the reader, as one discovers who these people are, sees what has shaped their life or kept them stagnant. That reader development is the empathy.

This sort of focus for literature normally, I feel, falls into the short story form. And prior to this debut novel, Ostlund had a reasonably successful and highly praised collection of short stories, The Bigness of the World. Originally published by the University of Georgia Press, and re-released after her novel by Scribner – won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. Stories from it appeared in yearly prestigious “Best of…” anthologies. Here, with After the Parade, Ostlund has really taken elements that literary short fiction do best and placed them into the novel framework, interconnecting many episodes of a central character’s life into a larger whole. While other authors have done this in ways that leave the short stories feeling each distinct, though interconnected, Ostlund fully molds that short fiction focus into a novel so that they can’t easily be separated back out.

The plot summary of After the Parade is relatively easy to make: In his late forties, Aaron ponders what he is doing in his life. How he got there, what he wants. He leaves his older partner, Walter, after two decades together and moves to San Francisco, teaching English as a second language. There, he misses Walter, but comes to accept he may not have ever really loved the older man. Considering his future and his still uninspiring present, Aaron looks at the lives of his neighbors and acquaintances and faces memories of his past: a near absent mother, an abusive father who suddenly dies during a town parade, a religious aunt.

The atmosphere evoked by the novel and its character study is one of loneliness, being rudderless despite connections and interactions to others. Again, a very common theme in modern short fiction. This makes After the Parade a very melancholy novel, though balanced by Ostlund’s beautiful, hopeful prose. Through Aaron and secondary characters Ostlund explores how much of a person’s life is formed from one’s own agency, and how the choices to be actively engaged in one’s direction – or not engaged at all – plays into this. It explores the ‘coming-of-age’ theme as not a once-in-a-lifetime defining moment that separates existence into the ignorant before-time and the after-time of clarity, but as a constantly recurring experience.

If you are a fan of short literary fiction, then Ostlund’s novel is likely something that you will appreciate. For me, I would have enjoyed more in terms of character development and plot. The loneliness and melancholy and Aaron’s personality can get frustratingly angering. But, it did also make empathize a lot more with this ‘type’ of person. If you didn’t see this book when it appeared now five years back, and it sounds up your alley, go find a copy. There are also plenty of other positive or balanced reviews out there that you can look into, saying wonderful points I agree with, so am not going to just rehash in detail.

In a related aside to close: I recall seeing news of a study several years ago stating that readers of literary fiction scored higher on tests of empathy than others. The study claimed this was true for literary, but not genre, fiction. In the Sci Fi/Fantasy field I saw angry mention of this – or a similar – study a month or so ago. Another attempt to claim ‘genre’ is not good enough. I don’t see it that way. They are different, and that’s fine. Genre fiction CAN be written in a way that emphasizes empathy with characters to focus solely on that. Most doesn’t, so it’s not going to have the same effect as what ‘literary’ holds up as en vogue. Read both, read all varieties. When the mood strikes. I hope to have a chance to read Ostlund’s The Bigness of the World collection, and perhaps any future novels from her.


OF DARKNESS by Josefine Klougart (Translated by Martin Aitken)

Of Darkness (Om mörker)
By Josefine Klougart
(Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)
Deep Vellum Publishing — January 2017
ISBN: 9781941920503
— Papberback — 322 pp.


Today I have a review from the backlist of copies received: the second novel by Josefine Klougart translated into English by Martin Aitken: Of Darkness, published by Deep Vellum. A critically acclaimed young voice in current Scandanavian Literature, Klougart has five novels and additional works of prose published in her native Danish.

Several additional backlist titles from Deep Vellum are planned for review here in the near future, and as I try to bring more attention to translated fiction on Reading 1000 Lives, I hope to feature some of their current, new releases as well. Deep Vellum has an impressive catalog and their endeavor deserves support and readership. I’ve discovered several authors through them that I otherwise would have never read. Their prices are also great deals given the quality they put out.

Of Darkness represents a rare case of a book from Deep Vellum that I didn’t really like. Nonetheless, as I try to do here, let me provide a review that could show potential readers out there why it might be the perfect book for them.

