A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt

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Madame Valitskaia had decided that Cecily must become Dmitry’s wife so that she would not somehow become the wife of Prince Victor, and she was proceeding toward her goal.

Karolina Pavlova was a Russian poet and translator born in 1807, who had left Russia due to “hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life”, can you imagine? It lends meaning to the character Cecily, living a passive existence as others arrange her entire future. What else created a life for a woman, particularly of the privileged class, than who she married? Her best friend Olga’s mother is a schemer, she wants to push Cecily in the direction of one Dmitry Ivanchinsky so that Prince Victor is free to marry her girl. Olga is prettier, but Cecily has her own charm and that’s a threat. Olga isn’t much better, she wants the Prince for herself but we are told she isn’t quite as skilled as her mother in deception, instead relies on her mother for ‘directions’. Ha!

Cecily is often described as pale, needing rest as she has been ill. I wonder if the illness in part is an ailment more of the soul. The novel is titled Double Life, where in her dreams her true desires take flight, the writing beautiful poetry.  Is it because the ‘claims of the earth’ on some psychological level take a toll on her body, it is said a woman’s body rejects that which it doesn’t desire. So we get these ailments, headaches, fatigue… Upon waking, all around her is smiles and flattery, all her nearest and dearest convincing her to fall in love with Dmitry. It is done so convincingly, a perfect dance of charlatans, that even his poverty is romanticized by Cecily! Poverty as a more noble choice? This from a young woman given everything, looking down from great heights of society that the happenstance of birth has placed her and thinking how impossible it is to imagine poverty so terrible one cannot even afford to order a beautiful dress. You poor little fool!

Women as pawns, that’s all I could think of the time and place. Sacrificial lambs, because once the excitement of this new life wears off and the celebrations fall by the wayside the truth will be revealed by a long life with an unworthy spouse. We know throughout the tale she has nothing to compare this with, so sheltered her world, reliant on her mother “The first obligation of a mother,” remarked Madame Valitskaia. “We should always be able to read into the souls of our daughters, in order to foresee any harmful influences and keep them safe in their childlike innocence.” Kept in a bubble of ignorant bliss, and afterwards once settled and fooled, it’s too late.

Pale, headaches due to her nights of restless sleep, there lives within her poetry like a song that has been circling her head and at the end she whispers the words and Olga after asking her what she is saying responds “What nonsense”, but she is really going forth as if sentenced, which speaks volumes about what Pavlova felt about such marriages, such lives for women.  On some level, Cecily is aware of walking the plank, so to speak. She smiles along with the fools by day, playing her part in this quiet tragedy and is only truly alive in her night escapes. Very much a young woman of the times, what choice than to go along with those who are older, wiser, and love her so? They all want what’s best, right? What else is there for her, anyway?

Fascinating literary fiction, a 19th Century Russian classic by a female author that is far heavier than it seems. Do take the time to read the afterword and the introduction.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Columbia University Press

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All That’s Bright and Gone: A Novel by Eliza Nellums

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There is a woman who is crying in the corner, real quiet. I don’t like it when grown-ups cry. Most of all I don’t like it when Mama cries.

Aoife (pronounced EE-fah, which the adults never seem to get right) is caught up in the confusion and chaos of all the grown-ups around her. She understands the meaning of gone. Gone is forever, gone is DEAD– just like her big brother Theo. She knows better than to talk about it or ask questions, he was murdered and Mama can’t stomach the grief. She has a vague memory of him, one day on the beach, she was lost and he found her, but it’s all so muddied. Luckily for Aoife, she has a constant companion, Teddy who isn’t imaginary no matter what people say! She can see him clear as she sees her best friend Hannah, so he is real! He is a bear! It isn’t smart to talk about him though, especially not to the ladies Dr. Pearlman sends from sea-pee-ess. Sea-pee-ess are government people that help families, but if you say things that seem weird they might take it the wrong way. One thing is certain, the adult world is confusing! Theo’s murder isn’t the only mystery, her whole life feels like one.

