Your Ad Could Go Here: Stories by Oksana Zabuzhko

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“Every fear has its volume and weight…”

The women and girls in this collection of stories face hardships that are common to all women the world over and other tragedies that test their courage beyond boundaries some of us will never know. War is brutal, and sometimes women are a debt to be paid. Women choosing between actualized children and the unborn, suffer through interrogations by the KGB, how a mother’s phantoms can be visited upon the daughter. Reach further back still into the family history of ‘the camps’, the misery still chasing them.

In Girls, a grand and severe passion for another, “Like a dormant gene of an inherited disease”. Darka divulges of her first love, sexual awakening with another student named Effie, a desire that gets swept away in dishonor and maybe something more dangerous, an informer in their midst? A lesson in betrayal, out of jealousy, desire to possess. The scandal that unfolded Darka only finds out much later, and how girls are so easily ‘dishonored by the obscene’. For Darka, Effie always remains a longing for another life, another self, even long after who we were so long ago is no longer remembered clearly. Could the worst sort of ruin be conquered in the future?

One of my favorites is The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute, about a girl Olenka, born to good fortune. The firstborn is destined to become a princess, a queen, never could she be a common peasant. The second born intent on torturing the first, and so the rivalry begins, and intensifies when little Hannusia blooms herself. Gifted with skills of her own, jealousy to rival Cain and Abel consume the sisters. Is it the parents, the all seeing eyes of the village, the man come to court, or the matchmakers that birth such disharmony? Liberation in sin, ignorance in not heeding advice, women damned.

In I, Milena the surface hides everything, and all is not fine. Milena is a journalist of the finest sort, and she is in competition with herself for her husband’s affections. He is hungry for the Milena that is broadcast on TV, but there is a huge division between the onscreen and offscreen woman. Is she losing her mind?

Grannies who are made of sterner stuff, young men losing limbs, pasts mothers would rather bury,  daughters who don’t speak the same language as their experienced, hardened mothers, Russian bullets, barriers, national patriotism, and the rest of the world watching from the sidelines. Despite what happens in a country, the home and family is still it’s own battleground and sanctuary. War presses each of these characters between the pages of a photo-album, even war within themselves.

Publication Date: April 28, 2020

AmazonCrossing

 

 

 

 

 

The Resolutions: A Novel by Brady Hammes

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The architecture of her life began to crumble.

In The Resolutions by Brady Hammes, the architecture of all three siblings lives (Sam, Jonah and Gavin) have begun to crumble. Sam was so full of promise, a talented, skilled ballerina before an injury destroyed her dreams. Salvation came with a Russian dance company northeast of Moscow. Living at “Chàteau Oksana” feels more like a campus, which is exactly what everyone calls it. Meant to dazzle, charm the guests at monthly parties, her life is wearing her down, but nothing more than her old injury and the death of her days dancing with the New York City Ballet when she was only 18. Heroin is an escape from everything that pains her in this place that is a blanket of snow, the perfect place to bury one’s dreams. Isolated though this place may be, such demons can only be tolerated for so long.

Jonah is the intellectual in the family, distanced from his artistic siblings. He feels lonely, ready to attempt to strengthen the bonds. Jonah came to Gabon, Africa to assist his thesis advisor at Vanderbilt, studying the vocalization of forest elephants, planting ARUS (Autonomous Recording Units) to better understand how the animals communicate. It’s important work, but a mountain of pressure when his advisor takes ill, leaving Jonah in the forests of solitude and danger.Just as he is readying himself for a trip home, hoping to connect with his little sister and older brother he falls into an abyss of trouble all because his camera gets stolen. Soon he has the threat of poachers looming over his head, but that is just the beginning. Trouble rises, someone has a plan and he has no choice but to obey. Sometimes it’s the stable, quiet one whose mistakes could cost lives.

Gavin is the actor, but a decent face isn’t always enough to bounce back. Maybe his career was thriving years ago, but now it feels like “making it big”in the industry just isn’t going to happen. What was it all for? His relationship has ended and now, his show. On the horizon there is Marina and a cabin in  Taos, but all that glistens isn’t gold. He is too old to feel like he has to start over again, too old to believe his dreams will come true and definitely old enough to know better about… well… everything.  Now he is sorely needed at home. Just who needs saving? Maybe they all do.

