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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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

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

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot

 

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She carried everything lightly, as only the dead and innocent can. 

In The Art of Taxidermy, we meet young Lottie whose passion for ‘revising’ dead creatures has her Aunt Hilda horrified, more so that her father Wolfgang encourages her by buying her glass aquariums to ‘contain the fusty fug of death’ within. To his mind, she isn’t the freak Aunt Hilda believes her to be, she just has a scientific bend of mind, it’s ‘in her genes’. No sir! Girls she play with dolls, not skeletal remains of reptiles and birds, sheep… not be enthralled by the stink of death!

It is the states of decay Lottie is captivated by, the possibility of resurrection, of keeping a creature in it’s natural state forever unlike her mother Adrianna, whose death has hung around like a shadow. Through her grief, a passion for taxidermy is being born but Hilda thinks it’s a sickness, a disturbance in the child’s nature. Written in a beautiful lyrical style, nature dominates the pages more than death as Lottie weaves her way to the creak, observes nature searching for specimens. “But the day was teeming with life”, we explore the Australian land overhead as birds take flight or upon the ground muck through the mud and fungi. Then there is Jeffrey, made of skin rich like the earth and quiet grace, companion to Lottie’s peculiar hobby. A boy with Aboriginal origins, a boy who has blossomed in her dark heart.

What is a girl to do with the face of death but try and preserve it? She herself a flightless bird with Aunt Hilda trying to make her a ‘normal’ girl, doing everything she can to end her taxidermy dreams. Snippets of ‘mother memories’ creeping into her heart like soft dreams, Oma’s omens and superstitions, an inheritance of despair and always, ‘the air is heavy with ghosts.’ As Lottie finds her purpose, she must too confront her grief over the loss of her mother and learn her German family history, the reasons her family were treated like criminals. Will she be able to convince Aunt Hilda that she isn’t an unnatural girl, that she isn’t a bloodthirsty murderer of creatures with a macabre hobby? Do we embrace our yearnings or let shame force us to discard the very things that make our heart beat with meaning? Intentions are funny creatures themselves, as we see with Aunt Hilda pushing her ‘ideal’ of womanhood upon Lottie. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that.

A beautiful tale out of Australia, uniquely written. The subject is heavy and yet the lyrical prose is uplifting, I felt I could hear bird-call and smell the ‘fug’ of decay. For those who love narrative poetry, this is a YA novel but I think adults will enjoy it too.

Publication Date: August 23, 2019

Text Publishing Company

The Behavior of Love: A Novel by Virginia Reeves

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What are you doing, Edmund? Trying to wake her up. She is not yours to wake.

Penelope is Doctor Ed Malinowski’s favorite patient, “one of the few bright spots” in the metal hospital he is the superintendent of. From the beginning of the novel, Edmund shows himself to be a logical man, one who desperately wants to fix the shipwreck the facility is. A doctor who sees his patients beyond their illnesses, one whose art classes led by his wife, and reading groups he and another patient heads are just the sort of PR they need, after the disaster the last superintendent up and left behind. Poetry and discussion, talk about ‘feelings’, a fresh approach to treating what ails the patients behind the walls. But it is Penelope that consumes Ed more than any other. Sixteen years old, beautiful, with keen intelligence whose unpredictable seizures have made her a part of the institution, a place she never should have been sent to. It isn’t long before Ed forces Penelope’s presence on Laura, claiming it is for the “stimulation” her art classes can provide. Her refusal won’t be tolerated, it seems Penelope is her curse, meant to creep in every crevice of Laura’s life, already the focus of her husband’s every thought. How does a wife voice her fury without looking like a monster, jealous of a wounded little bird?

Yet, Ed doesn’t really want his wife working in the hospital, he has spent an inordinate amount of time on keeping his life compartmentalized, as much as his heart. Maybe Laurawill finally get pregnant, then she will have to stay away and remain home. Maybe then this art class won’t seem like a lifeline for her. It’s what they both want, to have a little family. As calm, collected as he must appear for his patients, his reactions when it comes to Penelope gives him away. He is spending far too much time with her, surely it’s not going unnoticed. Ed’s work as a behavioral psychologist is one he is proud of, patients are being treated, released. He is the man for the job, if he can’t turn the place around, no one can. The institution, however, this great opportunity for his career is stealing him away from Laura, and for all his keen observation and care for the patients, it is his wife he doesn’t see. She doesn’t feel real, solid, not when she feels invisible and unwanted. Laura sees him with perfect clarity, and everything he has been up to.  “The Ed at my feet has only the troubles he’s sought out, a career helping broken people and broken places- broken things that do not include him. He has always been on the outside of suffering.” But will our Ed stay outside it all?