Siobhan (her Mama)  has gone away, but she isn’t gone away like Theo, she can and will return at some point. Something is wrong inside of her and it all goes back to the day she broke her own rule of talking to people who aren’t there. Mama was so angry, yelling at her dead son. The doctors just need Aoife’s help trying to understand the incident, and looking for someone to take care of her while Mama is away. There is no daddy for Aoife, she is special, she was born in the cabbage patch, it’s a fact- her Mama told her! There is an Uncle Donny, her mother’s younger brother  and he tries his best to care for her (after all, he is a single, childless bachelor) but he can’t keep Aiofe from running off with Hannah, trying to gather clues and weed out suspects of  her brother’s murder.

Uncle Donny knows Mama’s sickness is confusion sickness. He understands the deep disappointment Aoife feels, Mama promised to take her to see the fireworks this year, but if she’s away she won’t be able to go.  He also understands and says it’s okay if she doesn’t always miss Theo, but any mention of her brother is met with “let’s not talk anymore about Theo today.” No one ever seems to ever want to talk about him. Hannah gets secret messages in dreams, Hannah is older and is going to be a detective one day.  She can talk about Theo to her! Hannah even dreamed about him. Can she solve the crime still if Hannah abandons her? Soon, Aoife begins to wonder if her family really is crazy, like people say. But the church has saints and the holy ghost, that’s not crazy.

Could Mama’s friend Mac be a killer? He is sort of strange and angry. All she wants is to escape to the Secret Place that Teddy discovered. Teddy is trying to tell her something, all the time, but it doesn’t make sense. Uncle Donny is doing his best with Mama gone but he isn’t the greatest looking after her. What if the big bad man comes to drag her off to the Children’s Prison like Hannah warned her would happen?

Everything is happening fast, adults are telling her things that she can’t comprehend, the story of her family is different than what Mama has told. What if she is ill, like her mother, maybe Teddy isn’t real! Even he is starting to scare her. Is she crazy? If memory is tricky, it’s a foreign language for a six year old. In the interest of protecting the innocence of a child, adults often aim for silence, which leaves an imaginative kid like Aiofe to construct a world so far removed from reality that what she believes to be concrete fact is more painful than the truth. Mental illness swims through the story, it’s disheartening because there is no doubt Aiofe and Sibohan (her mother) love each other, but she slips away when the meds are wrong and the stresses of life are magnified when you also have to cope with your health. The world is often kinder if your illness is physical rather than mental, not to say it’s easy either way, but the stigma of mental illness is cruel when children catch wind of it. Worse, there is always the looming threat that if Sibohan can’t keep it altogether, Aiofe can be taken away! Our little Aiofe, at six, is becoming aware of what society deems normal vs. abnormal and just where her family fits. There is hope, and I think Uncle Donny beautifully explained what being sick for Sibohan means. Sure, you may not be cured, but you can be treated to live with it better. I like that, that’s reality.

I was surprised as much as Aiofe by the revelation of what happened to Theo and I felt as frustrated and confused as she did. There is this strange span of time when you’re still not fully present, your mind is just giving birth to reasoning, it’s developing and you are learning to distinguish between emotions, facts, and fantasy.  This is where Aiofe is. I especially like what happened with she and Hannah, because kids can be fair-weather friends sometimes and mean as snakes not because they’re terrible beings, but because they are immature. It made the story far more genuine. Well done, this will be released later in the year, add it to your December TBR list.

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

Farzaneh and the Moon by Matt Wilven

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She is muddy, distant, shaking with dark knowledge.

N. is at University in London, his young mind feasting on philosophy but it is Farzaneh’s world he really longs to access. Here is a young woman who feels and thinks deeply, someone who challenges him emotionally, who stimulates his intellect as well as his physical being. Both want to live in a way that doesn’t require just ‘going through the motions’. If it takes a little psychedelic help from nature to reach the deepest access of their minds, well who better to do it with than Farzaneh. She hasn’t been anchored to anyone since her father, there is pain she hasn’t confronted, and N. wants nothing more than to be the one who can keep her together inside. She is wildly interesting to him, but is this depth or something darker?