This novel explores the shifting dynamics within sibling relationships, and how our dreams sometimes have to die to be reborn into something new. The slightest change in our fate can send us hurtling, but what is life but weather? The damage we try to keep close is sometimes best shared with our loved ones, because sometimes they really do have to step in and help steer the wreckage we’ve made of ourselves. Even the perfect, most promising child can trip up. Sometimes saving others saves us too.

Publication Date: May 5, 2020

Random House

Ballantine Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel by Cho Nam-Joo

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Jiyoung’s lack of response to his lecture prompted the father to say, “You just stay out of trouble and get married.”

Jiyoung’s abnormal behavior is first detected on 8 September. Suddenly she seems to be channeling other women, to the point she downright becomes them. Shrinking in her own life, even sucking her thumb, becoming infantile again one night next to her newborn, something is really wrong. Sometimes she is old, and in another eerie instant she is her dead friend from college who tries to tell Jiyoung’s husband that she needs a break, some support, and maybe a little praise- raising their child. Is his wife losing her mind? Is she having a nervous breakdown? Then it’s too much, she insults her in-laws when she voices her own mother’s feelings, admitted that Jiyoung is exhausted and wouldn’t it be nice for a change for her to be able to give time and energy to her own family. How dare she speak up, in any woman’s voice? This is forbidden, women do not give their in-laws a talking down to. They respect their husband, his family, they cook, clean, serve with a pleasure, fulfilling every expectation. It is dishonorable to demand  special treatment. It is frightening what is happening, what is wrong with her, why is she speaking for other women? Not quite herself anymore? Why is she insulting her in-laws in such a way, she should be honored to cater to their needs!

He seeks the help of a psychiatrist for his wife, who doesn’t quite recall anything out of the ordinary. It is through her past we begin to see what it means for Jiyoung, submitting to men, from her cherished brother to her in-laws, and husband. How a woman’s needs always ranks below the male. The girls learn to make do with whatever is available. So ordinary, this special treatment for the sons, that nothing seems unfair or imbalanced this is just the way of their culture. Grief filled births are sorrows women face, producing girls in place of much preferred boys. Abortion, often the solution to unwanted female fetuses in the 90’s and 80’s are one solution but they leave terrible scars of their own on the body and the soul. Mother always working hard at odd jobs but that is the least of her weight, caring for her mother-in-law and children without complaint. In her youth, forced to work in a factory, often women sick with illnesses from such work, all in support of the male siblings and husbands.

Oh Mistook, her mother, stood no chance for her big dreams. Despite her fantastic grades and promise, her future was open for only sacrifice, in supporting others. As Jyyoung learns, boys have the freedom to brutalize and bully. Children stuff there mouths to stay in line at lunch, boys are always elected over girls as class monitors. There is a sexual imbalance, girls the unwanted children. Even clothing alone confines them, playing sports in school, wishing for a more realistic, comfortable dress code. But nothing feels worse than sexual harassment, touched inappropriately by the male teachers, and not a thing to be said about it. You just take it all, don’t you?

In Korea, through her childhood and college, there is only so far she can rise. Always it’s the male students who get recommended. She truly works hard, does her very best, behaves honorably, yet it comes to nothing really. Her mother doesn’t want her settling for marriage, to continue on the backwards way of women having no career, no dreams. Despite fighting, working hard for her place in her career, the men still get paid better- it’s a huge gender pay gap. When she marries, gets pregnant, it’s still a boy everyone is hoping for. What of the sacrifice to her career, to being the one that is the stay at home parent, certainly a given for the mother? She speaks without her own voice, because women aren’t meant to be heard. It is only through others she can speak up about this discrimination, sexism, and misogamy.

Is it postnatal depression that makes Jiyoung become other women, from time to time, or is it the state of being a woman in the world in general? What a hassle these women are with their demands, their exhaustion, when they should just buck up and carry on just like their mother and grandmothers before them. What does the doctor know, he himself needs female workers whose childcare doesn’t interfere with a successful business. So much for change.

A feminist movement indeed, how far they’ve come, how far they still have to go.

Publication Date: April 14th, 2020

W.W. Norton & Company

Liveright

These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel by Maisy Card

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You remembered having laughed at the thought that getting down on your knees could redeem you.