Klougart writes beautifully, and I would give another of her novels a try, if it were more conventional, and at least had some skeleton of plot to support the atmosphere of its words. Of Darkness might be labelled as experimental in multiple regards. It lacks narrative or character development in the usual senses of a novel, with unnamed personages flowing through the scenes of its pages, starting with a particular ‘she’ and ‘he’. Although composed of prose, as novels typically are, the text most often veers closer to poetry, and also includes sketch illustrations and, at one point, turns briefly into the format of a script.

Poetry is not for me, as much as I’ve tried to read it. However, I can fall in love with poetic prose, as long as it has other aspects of story to anchor me. Even without such an anchor, I can still appreciate it in small doses, just not within a work that is over 300 pages.

Everything is shifting and merging in Of Darkness time, space, perception, revelation, relationships with the shifting styles of its experimental writing to mirror the nature of its themes. One moment Klougart gives us musical text like:

“January. Bells of frost beneath the horses’ hooves, compact snow wedged to the iron shoe, the frog of the hoof blued and fraying in the freeze.

High walls balanced on the branches here. 

It snowed, the way it had snowed for days, weeks soon.

Feet kicking up their fans of powdery snow with each step.
The darkness unrevealing of such detonations of crystal.

The crystal shares much with literature. Material held together in a particular pattern,
determined by particular rules. Structures repeating everywhere.

He can see that, he says. It makes sense.

She remembers the snow consumed her tracks and that she was unable to find her way home again.

Trudging, then to pause and listen to the sound of her breath, which in turn startled her. No way forward, no way back.

Like a year suddenly past. Or just a summer.

She remembers she gave up and thought of a farewell scene, a parting from her family and lover. She recalls being surprised at who turned up in her mind.

How many were present, and the way the snow settled in her hair.”  

Another moment, and Klougart writes in a different fashion, more akin to typical prose of a novel:

“There’s something satisfying about hearing a pop song’s reiteration of a simple truth, for instance the banality of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. You lose someone but at the same time gain a more complete picture of the love you nonetheless felt for that person. That’s one way of putting it. But one might also consider that time changes everything; that the next day will always be new; that in a way it’s too late to learn what you had to lose after you’ve already lost it—the glancing back over your shoulder, or the longer look, reveals the land you’ve covered to be different from the land in which you lived. The fields you left behind, the distance measured out in units of assumptions and kilometers. She stands with her hands on her midriff, concentrating on listening. But the light has the same effect as water, distorting all sounds. And yet she is certain, he is downstairs shaving with the electric shaver. The door is closed, she lies down and turns on her side. Lying there on the bed she can look down between the beams and see the door, which indeed is closed. 

She gets to her feet. The pane is steamed up, a drop of condensation travels down the middle. 

The sky is not blue but white; the light is the voice of the sun, unready as yet, though sleep-drenched it muscles in. The pane is soaking wet. She descends the loft ladder and cautiously opens the door of the bathroom. 

He is facing away, quite apathetic.” 

These two evocative passages represent brief sips that impress and astound me, and the novel may have succeeded for me in its entirety if I hadn’t gulped it in a few sittings, but rather just as sips every once in a while, across a span of months.

Klougart’s Of Darkness is a mediative look at loss, love, pain, living, and mortality. Even with its shifting styles it can become repetitive if forced and not given time to process its details. I would vastly prefer these themes to be covered in a narrative story, with occasions of poetic interlude. But that is not what Klougart has done, and that is valid.

Though not really for me, the evident high quality of this particular work by Klougart is equally the product of its translator into English, Martin Aitken. A sparse, atmospheric, poetic novel such as this demands remarkable and delicate precision in words. I cannot speak to the precision of the translation, but Atiken keeps all of the affect that appears intended by Klougart. Aitken has also contributed to the translation of the final volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle, which may be familiar to many readers. There is enough interest for me still in Klougart to give his translation of her novel One of Us Is Sleeping a try one day, which seems to be more appropriate for my tastes.