When is loving someone so blinding that you neglect to notice the rupture in their logic? When does the hunger for spiritual bliss blur the lines of what’s sane and what’s madness? What can N. really grasp about love at his tender age? In a sense, Farzaneh would annihilate herself if she could align with the moon. This is more than longing for some spiritual awakening, there is a creeping illness inside of her. One of the most honest moments however, speaks to N.’s state of mind when he is halfway through his course and says “I’m still none the wiser about any of them”, meaning the other students. He is too busy being wrapped up with his beloved, is it possible for healthy love to be so exclusive that the rest of the world and everyone within it disappears entirely? There is a shallow relationship he has earlier on, feeling completely disconnected but should communion with another eclipse sanity? Should we really want to merge so entirely that nothing else matters? “Everything is how she wanted it.” Nothing can ever be exactly as one person wants it, that’s not healthy.

Farzaneh’s obsession with the moon escalates, she can feel it in her very womb! N. needs to be with her, can’t live without her! Love can’t be wrong, love is a balm right? She likes her alone time, but he just wants live together! Normal day behaviors are disgusting her, eating- who needs to eat? She doesn’t want to be a person in this way anymore. N. will do anything to keep her, anything. But does real love bend itself this way, keep the peace, create an atmosphere that isn’t healthy  just to be in someone’s life?

This is far more than just meditation or harmless moon-bathing going on here, can a trip to Venice be the fix? The only thing sinking faster than Venice is Farzaneh’s mind, and it begs the question, just how suspect is N. in neglecting to rein her in? He is scared of confronting her behavior, even if he doesn’t tell us so, in the simple choice of letting it continue. Then comes the burial….

The ending, what are we to make of that? I wonder, was N. an unreliable character all this time? Just who is ill here?

This was a decent read, I see love differently from someone in their twenties, time seasons us I suppose, therefore a lot of N.’s decisions seem completely ill conceived. I just kept thinking, God save us from those who love us. Clearly Farzaneh needs something, but it isn’t a man’s love. It’s a peculiar tale, if nothing else it clearly demonstrates that we shouldn’t always fulfill the requests people we love ask of us. I’m not sure even in some alternate universe I would feel comfortable helping someone dig into the earth, so to speak.

Out Now

Legend Press

Time After Time: A Novel by Lisa Grunwald

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What Nora had never shaken was the memory of fighting to come out of the ether.

Nora Lansing knows where she wants to go, just not how to get there. She is young, ‘out of place’ and railroad worker (leverman) Joe Reynolds is captivated watching the confusion flit across her face in Grand Central Terminal.  “She made him think of the cats in the tunnels far beneath the concourse: coiled up and waiting, all energy, no telling what they were going to do.” A funny word that, ‘energy’. For what else can drive her? This ‘old fashioned woman’, so charming in dark times is all brightness, but something doesn’t fit. He doesn’t yet know that she is not just as graceful but as mysterious as a feline too. Her clothes really are out of date, though they do tell of wealth, maybe it’s a costume? What does he know of fashion anyway? It is 1937, it is their first encounter but will not be the last.

Joe’s desire to see Stonehenge makes the beauty of Manhattanhenge (or the Manhattan Solstice) nearly as awe inspiring. For Nora, it could well be the source of the strange turn her life has taken. What could the alignment of sunrise and sunset over Manhattan’s street grid have to do with her being trapped in time and place? Is she a ghost? No, she can’t have this much life in her and be dead. Ghosts can’t share a meal with a man in a coffee shop, exactly a year after meeting him. It’s not her beloved Paris where she had her first taste of freedom, but the grilled cheese and the company is delightful! Joe may well be the first man to really see Nora, to wonder at her very existence. With her laughter dancing through his ears, he is falling in love. Just when he plays protector, she disappears on him. Then, a phone call  he makes to Nora turns his life upside down.

People have seen her, he’s one of many, the first week of December always, the same place where he first set eyes upon her. She never stays. The reason is unfathomable, impossible!