It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. Maisy Card’s dialogue is written with authentic accents , which seems necessary to flavor this story as it pulls the readers through the dirt of history. As she exposes the deceptions of a Jamaican family through generations, we travel through time from Jamaica to Brooklyn. The characters can be downright devilish or desperate. It is a brutal tale, that begins with Abel Paisley faking his own death and assuming another man’s identity. The ghosts in this family aren’t all dead, and those who have been long in the ground refuse to remain silent. Secrets have a way of climbing out of the grave. Abel’s abandonment of his wife Vera steals all smiles from his children’s lives, puts an end to their mother’s tenderness. The daughter he raised under his assumed identity Stanford Solomon, fared no better and is nothing but an embarrassment. Her own child will wonder “if there is someone out there who could wear your life better.”  Her grandfather knows that answer best.

Vera is nothing but an angry ghost now, born to the knowledge of  her husband’s deception only after her own death. But what can a ghost do but watch and remember her life, now vanished from her hands? She can only simmer and focus on revenge. We the reader can go back through the years to see where the betrayals first began. When Abel shucked his life, Vera became a young widow ‘drowning under the weight of keeping a house and tending two small children’, and hired Bernard. A teenager himself, not yet a man, she finds uses for Bernard that keeps him obedient. What cost is there in so much loyalty, all the years he made this family he worked for his life?  The rest of the family see him as nothing but a servant, Vera’s yard boy, a modern day slave. Slaves just like the ones once kept in Harold Town. Bernard has his own secret history, jealous of a dead husband, taking his place in his own way but always an outsider, never granted full entrance into the house nor within the family. Grieving harder for Vera than her own blood. The searing pain of loss forces him into his own brand of madness, and the choice Abel made still keeps spinning everyone’s lives.

Further back still we reach looking for atonement, hoping our DNA tells the tales of our ancestors but not quite ready for horror stories. But it is in the heirlooms, such as the battered leather book that one’s great -great -great -great Grandfather, Harold Fowler’s, sins are recorded. Here, Debbie reads about the running of his Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1800’s. She isn’t prepared to digest the horrors of slavery, nor the nightmares that are visited upon her that feel more like possessions. History cannot be denied.

As Vera’s children sort through their childhood differently, one clinging to the good memories, another to the rotten ones, they must face what their mother was. Superstition runs rampant among the people, but what is reality, what is folklore? Adultery, unwanted children, drug addiction, blood thirsty little girls, secret histories, lies, slavery, rape… every single character is a trembling branch on the family tree. The truth is elusive, as solid as ghosts.

This debut is disturbingly engaging and one hell of a complicated tale. If we picked the bones of our own family history clean, would we too feel poisoned? Is this why it is often said to let sleeping dogs lie? It’s a shamefully dirty history, but makes for captivating fiction!

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Simon & Schuster

 

 

Breasts and Eggs: A Novel by Mieko Kawakami Translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd

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We had no relatives to call for help, and zero chances of marrying into money. Less than zero. Lottery odds.

Breasts and Eggs is about being oppressed through poverty but also it’s about the female body as an instrument for survival or a vessel for motherhood. It begins with Natsu’s older sister Makiko and her silent daughter Midoriko arriving by train for a visit. While silent in her mother’s presence for over half a year, her mind is a hive of anxiety about her changing body, but she doesn’t share these thoughts with her single mother; their communication solely through written words on paper. Nothing is wrong with her, she speaks perfectly normally at school and with friends, ‘she just refused to talk at home’. This is just another strain between Natsu and Makiko, especially after news that her elder sister wants to get breast implants, which will certainly improve her working life as a hostess. Spending her nights slaving in a less than glamorous location with ‘no shortage of vagrants and drunks’, women with bigger breasts make more money. While Midoriko ponders how awful it must be to menstruate for decades, her mother looks really old, and she isn’t even forty yet. Natsu is at odds with the way Makiko is behaving like everything is okay. As if her daughter’s self imposed silence is a rite of passage. She is more disturbed by Makiko’s obsessive plan to improve her body.