THE WORLD BEFORE US, by Aislinn Hunter

22716411

The World Before Us
By Aislinn Hunter
Hogarth – 31st March 2015
ISBN 9780553418521 – 432 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Blogging For Books


My latest review is up today on Strange Horizons, a great weekly SFF eZine. Hunter’s The World Before Us is a literary novel with dabs of historical and fantasy genres, written in a voice that I really enjoyed.
“…Within the corridors of a small, present-day London museum that is dying from lack of funds, thirty-four-year-old archivist Jane Standen seeks solace in a final research project. She is investigating the mysterious disappearance from a Victorian-era mental institution, Whitmore, of a woman known to history only as “N.” Though records mention the woman in a mere passing whisper, Jane feels compelled to uncover the truth of N’s identity and ultimate fate…”

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

MUSIC FOR WARTIME: STORIES, by Rebecca Makkai

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Music for Wartime: Stories
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking – 23rd June 2015
ISBN 9780525426691 – 240 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“The Singing Women”
“The Worst You Ever Feel”
“The November Story”
“The Miracle Years of Little Fork”
“Other Brands of Poison (First Legend)”
“The Briefcase”
“Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”
“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”
“Acolyte (Second Legend)”
“Everything We Know About the Bomber”
“Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”
“A Bird in the House (Third Legend)”
“Exposition”
“Cross”
“Good Saint Anthony Come Around”
“Suspension: April 20, 1984”
“The Museum of the Dearly Departed”

Roughly one year ago I read and reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s second novel The Hundred-Year House. Looking back to those recorded thoughts compared to my memory I realize that a large part of my response to her novel stemmed from the power and promise of Makkai’s writing overcoming some flaws in the construction of a full novel. As impressive as the novel was, it really does resembles a collection of shorter stories interwoven around the history of a family and home. I wasn’t looking forward to another novel by Makkai (and I still haven’t read her first), but was rather really itching to see what she could do with short fiction.
Her new collection Music for Wartime: Stories affirms that initial sense. Makkai writes an exceptional short story, filled with evocative language with plots that often take slight steps into the fantastic or surreal:
“When the nine-fingered violinist finally began playing, Aaron hid high up on the wooden staircase, as far above the party as the ghosts. He was a spider reigning over the web of oriental rug, that burst of red and black and gold, and from his spider limbs stretched invisible fibers, winding light and sticky around the forty guests, around his parents, around Radelscu the violinist.” 
As in The Hundred-Year House, there are not necessarily actual ghosts here, and the rest is metaphor. But these opening lines to “The Worst You Ever Feel”, the first major story of the collection, set the atmosphere for Makkai’s collection. The opening very short tale, “The Singing Women”, also serves as a sort of introduction, serving as a modern fairy tale, an anecdote that establishes repeating, unifying elements of Music for Wartime. Many of the stories, with their hint of oddity, will appear like fairy tales. Interspersed with the main longer stories are shorter flash-type stories. Of these, three are marked as “Legends” in their titles, and they carry a semi-biographical relation to the Makkai family history. These three short ‘legends’ recall elements of “The Singing Women” where the relation between the number three and fairy tales – their emotion and power – is brought up.
These shorter stories in the collection, particularly the three anecdotal ‘legends’ taken with “The Singing Women” will likely be the one aspect to Music for Wartime that divides reader reactions. Some may find them too short, and unnecessary. I however found their interludes to be among the most engaging, and they do help form the only structural coherence to the collection. For the stories of Music for Wartime are very distinct from one another. They range in emotion and humor, plots, and protagonists. Stories feature different ages, genders, and relationships. Though some aspect related to ‘music’ crops up in most (indeed all the stories I ended up mentioning in this review), there is no overarching theme to the collection. Similarly, the plots of any single story are somewhat difficult to summarize quickly. Each of the major stories has a healthy dose of complexity and can go in unexpected directions from the setup. Yet Makkai manages to keep firm hold of the reader without dropping any of the balls she has in the air.
Each of the main stories are great, but I do have some favorites. “The November Story” is about a woman involved in producing a reality show, who is tasked with manipulating contestants to form a relationship together, all while she struggles in managing her own real-life relationship with her girlfriend. “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” reminds me of the TV show Carnivale, with a blend of historical and hints of magic as a circus comes to a small town. “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background” may be the most surreal and memorable story in the collection. In this one a woman finds J.S. Bach living in her piano. She starts introducing him to the modern world, and soon enters into a sexual relationship with the goal of creating a child with an artistic genius. There is no explanation to this odd situation, it just is. And Makkai does exceptional things with it, digging into her protagonist’s psychology and themes of basic human drives. In “Cross” a cellist discovers near her driveway one of those memorial markers, placed after the death of a teenager in a car accident. Her annoyance with its presence contrasted with grief over a tragedy leads to a sort of crossroads in her own life: rediscovered friends and new opportunities.
I’ve noticed several other readers remark that they thoroughly enjoyed Music for Wartime despite not normally being fans of short fiction. Like those that would make a blanket statement of ‘I don’t like vegetables’, until they happen to taste vegetables cooked properly and deliciously, Makkai’s collection is likely to have a similar effect. The stories are well-written, engaging, and varied. They are literary, but approachable and have just enough of a twist of weirdness to be intriguing but not off-putting to a broad audience. I’ll join others in highly recommending this.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