1924 Nora is happy to be on her own in Paris, where being lost is a pleasure. An artist whose lucky day leads her to work as an assistant to the owner of a small art gallery, finding undiscovered talent, Paris is full of promise. There is no better place to be than Paris to hone her skills, where the light is best, where everywhere the eye settles it is like a painting, beauty abounds. It doesn’t hurt that she is a socialite, and has the means for such adventures but it isn’t to last, for home is calling to her and she must return to her beloved father. As soon as she arrives upon the ocean liner, she rushes to her father in hospital. Seeing him solidifies her need to be home.

Forced to take the subway after, when cabs are nowhere in sight, there is an accident, the train isn’t the only thing that derails. The delay takes years. When Nora opens her eyes, she immediately wants to contact her mother, but is met with the dreadful reality that there is no place for her in the world anymore, and time has moved on without her. This is a love story, certainly, but for me it related a horror, what is worse than being locked out of time, than having to prove who you are? Waiting for salvation that may never come? What would be more heartbreaking to a mother? Seriously, I had a lump in my throat when Nora is trying to contact her mom. If Nora gives Joe’s life meaning, he is the sole spot of joy she can look forward to upon every return, after so much hope seemed lost.

Nora’s unbelievable story opens before Joe’s eyes. With the World Fair being hosted in New York,  focused on the future “the world of tomorrow” it’s strange to be stuck in the yesterday and wrapped up in Nora. Once happy to wait for life to unfold, Nora has changed everything. The waiting is torture, time crawls when he waits for her to come back. No one has answers, not even an old Jewish woman who plays at being a gypsy. Of course they find each other again, and they steal as much time as they can. The fear is always there, what if she disappears again? They figure out a way to keep Nora anchored, living in the Biltmore hotel but life can’t be confined within a set distance for any of us. Naturally the best laid plans go awry when you take into account the rest of the world, Joe’s family, the fate of the city, war. Nothing remains stationary! Would that we could protect our love, whether we’re haunted or not. Can Joe and Nora truly live like this and what happens if she never ages? What are the choices we have to make, the things we must give up in order to embrace our fate?

A haunting of the heart.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019

Random House

Turbulence: A Novel by David Szalay

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She was very aware of her failure to be equal to the needs of this moment. 

In these connected stories each character is on a journey, be it on an airplane, within memories, or flying to their future. The title isn’t lost on readers, what is life but an irregular motion disturbed not by currents but by every experience, however great or small,  one encounters? Human beings, despite their location on the planet, confront joy, sorrow, fear, hope, love, loss and death. Every story is not the same, that’s the gift of being human. We glimpse moments here, but we don’t stay long. In one story an accident resulting in the death of a young man causes Werner , on his way to the airport, to be late for work, setting off memories of his tragic past and the death of a sister. This story was as heartbreaking as Marion’s, desperate to catch a flight to Seattle where her daughter has just gone into labor. In a moment when her daughter needs her most, all Marion feels is ‘her own insufficiency as a human being’. Despite being a famous author whose writing is meaningful enough to be taught in classes as far away as Hong Kong, she doesn’t have the right words to ease her daughter’s devastating reality. It’s easy to relate to those pauses in time, when what is asked of us is impossible to translate. We sometimes fail, because we don’t know what is required, or how to give it.

There are love affairs, and the struggle of ‘do I stay or do I go?’ The kernel of truth that maybe it doesn’t make a difference, that either choice is neither solution nor problem. In DEL-COK sisterhood is interrupted by domestic violence, despite a husband who is distant, working in Qatar. The frustration that is born out of caring, the cracks that could be fixed if only others would make the effort, the right choices depresses Anita. The many ways we are tied to each other, for better or worse. We all take flight for different reasons, not all lead to happy reunions. When Shamgar lands in Doha, we learn what it means to have a ‘sponsor’, which for all intents and purposes is really an owner. Yet even here, working a garden that will never be his, something else claims his longings. The story of Ursula, and her daughter Miri’s choice of  partner with Mousa (a Muslim man) explores love with an asylum-seeker, the mistrust and suspicion that arises, warranted or not. This collection is about people around the globe, our commonalities, our differences. In the end, aren’t we all sharing the human experience? Haunted by the same things, filled with new beginnings and endings, longings, grief… just trying to make sense of the world and our own confused hearts?

