OUT OF THE CAGE by Fernanda García Lao (Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

“… Out of the Cage is a grim tragicomedy, a family saga that parallels the absurdities of political upheavals. Related with a short crispness that makes the novel fly by even without much action, it contains a wealth of subtext for continued analysis and appreciation.”

Read my entire review of Out of the Cage HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Deep Vellum Press – March 2021 – Paperback – 168 pp.

YOU HAVE A FRIEND IN 10A: STORIES by Maggie Shipstead

You Have a Friend in 10A: Stories
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf Publishing Group — May 2022
ISBN: 9780525656999
— Hardcover — 272 pp.


A debut collection of short fiction written over a span of ten years, You Have a Friend in 10A highlights Maggie Shipstead’s versatility of fiction and empathic range. Readers are likely to be familiar with Shipstead’s name through her multiple-award-nominated novel Great Circle, out last year. I haven’t read that, or any of her short fiction prior to receiving this collection.

The power of a collection like You Have a Friend in 10A lies in its survey of an author’s depth and range over the span of years. This summation of Shipstead’s short fiction reveals a literary craftsmanship and keen insight into human identity that none of her individual stories can completely reveal on their own.

Yet, this power comes along with the risk that some readers might find the stories within the collection to be uneven, particular with the broad spectrum of setting, plot, and voice that Shipstead employs. I appreciated the majority of the stories in the collection. They sparked reflection, stimulated emotional connection with their everyday characters, and evoked wonder with turns of idiosyncratic language that fit those characters perfectly. Many entertained. Only in a couple cases did the style of the story leave me less engaged. Readers who enjoy a variety of literary short fiction, or who are fans of Shipstead, would find this worthwhile as well.

The title of the collection comes from one of the stories within, but the number 10 seems fitting. Besides the roughly 10 year span of time of publication, 10 stories fill the pages. “The Cowboy Tango” opens things strongly with a story of a love triangle on a Montanan dude ranch between the owner, a young female employee, and his nephew. It’s a beautiful story of rejection, told with a simple honesty that reveals the discomforts and complexity that people abide in relationships of life.

This theme of loss echoes through many of the other stories in the collection, perhaps the only thread that ties the disparate tales. Shipstead’s frank depiction of difficulties and resilience of characters through it reminded me of the short stories of Katherine Anne Porter that I’ve also recently read. It may be solely due to the correlation of timing in my reading these, but the familiarity strikes me in their foundational core of hardship/pain, with Shipstead’s stories being more modern and global in setting.

Unfortunate burdens and complications of life/relationships appear in other stories that I adored. “Souterrain” moves through time to reveal the connections – real and perceived – between an American woman and a French man in Paris, two young people whose past, present, and dire futures link to a wealthy, older, blind man who has just died. It’s a story might be most accessible to readers who crave plot and appreciate mystery and twists, even in short fiction. “Angel Lust” likewise features a character dealing with a recent death, in this case his father. The experience leads to symbolic unloading of emotional weight alongside handling the father’s physical possessions.

The standout story for me was “La Moretta”, a devastating tale of a couple on honeymoon in Europe. The growing antipathy and rancor between two people who realize they might not actually love one another overflows into tragedy. The dissolution of the marriage partnership into dark isolation contrasts with a world where people put value and power in community. It’s a literary horror tale, subtle even in the darkness.

The eponymous “You Have a Friend in 10A” completely changes tone and style from many of the other stories. Though still featuring the theme of loss and missed opportunities in life, there is a humor and parody to this story that makes it lighter. It features a character on a plane who ruminates on her experiences as part of a cult. Though Shipstead changes all the vocabulary, it’s a very clear allusion to Scientology. Though I think the story is largely successful, the ersatz details within really broke my connection to it, and made it sillier than I feel Shipstead intended.

“Acknowledgements” represents a solid literary story whose character of an author reflecting on publishing their first novel and the relevant impact of past relationships also made the story a little less engaging. A tad overlong, its metafiction really felt like an obligatory writing class exercise as opposed to heartfelt.