There is a love triangle, and a woman always knows when she is being eclipsed by another in her husband’s thoughts and longings. Under his watchful eye, Penelope is getting better and epilepsy is no longer a reason to institutionalize patients, but is Ed ready to let her go? Will he cross the line and allow himself to express the love he feels for her? Will he risk losing Laura for a taste of sweet youth? Can he keep his passions on a tight leash? Ed commits to saving so many people who need him, but it’s his own house that is crumbling.

Timing is the thing, it seems, and time can be cruel. A heart can’t build two houses within. All of our existence is about our perception, in the end, and Laura’s isn’t the same as Ed’s. Just what does Pen feel about the great Dr. Ed Malinowski? Can a man keep the love and adoration of two women going? What happens when the Doctor becomes the patient? Admittedly, the part of the story I chewed on the most is when Ed falls apart, and it all begins with a headache in his temple. This is where real love shows it’s face and confrontation between Penelope and Laura is a long time in coming and yet not your typical climax. Love stories, the ones closest to real life, are ugly and painful and this is no exception. Ed is a complex character, egocentric and yet one of the most caring doctors when it comes to patients, a selfish spouse and yet just as hungry for connection and love as any of us, even if he keeps it all ‘one-sided’. Laura and Penelope have their tale to tell and aren’t confined on the pages by the roles they play in Ed’s heart. Neither are truly the enemy, but Ed creates a hell of a storm between the two. Ed may think he has it all figured out, and he seems to be in control for a time, but love can be controlled by no man’s hand. There will come a time when Ed himself, like his patients, may need others to bring sense and order into his life and his mind.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Scribner

 

 

The Bobcat: A Novel by Katherine Forbes Riley

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But she was still herself, though with a torn apart feeling now, that of once again breathing alone.

Laurelie is still reeling after being sexually assaulted, haunted even by the images of the of crowded Philadelphia, the menace she senses everywhere.  University in the city is no longer tolerable, though she tried to navigate her old life, new habits took over, fear of seeing her attacker. The trauma is ingrained in her very skin, and she can’t seem to overcome her fear of human interaction. She decides to transfer to Vermont where she can work on her panels and become a sort of ‘cave animal’ herself. Surrounded by nature, working as a sort of nanny to a two and a half-year old boy, son of her landlord and landlady, she spends most of her time outdoors, letting the beauty of her surroundings and her charge’s wonderment feed her artistic belly. Their interactions are more visceral, as she sees him as a half possessed being, still not fully formed with opinions and thoughts it’s much easier to be in his unthreatening presence, but then she sees HIM. A hiker and a wounded wild bobcat, stranger is that the animal seems to be cuddling up to the man!

Curious about the hiker and his bond with the wounded animal she finds herself reaching out to him, offering to let him wash his laundry, which sounds simple to most of us, but for someone suffering a form of PTSD it’s like a leap off a cliff. Her cats seem to like him, you know what they say about animals being the best judge of character…

As the little boy grows and begins to ‘seek order in things’ Laurelie tries to see the world through his point of view. There is such beauty in the simplicity of childlike observations, and it’s well written in the relationship between them, their jaunts in the woods, his words just beginning to emerge. Curious about the hiker and his bond with the wounded animal she finds herself reaching out to him, offering to let him wash his laundry at her place, which sounds simple to most of us, but for someone suffering a form of PTSD it’s like a leap off a cliff. Her cats seem to like him, you know what they say about animals being the best judge of character…

There is a stillness in him, his approach is cautious, gentle as he senses the fear living inside of her. It isn’t long before she is seeing the land through his eyes too, how he understands the environment down the very ‘root systems’ of plants. He has peculiar ways, senses things on a much higher level than others. Senses that are highly attuned, much like an animal’s. He is stirring more than her desire, her art is flourishing, working on her panels to sort through the chaos that is still lingering from Philadelphia and all that took place there, too she begins to feel she is always ‘waiting for him’. If she retreated from the world, he is drawing her out, as much as her art is a means to siphon the poison from her soul. Then Rowan, the boy, disappears off the trails and the bobcat’s existence comes into question.

The novel speaks more in the moments between people and nature than actual conversations, which can lose some readers. I think the writing is beautiful, and I understand why there isn’t meant to be a lot of dialogue, but there were times I longed for it. This is a quietly restless novel, you absolutely feel the anguish of her rape without anyone needing to shout. Sometimes retreat is louder, and staggeringly heartbreaking. The art as healing as release and the surroundings as a balm, all of it feels true. I enjoyed The Bobcat, was saddened, hopeful and always engaged. A unique debut.

Publication Date: June 5, 2019

Skyhorse Publishing

Arcade Publishing