Death hovers in BUD-LGW, when a young woman comes home to visit her sick father in London, accompanying him for his scans at St. Mary’s hospital. She has news of her own to share, and her father can only hope he lives long enough to see it happen. It’s a fast read but meaningful despite the slim pages. This is my first read by David Szalay, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of All That Man Is. It’s evident that Szalay is able to get to the heart of his characters, regardless of what continent they inhabit, and write of experiences we can all easily relate to. The stories don’t have an ending, they are as open to the characters as your own life remains until your last breath.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Scribner

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Ann Goldstein (Translator)

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I had nothing else, in that darkness inhabited by breath.

After thirteen years, a young girl who has lived with the love and privileges of an adored single child learns that she is being returned to another mother. No more will she live by  the ocean, with beautiful clothes and clean bedding, now her sleep will be warmed by the body of a sister and bed-wetting. Her life is like a dark fairy-tale, a princess forced to live in poverty, as if punished for some unknown deed. What has she done to be punished so? What sense in living in such filth and destitution, with parents who don’t even really seem to want her back? No longer will she spend happy days in the sun with her best friend Patrizia, nor can her friend’s family save her from this senseless exile.

Her little sister Adriana may be uncultured and ignorant but she is fierce and has a hunger for the the world, more she longs for a closeness with her big sister, the  Arminuta (girl returned). Vincenzo, the eldest brother is a mystery, who causes an eruption of confusing emotions within her when he isn’t off with the gypsies or getting beaten by his father. Each day, she longs for her ‘other mother’, she must have had a reason for giving her back, she was ill, could she be now on her deathbed and in desperate need of her care? All she knows is, her ‘real mother’ doesn’t seem to care about her at all, this useless city daughter who can’t even pluck a chicken nor perform domestic tasks. Her real family lives in a foreign world, boisterous, crude, sometimes violent and leaving her deeply lonely despite the presence of many siblings. This feels like a house of shame, parents who have more children than they can afford.

She wants to return to that other life, for now the only way is to relive the memories, telling Adriana about the delicious fresh fish from the market, fish her sibling has never had… no, for them it’s only tuna from a can. Her sister longs for nothing more than to be shown a glimpse of that life, the freedom. Then there is the baby, the youngest of the brood, a child that aches with sickness caused by desperate hunger. A different child, there is so much she doesn’t understand nor perceive about this family, swallowed as she is by her own grief and rejection. Then there is the school, here she is as much an outsider as at home, far more educated than her peers. This is yet another opportunity for her devoted sister to look out for her, whether she likes it or not. Her sister will take hits for her at home too, has protective leanings for her ‘special’ sister, who mustn’t ever be beaten. She can’t do anything right by her mother, doesn’t have the practical sense vital to their existence. Her mother is gruff, meaner than her ‘seaside mamma’ but it’s been a hard life, one that misery has seen fit to hover over. Tragedy isn’t finished with her family. There are also many things she doesn’t know about her biological mother and the story of why she was initially given up.

She must learn to get used to this new life, one that she knows she doesn’t belong in, despite her dream of returning to her true mother. “It’s an enduring emptiness, which I know but can’t get past.” What is mother? Will she ever know again, it’s meaning? Strange to come to love the siblings she learned of so late in her life, regardless of their differences.

It is a story of family and of identity, but one could say class too. Adriana is the heart of it and the beauty of the tale is more in sisterhood, at least that was my takeaway. This is the English debut of the Italian author Donatella Di Pietrantonio, it is beautifully written and engaging. We feel as equally lost and determined as all the characters. Our narrator’s mother does seem to resent her Arminuta, as if it’s easier to feel disgusted by her ‘city, upper class ways’ than own the reasons why her child doesn’t fit into their hardscrabble surroundings. It is a sad novel, and I look forward to more by the author.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Europa Editions

 

We Went to the Woods: A Novel by Caite Dolan-Leach

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After that first chilly evening out in the country, we were like unlanded peasants bewtiched by the promise of future rootedness.