The remaining stories: “In the Olympic Village”, “Lambs”, “The Great Central Pacific Guano Company”, and “Backcountry” were ones I appreciated less, particularly the closing “Backcountry”. “In the Olympic Village” is a short and simple take on relationships, featuring two athletes hooking up for sex during the international games. Their relationship felt empty, and their likewise seemed to be less depth to the story than Shipstead usually achieves. “Lambs” succeeds very well in its atmosphere around the theme of loss of life. I only would rank it lower compared to other entries due to its relative simplicity. Which, for some may be a strength.

Although I now look forward to reading her novels, I also hope that Shipstead continues to produce short fiction that can be enjoyed in literary magazines and future collections. The successful experimentation and evolution in her writing displayed in You Have a Friend in 10A promise substantial achievements to come with continued maturity in the short form.


THE GODMOTHERS by Camille Aubray

The Godmothers
By Camille Aubray
HarperLuxe — June 2021
ISBN: 9780063090279
— Paperback — 592 pp.


Greenwich Village, New York City, the 1930s. As war breaks out in distant Europe, a wealthy family of Italian Americans with business ties to the mafia works hard to ensure their continued success for themselves, and even more for their children. Gianni and Tessa have one daughter, Petrina, and three sons, Johnny, Frankie, and Mario; partnering them each with the right spouse becomes the immediate parental priority to facilitate their continued familial prosperity. However, the fashionable and intelligent Petrina has a marriage on the rocks, and she still hasn’t fully recovered from a potential scandal in her past that threatened the family’s stability.

Considerate and responsible eldest son Johnny has married naive Amie, a young French widow from upstate New York, who he helps after she has used a gun to end her abusive marriage to a bar owner. Fiery middle son Frankie marries the equally spirited Lucy, an Irish nurse who has prior experience standing up to members of organized crime. But for quiet and cerebral Mario, the doted-upon baby boy of the family, Tessa decides that he needs a good Italian woman from the old country, a woman who has not grown up with the influences of American culture. Tessa and Gianni arrange to bring a young woman named Filomena over for marriage to Mario. Outbreak of WWII in Italy and tragedy leads another girl to seize the opportunity to secretly come in her friend’s place, adopting Filomena’s name and identity.

The bulk of the novel deals with the history of this family from the 1930s through the 1950s. Chapters set in the 1980s frame each side of this story, featuring Nicole, who is learning all these hidden secrets of her family’s past from one of the four Godmothers. Aubray follows the opening bookend with chapters that separately introduce the pasts of each of the four women, with particular focus on Filomena. By the point of Filomena’s marriage to Mario, the singular path of the woman as part of the familial is followed. Their generation takes over more business operations with the death of Gianni and Tessa.

The gradual departure or loss of the men to illness or war gradually allow the women to take leadership more fully, making use of the survival skills they have each learned from their pasts, and their keen intellect. With strengths to complement one another, and ferociously protective of each other’s secrets, these Godmothers work together to separate their lives from dependence on crime and keep their children safe.

The basic feminist story in The Godmothers is solid. It’s a story of divestment from situations they have been born or married into while maintaining loyalty to ‘blood’. Establishing social independence alongside separation from criminal business ties that leave them vulnerable and at the mercy to immoral powers that they’ve all had personal prior experience with in some way.

Aubray’s construction of the novel is less perfect. The bookends to the story set in the 1980s are unnecessary, and even detrimental. The opening sets up expectations of really dark secrets and mystery that will have big implications for Nicole. There are some dark secrets and mysteries revealed in those days of the 1930s – 1950s. But from the point of view of decades later, they are all pretty unsurprising, and hardly scandalous to warrant panic for Nicole. If framed solely as learning more about her family it may have worked better at least (even if not needed). Instead it sets the novel up to be far more of a thriller and mystery than it ever is.

The other major issue with The Godmothers is that it becomes progressively less compelling as the read continues. The first half or so was engaging, but the plot soon settles into a lull of predictability, and the character developments among the women and their relationship stagnates into repetition of themes. Coupled with an anticlimactic end to the 1950s era story of the Godmothers gaining criminal independence, the fizzling of any story on the 1980s side of the history makes the final chapters of the novel more skippable than engaging.

Though Aubray writes well – if a bit melodramatically – and crafts interesting characters with a meaningful history, the structure of the novel and a second half of smooth-sailing against any remotely rough waters ends up dampening the initial joys of reading The Godmothers. Given the numerous mentions of the novel on “Best of the year/summer” lists and many enthusiastic reader responses, there are certainly readers out there who will enjoy this and not mind structural elements I found to not work.

