Saturday, September 25, 2021

Banshee

Banshee / Margaret Millar
NY: Syndicate, 2018, c1983.
495 p.(collected volume)


I've been on a bit of a mystery kick lately, started off with picking up some more Margaret Millar. I have this collection of the complete works put out by Syndicate, and I am slowly reading my way through it. I usually only read one at a time, trying to keep some still unread for myself. But this time I couldn't stop and read three in a row! The first is Banshee, one of her later works.

Millar is a psychological writer, and her endings are always unpredictable. Everyone is slightly off balance in many of her works, and that is the case here. People are affected by what happens in her books, they do find tragedy tragic, they react, they break. 

In this novel, we first meet Annamay Hyatt, an 8 yr old leading a charmed life. She's a princess attended by her faithful servants, two big family dogs. She has a castle -- a lovely playhouse built by the young architect who also designed the family house, a friend of the family. She is a beautiful child, a delight. Until she goes missing, and her body is found in the woods months later. 

This strains her parents' already shaky marriage; her father moves into the garden house, obsessed with doing the investigation that the police can't seem to manage. He is aided by his friend, a local minister who performed Annamay's baptism and also her funeral, and has lost his faith in the meantime. Her grandfather also lives with the family, and he now spends his time staring his pond of goldfish, wondering why he and the fish are still alive at a great age and Annamay isn't. The housekeeper feels she didn't protect Annamay well enough, the architect has his own difficulty with the events while his tawdry girlfriend is angry at his attachment to the family. Even the slightly mad woman kept in a locked house across the fields has heard the Banshee and knows something. And nobody seems to be overly concerned with the way that Annamay best friend and cousin, the slightly older Dru, is dealing with (or not) her feelings about Annamay's loss. 

Into this stew of emotion and suspicion Millar adds the town's suspicions, and the strange actions of both odd neighbours and family and friends alike. Every person's life is looked into by the reader, and you're not sure which details are relevant to the mystery itself or are simply the oddity of personal life lived out of sight of anyone else. It's heart-pounding in parts, especially near the end, and I was sure I knew who'd done it, although I was wrong. The ending is a shock, and sends reverberations backward through the entire story and the way it was presented, and implicates the reader through our own suspicions. I haven't stopped thinking about this one since I finished it. Highly recommended. 
 



Sunday, September 19, 2021

A Shortcut to Paradise

A Short Cut to Paradise / Teresa Solana
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush 
London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2011, c2008.
310 p.

After reading and enjoying Solana's short story collection in August, I decided to pick up this mystery to try next. I was hoping it would be as entertaining as the first book. It sort of was, but didn't quite hit the mark for me. 

A Short Cut to Paradise is the name of a novel within the book, the last novel written by Marina Dolc before she was brutally murdered, immediately after winning a big literary prize. Twin detectives Borja and Eduard are asked by a literary agent to investigate, as her client, fellow writer Amadeu Cabestany has been arrested although he maintains that he's innocent. 

The reader knows that he is innocent, as we see him elsewhere during the time of the murder, on the first few pages. But Solana takes advantage of this setup to skewer Barcelona's literary establishment, the police and government, and the actions of everyday society as well.

There are some funny bits as the twins encounter suspects and sources, trying to behave like 'real detectives'. And the experiences of Amadeu Cabestany in prison are rather ironically amusing (as is his final outcome). However, the book dragged on a bit, going in circles in the middle and feeling like it was just being padded a bit. There was a completely unnecessary scene that added nothing to the mystery or its solution, it felt like a set piece dropped into the book -- an orgy at a literary party caused by hallucinogenic appetizers. 

The elements of literary pretension and satire definitely entertained me, and the mystery made sense once the solution was revealed (it was actually a bit sad). The Barcelona setting was also a strong element of this story, one of the most absorbing bits really. I found the characters of Eduard and Borja interesting enough to perhaps pick up another title in this series in future, but this is very light reading indeed and another might have to wait until next summer when I need something frivolous to read on the beach ;) 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Things We Lost in the Fire

Things We Lost in the Fire / Mariana Enriquez
trans. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
London: Hogarth Press, 2017, c2016.
208 p.

I finished this right at the end of August; I read it in audiobook format and had been listening while working on other things, bit by bit. I think this is a good way to listen to stories, you can let one sit before tackling the next. 

However, not being able to skim over some parts of this book like I would have if I was reading it means that there are some strong images that I wish I wasn't remembering! This is a set of stories that are really on the edge of horror. About as horrory as I get, anyhow. 

There are haunted houses, missing children (lots about missing and murdered children), mysterious figures only seen by one person, political danger, marital discord, and more. The stories themselves are haunting, some more poetic and some much more graphically grotesque -- I wasn't as fond of those ones for my own tastes. All of the stories combine some kind of innocence with the realities of adulthood, politics and history, and the ever-present threat of violence. 