Working one night at a fundraiser behind the bar, Mack enters a caption contest and wins, drawing the attention of beautiful Louisa Stein- Jackson. This is the real win of the night. Invited to her garden party on a cold New York winter night she meets Chloe, Beau, and Jack when she accepts the invitation and is soon charmed by their stimulating conversation and beauty.  A week later, Louisa’s seductive dream of  running an idyllic Homestead together has taken root in them all. They should have paused to really think about that word, idyllic. Homesteading is anything but, and an organic existence doesn’t happen because you embrace the romanitcism of purity and freedom, you know, everything sold in ads that is all sunshine and beekeeping. But Louisa assures them, this isn’t some ‘half-baked spiritual notion of cutting themselves off from the world”. No, they just want to know what they are eating… be closer to the process. Not ingest poisons that GE farmers provide! It’s not quite the reality twenty-somethings lacking skills are going to be able to achieve without making mistakes. Certainly Louisa’s family wealth doesn’t hurt yet there is irony there I think. Louisa is adamantly against capitilism but a part of the priveldged. Can you really achive this utopia when you are grasping the wealth you’re turning away from for something more genuine? Oh well, nothing wrong with money, so long as they aren’t giving it to those nasty corporations, right? Before they venture forth into the woods, a strange incident seems to seal the deal, driving them into a deeper intimacy when they witness an accident. Certainly it feels ominous.

So begins the farming and as long as they are together that’s all that matters, right? The tender intimacy of it all? Mistakes will happen, they aren’t fools. How together are they really? Beau is a mystery (Mack tells us this), as are his disappearances, regardless of how Louisa seethes inside, it’s accepted by the friends as just his way. But his friendliness with neighbors at the ‘collective’ isn’t going over well, particularly the females. It doesn’t stop Lousia from letting him into her cabin late at night. Are Louisa and Beau really together? In fact, they all seem to take part in nighttime wanderings, except for Mack. Mack is the watcher, desperately jealous for her own trysts. Too cowardly to take what she wants, instead content to yearn from afar. Naturally she is as pulled in by Beau’s magnetism as the rest. Jack is the most solid, Jack actually knows a thing or two about farming. Why can’t she desire Jack, Jack is someone she could have if she wanted. Ah, that’s why…

Happy to be out of New York, she has her own dark shame to escape having been involved in something called ‘The Millienail Experiment’, while trying complete her PH.D. program in Anthropolgy. This could be the perfect escape from her current bleak reality, this thing that Jack calls the “Grand Experiment”. If she nearly drowns in freezing water with the fragile Chloe, well it’s worth it. Here she can be invisible from the outside world and yet share profound intimacy with a chosen few. Her deepest desire is for someone to explain her to herself. Maybe they can!

The land begins to feel as much hers once she settles in with the others. Too, the sense of community she didn’t realize she had lacked is nearly enough to keep her warm through the cold nights, as is her hunger to be self-sufficient. Yet the relationships are not as they seem. Louisa and Beau aren’t new to the Homestead having worked the last year on it. But this is a “collective endevor” so why focus on that? Here they can sustain themselves, find meaning, not like the world they feel has nothing to offer them- educated and meandering, society treating their generation as if they created all the problems that is their inheritance. Little does she realize how much animosity Louisa feels for the local farmer whose land borders hers, farmers who grow genitcally engineered corn. Nor the trouble it will bring.

Beofre long Louisa begins to obsess over Chuck Larson, doing all she can to disrupt the farmer. Fennel, one of Beau’s girls from the collective is more than just a distraction. There is a bigger story than Mack knew, and soon after joining Beau and Louisa protesting fracking, she meets Mathew, the head of collectives and is privy to plans to stop Lakeview from successfully taking over land locally. Getting entangled with others wasn’t what they signed up for. There is a thin line between passionate causes and crimal acts. Through seasons of exhuasting work and fruitful harvest, the idle is disturbed by the infectious presence of the neighboring collective and it’s leader. Alongisde their own story is the tale of an early attempt at Utopia in the form of writings by a man named William Fulsome. The hardships aren’t that much different from the ones they too face. What will get them all in the end? Will it be the elements, their dreams or each other? It’s wise to remember that all families, whether self-made or not, have seeds of destruction and secrets they keep from others. Idealism is contagious, reality always creeps in…

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Random House