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Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039  – 180 Pages – Paperback
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)

        –

This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Through 5th June 2015 you can enter to win a copy of the Calligraphy Lesson collection through Goodreads’ Giveaway program.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES, by Emma Hooper

21412221Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9781476755670 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


 At 82 years old Etta gets up one morning, packs some supplies, and heads out on a walking trek to fulfill her unfulfilled dream of seeing the sea, thousands of kilometers away from the Saskatchewan home she shares with her husband Otto. As Etta makes her gradual journey step by step, Otto remains at home reminiscing over the past that he has shared with Etta and their neighbor and long-time friend Russell.
Starting off toward her goal solitary, with no fanfare, Etta begins meeting people who have heard of her walk and lend her some support and companionship as she passes through towns. In the empty Canadian wilderness between she becomes joined by James, a talking coyote. Meanwhile the reader discovers through the reflections of Otto’s and Russell’s past that love and passion exists both between Etta and Otto, and between her and Russell. Amid the tides of war and the expectations of society Etta, Otto, and Russell experience difficulties and tenderness alike.
There is a lot to appreciate in this gentle literary novel. The elderly are not frequently featured or explored in novels in any serious way, and in film/TV they are mostly used for jokes. Having protagonists who are elderly – and one who is female and actively doing something amazing that even the young would be hesitant to attempt – is refreshing. The three human characters of the novel, both at their present old age and in the recollections of their younger years are well fleshed out, and really interesting, beautiful.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is also marked by a distinct lack of conflict. Despite the love triangle featured here, there is nothing disastrous that comes about. The hardships, the longing and the guilt over having given into some of these are viewed in the novel through the long stretch of decades that have passed. In their old age the characters have become much more wise, patient, and forgiving to themselves. Having characters that are largely at peace, non-resentful, and appreciative of the life they have gotten to live even with its notes of sourness makes the novel feel similar, slow and optimistically contemplative despite that sadness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires.
It is Etta’s journey in the present – an attempt to satiate one desire that still remains possible – that creates some of the largest tension, in the worry of whether she will be able to make such an arduous journey without her health failing, physically or mentally. The appearance of James, a talking coyote companion injects the ‘magical realism’ into the novel. If merely a construct of Etta’s mind, is it something beneficial akin to a spirit guide, or a sign of danger? The line between real and fantasy blurs more as the novel reaches its conclusion, leaving an ending that can be interpreted in unique ways depending on the reader.
For readers who don’t mind the oddity and openness this novel contains or a lack of action, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a meditative, emotionally complex novel that invites reflection and discussion. Even accepting the type of novel this is, I’m most uncertain how vital James is as a character, but rereading it with everything in mind with the coyote as an aspect of Etta’s mind may reveal more here than a first read was able to pick out. A good length for a book club, the novel would certainly be an ideal consideration for one.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0385353499
306 pages, hardcover
Published: 30th September 2014
Source: Edelweiss