There are a couple of stories that are more political, which were very interesting -- looking at the history of Argentina and its long echoes. They are also ones that are more realistic, comparatively speaking. My favourite stories were the ones with children as the characters; one in which two siblings see the disappearance of a friend in a haunted house, but nobody believes them, and one in which two adolescent girls try to wreak revenge on a hotel owner who fired one's father, but end up terrorized by ghostly apparitions of past governmental thugs. They are both finely tuned episodes in which children see things that aren't believed, and both are strong narratives. There is also a story about women rebelling against rampant domestic violence by setting themselves on fire -- very disturbing and powerful.

I've seen this book compared to Shirley Jackson, and I can see that in some of the stories. There is a lurking horror around every corner of daily life in this collection, and if you like that kind of tense, spooky reading, you may also like this collection. I found it really even -- each story stands up, and there are many elements to admire in their structure and narrative styles. I was taken by a few of the stories in particular, but I am not sure that I'll read her next one; as mentioned, horror is not really my genre, and although real horror readers would scoff at my characterization, I did find this quite disturbing in parts. An excellent written collection, though, and one that I would recommend if this is your kind of reading. 

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

The Ladies from St Petersburg

 

The Ladies from St. Petersburg / Nina Berberova
trans. from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Cambridge, MA: New Directions, 2000, c1990
122 p.

Although August and Women in Translation Month is over for this year, I've finished a few more titles that I started in August, so before I move on to other books, there are a few more reviews to share! 

I picked up this little collection recently; the cover states that this is a collection of three novellas. That's stretching it a bit -- these are three short stories. The book is only 122 pages, the font is a decent reading size, and white space abounds. 

Still, they are three really good short stories. And definitely worth your time to search out. Berberova was a Russian emigree, first to Paris, then to New York. The first two stories take place in the Old World, but the third is clearly New York. In the first, mother and daughter are taking their vacation in a country boarding house in Russia, ignoring the looming revolution that's happening around them. Disaster strikes in an unexpected way; the details of the disaster and the fallout are precise and disturbing. The second features a woman who must relocate from her town in Ukraine because of the fighting, and like many other internal refugees she rents a room in a boarding house to live in. Unfortunately, she doesn't get along with the other members of the household -- they are suspicious of her, prying, spying on her, hostile to this woman from a higher, educated class. Both of these two stories were written in the 1920s, and both are sharp, with unhappy endings. Just about what you'd expect from Russian fiction. 

The final story is set in The City, and while it also features an emigre, in this one the narrative is more dreamlike and modern, having been written much later. It was fascinating but also strange. A man finds a room to live in in the attic of a huge apartment block, which has a whole "main street" of shops on one floor for the residents; the attic overlooks this floor. This is odd enough, but the other residents of the attic are also strange, as he discovers as he makes the rounds. There are still the themes of isolation, hostility, lack of belonging, as in the first two, but told in a different way here. And the conclusion feels much more American in a way. 

I found the writing style clear and descriptive, focused on character, and people's thoughts and reactions to difficult circumstances. She's just telling you what happened, not interpreting or analyzing it - that's your job as the reader. The stories are memorable, and I'm now interested in finding out more about Berberova, an author I've never read before. She was apparently a prolific writer, so hopefully I can track down more work in English. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

#WITMonth Roundup

 



And that's a wrap for this year's Women in Translation Month! I really enjoyed my reading this month, and have found another batch to add to my TBR thanks to reviews and publisher's highlights as well (many of those shared on Translation Thursday posts).

I read from a few different languages and styles -- the most unusual language this year was Esperanto, while the most common was either Canadian French or Japanese. I love reading all these different books and seeing reviews out there highlighting things I might have missed in my reading of a book. 

Women in translation matter all year round, of course, and it's important to keep reading them. I have a few titles that I've finished and will post my reviews shortly, carrying this over into September. And do take a look at the Women in Translation website, to find out more about this project, why it's done and why it matters, and what you can do to both read along and encourage more books by women to be translated. 

I still have a large number of translations on my shelves to read, and I realized that I hadn't read any Italian books this year. So I made a reading stack of translations that I'm going to try to focus on to the end of the year. I do have quite a lot of Italian reading waiting! 

Of course there are many other great titles which are tempting me and may make me stray away from Italy now and again. But I'm sure I'll get to them all, eventually.

What was my favourite book of this month's reading? It's hard to say, since I read a variety from short stories to speculative fiction to historicals. I did find some great reads though, and plan to continue exploring all this year, right up until next August, as always.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Queue

 

The Queue / Basma Abdel Aziz
trans. from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette
NY: Melville House, 2016, c2012.
224 p.