For those who are interested in looking into The Godmothers further, there is currently a new Goodreads Giveaway running until April 26, 2022 to win a copy of the novel.


VOROSHILOVGRAD by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler

Voroshilovgrad
By Serhiy Zhadan
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler
Deep Vellum Publishing — April 2016
ISBN: 9781941920305
— Paperback — 445 pp.


A review from the backlist. I’ve had a copy of Voroshilovgrad in my to-read pile for years now, and I’ve picked it up to start numerous times only to put it aside to get to an immediate priority in my reading triage. With the horrific escalation in conflict and Russian aggression that has gone on in Ukraine since then, I finally decided I needed to get to this, to help balance the despair I would get from reading the current news.

Zhadan’s voice, and this novel, was just what I needed to be reminded of the humanity behind the politics going on in this region, and of the hope that still remains possible even amid the destruction of place and life. Well-respected as a talented and vital voice in contemporary Ukrainian literature, Zhadan is equally (if not more?) known for his poetry as his prose. Poetry is not my bag, but the poetics of his fiction resonate strongly.

Voroshilovgrad takes its name from the Russian name for the current Ukrainian city of Luhansk, and it is the original home of the novel’s protagonist Herman. Herman now lives in another city, where he holds an ‘executive’ business position with responsibilities as ill-defined as his aspirations and engagement in life. But, he is content and happy, abiding with his friends.

Until Herman receives a call telling him that his brother Yura has mysteriously left the country, seemingly abandoning the gas station that he ran for good. Herman decides to return to his hometown to find out more; to temporarily help its remaining employees, Injured and Kocha, take care of the business. Herman arrives to find that Injured and Kocha, while dedicated, are like fish-out-of-water in running things, uncertain of how their boss managed the business, or how he had dealt with a gang of local business leaders who had been pressuring him to sell the station.

Intending to stay only a day – or a few – Herman finds his loyalty and pride pulling him into staying in Luhansk, taking over the responsibilities, and the stresses, that his brother Yura has apparently fled. In addition to his two new friends/coworkers and the politically-tied thugs, Herman meets some of the local women, illegal migrants, wistful travelers, Romani families (referred to as Gypsies in the text), and ghosts of the past. Though he stays in one relative place (Luhansk and its environs) for the majority of the novel, Herman’s story is one of a journey, often traversing the wasted landscape on foot, by bus, or by rail. The landscape is almost like a character, but also a means for his encounters with the varied human characters along a personal journey of his soul, in this vibe of magic realism that even directly references The Wizard of Oz.

The environments and physical objects of Voroshilovgrad are barren and bleak, worn-out and used, abused. Including the people. But only in the physical sense. Zhadan imbues the souls of his characters, and their mind, with refreshing joy, camaraderie, optimism. As beaten as they all are, as decrepit as their city and possessions seem to be, they are fiercely loyal and hopeful. This resounds in the text, and the characters even help the environment display a simplicity of uncomplicated beauty without things like the latest fashions or technology.

Zhadan’s prose is also as comical as it is serious. The humor in the character’s lives, and even their most mundane interactions shines through, almost absurdly against that dark, bleak backdrop of a setting. This appeared most obviously to me in a section that features a football match (and its aftermath) among Herman and his coworkers, and the ghosts of players Herman knew in his past. Literally haunting, yet also absurdly comical and jubilant amid their rough-and-tumble personalities. Dead, but full of life.

Other reviews of the novel I have come across mention one downside to the novel being the female characters, who are all written distinctly from the male point-of-view and are not given much depth beyond serving the needs of Herman (both physically and metaphorically in terms of the journey of his spirit and life). I would agree with this, but also feel this applies equally to all of the male characters. Herman is the heart of the novel and all others really exist more in relation to his growth than any of their own.

Voroshilovgrad is a monumental work of beauty and passionate feeling, rendered all the more bittersweet by the current realities facing Ukraine. I look forward to reading more of Zhadan’s fiction, and I hope that more authors will exist there in the future to continue writing so truthfully. In terms of the plot of the novel, the threats to Herman and his friends (while serious) ultimately give way to hope of a better future, and reduced threats. I pray the same goes for reality.


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

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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.