Although sharing with his previous novel Time’s Arrow a setting of the Holocaust, Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest takes a distinct path more grounded in realism and history that comes far closer to humanizing the Nazis and collaborators. Such a theme is unsurprisingly controversial with the Nazi machine and atrocities achieving a distinction of being often considered as closest to pure evil and inhuman horror that something non-supernatural could get. Yet, while the scope of the Holocaust presents a type of extreme, the actions underlying it were not unique to its setting, but have recurred in various forms, to various degrees throughout history. It’s important to remember that actions such as these were perpetrated by humans that forever reason consciously chose to go down a path. Typically considered monsters, they nonetheless had (mostly) rationality, emotions, love, humor.
Tackling such dark settings in historical is a tall order. Previously I’ve only read Amis’ London Fields, a superb literary treatment of the apocalyptic genre. Rather than comparing The Zone of Interest to his Time’s Arrow, I rather found myself more frequently recalling Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the Prix Goncourt-winning behemoth by Jonathan Littell. Similarly ensconced in controversy, Littell’s detailed historical novel tried balancing humanization of a Nazi protagonist with characteristics one part of an unreliable narrator and another part of a figure from Classic mythology. The hurdle that both these novels are faced with based on their subjects and points-of-view is conveying literature of meaning, keeping historical details respectful and accurate, honestly portraying ugliness with knowledge that some will be sensitive, and simply telling a good story.
Despite its immense size I felt that Littel’s novel (which I read in the French, so can’t comment on the English reliably) was mostly captivating. With Amis’ The Zone of Interest, I merely found portions here and there to really hold my interest and then mostly because of a profoundly well written sentiment or phrase. The language is great, the setting and desire to portray things from the point of view of Germans at a concentration camp is really interesting, but the plot of the story was hard to engage and even moreso an issue for something ‘literary’, the characters failed to engage.
The Zone of Interest is told from the alternating points of view of three characters. First is Paul Doll, an emotionally unstable Commandant who has little regard for, and no respect from, his wife Hannah. Second is Thomsen, a more sympathetic, but rather unambitious, Nazi who falls into a clandestine relationship with Doll’s wife. Finally the third is Szmul, a Jewish prisoner who is given a role as Nazi collaborator (basically in exchange for the chance to biologically continue existence). Szmul is responsible for implementing the Final Solution by sending his fellow Jews to the gas chambers and dealing with their remains.
This trinity of narrators is perhaps the largest reason why I found The Zone of Interest difficult to fully appreciate. Each narrator is quite distinct in personality and role. But they are also all recognizable in sharing glimpses of bittersweet humanity – even humor – in this darkest of settings, and also all manifest some deplorable moral condition. With three, it is hard to become familiar and drawn strongly to the point of view of any particular one, making the novel more like an interlaced trio of separate novels of a shared theme and loose plot. The love triangle plot line is present more for symbolism and revelation of character rather than entertainment from a story to follow.
Of the three sections I found myself most fascinated by Szmul, because of his unique position as a Jew turned to enacting these horrors upon literally himself. Seeing this and comparing it to the similar or unique decisions made by other Germans or Nazis is enlightening and I do wish the story had been told more uniquely from his point of view, rather than switching.
All of these issues are worth considering for any potential reader of The Zone of Interest, and hopefully if you are reading this it gives you a sense of whether you would give it a try. I do think it is a novel where you could start reading and realize fairly quickly whether it was for you or not. For readers new to Martin Amis I would also recommend that you not judge his work simply by this, he is a complex and gifted author whose works won’t necessarily fit into a ‘love one and love all’ or vice-versa equation.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

The Blood of Angels, by Johanna Sinisalo

My latest review for Skiffy & Fanty is up, on Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels.

“Most readers could fly through Lola Rogers’ translation of The Blood of Angelsby Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo in a handful of hours. Yet, as the relatively brief enjoyment of a spoonful of honey belies the phenomenal labor of countless bees, so too does consumption of this novel’s simple, flowing prose hide the rich, complex depth of its construction and significance. Sinisalo’s novel captures an apocalyptic, large-scale focus on humanity that is typical of speculative fiction, yet keeps a keenly literary focus on the psychological trials of an individual and family…”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!