I've been meaning to read this book for a long time, and finally sat down with it this month. It's a story of an Egypt that is run by a centralized authority known as The Gate, and as many centralized authorities are, it's both opaque, intrusive, and completely bureaucratic. 

There has been an uprising only known as the "Disgraceful Events", and people injured during this time are being gaslighted and told that they have no injuries, that nothing happened at all. Yehya is a young man who has a bullet in his abdomen, but isn't allowed to have it removed unless it's at the authorized hospital with all the right papers (all of which is impossible anyhow). The doctor who first treated him, Tarek, is having an existential crisis, not sure whether to defer to the dictates of the Gate, or to defy them and operate anyhow. 

Meanwhile Yehya, his friend Nagy and girlfriend Amani are spending time in the queue, lined up in a crowd literally miles long waiting for the Gate to open so they can get their paperwork for whatever particular need they have. 

The queue is the setting for much of the book -- it's a cross-section of society, different kinds of people in need of different things, but all oppressed under the ever-present surveillance and total lack of care or assistance of the government. There's a religious zealot, a couple of women both drawn to and repelled by him (fearful of everything), an older woman who takes advantage of her position stuck in the queue to open up a little coffee stall and make some money, nurses, teachers, rural residents trying to get land papers, everyone trying to get attestation of their loyalty to the government. 

It's exhausting, ominous, and without any end in sight. Amani, with more self-confidence and initiative than many, tries to bluff her way into the official hospital to retrieve the x-ray that Yehya needs herself, but it doesn't go well -- she is arrested, and her harrowing experience changes her. She becomes as fearful and cowed as everyone else, and starts to believe the government propaganda that says no-one was hurt, that her beloved's injuries, which she herself has been advocating for help for, really don't exist, aren't really as bad as he thinks. It's the most chilling part of the book for me. 

It's a study of authoritarianism -- the control over daily life and the tiniest parts of personal existence, the mind control and propaganda, the lack of care for anyone, even the brainwashed supporters of its authority. Sounds all too familiar over the last few years. 

This book reminded me in some ways of both Vladimir Sorokin's The Queue and Olga Grushin's The Line, both examinations the Soviet life and the blankness of government and access to goods. In this book, the lack of access is to the very proof of life - the forms required to live in a world run by the Gate, and denied by the Gate. The hopelessness is palpable. 

This was a powerful read, and the last few pages need to be read again in order to make your mind up about what happened. The conclusion changes the way I read the book, and I had to think over it again in light of the final pages. Quite a book!


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Croatian War Nocturnal

Croatian War Nocturnal / Spomenka Stimec
trans. from the Esperanto by Sebastian Schulman
Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2017, c1993.
120 p.


This is the only book I've ever read which was written in Esperanto. If you're not familiar with it, it's a rather utopian project, a created language (in 1887) meant to facilitate international communication. There are Esperanto societies around the world, and the author of this book belongs to one in Croatia.

This slim book is a fictionalized memoir of the wars in the former Yugoslavia; the author's persona is also an Esperanto specialist, the irony being that this language created for the unity of the world is being used to write a novel during time in a bomb shelter during a vicious war that divided a county irrevocably. 

The book is small but powerful. It's a series of meditations on the country, starting with the author's memories of visiting her grandmother in Belgrade, now impossible to access via Zagreb where she is living. Her family divided across the war zones and ethnic identities fighting it out. Then there is the story of a father of five, a fellow Esperantist and pacifist who is called up to a war he isn't interested in fighting - his story weaves throughout the book. 

The style is smooth and wide-ranging. There is a clear eyed reportage feel to it, but with a thoughtful, literary element to the use of language and detail. It feels like an elegy to the country itself, and was really moving to read. She's a bookish person, and the focus on language, communication, literature, adds resonance. There is horrific detail just slid into the story as just a normal part of life then, but there isn't a "side" to the telling; she really is a true pacifist. 

The narrative is structured in brief chapters, with short sections in each, ranging between thoughts and reflections on the present, ie: her brother getting his call up notice, or the experience of being in the apartment's bomb shelter, to the past -- the history of Yugoslavia, including the language used in its creation, and musings on Esperanto itself and the international community committed to its use and spread, which also functions as a sort of communal aid society to be called on for help.

The language that this book was written in is really integral to the story itself. Her commitment to Esperanto is also her commitment to peace and unity. And thus this story of a terrible civil war is made even more tragic, even in the cool and reserved tone used here.

The book ends with the question:
Around me, in this world of people who do not know how to defend themselves other than with firearms, my disgust for hatred invites suspicion. Am I enough of a patriot? How long will I tolerate Cyrillic? I, who believe that weapons cannot make the world a better place. 

(You can find an excerpt here to get a taste of this startling, memorable book)