Soon, Makiko is sharing colorful brochures that are the guide “to be more beautiful”.  Hers is a life without prospects, there wasn’t anyone helping make her life better. The sisters past losses turned their lives to one of poverty and struggle. Survival in it’s rawest sense, and at a young age. Welfare, not an option. Before them, their own mother struggled. Even now, there isn’t enough money to stretch, let alone for breast implants! What about the health risks to her body? When they visit a bathhouse its a perfect example of women comparing themselves to others and how imperfections can be fixed. Natsu is helpless to make her sister see reason. For young Midoriko, the body is beginning to feel like a thing she has no control over, her future will just be a lifetime of bending to it’s demands, and seeing how making money every day just to keep it alive has drained her mother of youth and vitality makes her feel very afraid. Too, why would anyone want to create another life, just another body (like she herself is for her mom) that is more weight to your financial woes? She is horrified, feeling captive to her body’s changes, much like a runaway train she can’t stop or maybe like an approaching monster? Most women forget how scary leaving childhood behind is, when the body first begins to bud. It’s not always an easy progression, though a natural stage. Natsu herself is single in the most severe sense. No child, no partner and what does this lonely state say about her? With the visit from her family, memories are being brought out of the dark again about the sisters hard past. Natsu too thinks about the body and beauty, expectations, how to define happiness which seems much easier for those who please the eye. Worse, she sees her dream more as a hobby, herself as a failure having moved to Tokyo to become a writer ten years earlier and yet not a great success that can bring money in to help her elder sister and niece. It’s only a matter of time before Midoriko erupts emotionally about how her mother is effecting her and the strain between the sisters comes to a head.

In Book Two Natsu is found giving her everything in her writing, which to some doesn’t seem good enough. Through celebrity interest her luck changes and finally she tastes success. She finds support through an editor Sengawa, for a time who nudges her to reach deeper. She wisely informs her that it’s the real readers of literature she must reach. She wrestles with her own anxieties, the fact that in a relationship her body refuses to enjoy the physical fusing most people long for and don’t just ‘endure’. What sort of woman is she? To feel stunted in this way? A woman who retreats from such affection? She never feels more alone than when entwined with a man. What if she decides to have a child after-all, maybe better as a single mom, subtracting a man from the equation altogether?  It’s possible and a problem many single women face. There is always sperm donation. This quest brings her closer to children, now adults, born impacted by donor conception. Not everyone feels being born was a blessing. How will this effect her decision? This novel is a deep exploration into not just motherhood but the very nature of womanhood itself. For Midoriko when she is young in book one, her body feels like it’s gone rogue, for another character in book two, it stood out to me that with illness, it is the same. The body taking over. Choices are weighted in the entire story, there is no right or wrong path, and every decision they make effects someone. Parenthood and what a mother or father is reaches deeper than blood too through the novel. Natsu doesn’t feel normal, the way you should in relationships, but should she have to feel that way in order to create a family? Does she want to? As she ages, the question if she wants to remain alone is a heavy one.

There is so much happening in the novel, and it’s intelligently written but I sometimes wished the pace picked up. However, there is gorgeous writing within. “People are strange, Jun. They know nothing lasts forever, but still find time to laugh and cry and get upset, laboring over things and breaking things apart.”  One of the most beautiful moments in the novel is when Aizawa (you’ll meet him between the pages) talks about the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. It moved me.

Women’s bodies are as complicated as our lives can be, every single stage from puberty to the end, and every decision we make from whom touches us to whether or not we carry a life within. There are illnesses, emotional obstacles, careers (some grand, others necessary for survival), and always memories of all that came before. How Kawakami fit so much in the telling, I can’t say. I lived in Okinawa, and I think I read books written by Japanese authors a little differently having a bit broader understanding of the culture than someone who has never visited or lived among the people yet I think anyone can relate to what happens to the characters. This is perfect for readers who enjoy other cultures, and women’s issues too.

Publication Date: April 17, 2020

Europa Editions

Love After Love: A Novel by Ingrid Persaud

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Thing is, worse than the pain in my arm is Sunil’s spirit in the house. The man in the walls, on the stairs, in the rooms. Before he passed he must have put the bad eye on me for truth. 

Love After Love is an interesting title for this novel, because it is about love but not the sort we tend to seek out with romanticized notions. Love here is far stronger between friends and family than in lovers, forced into terrible situations and entanglements for passion. Written in Trinidadian dialect it may take some readers time to get into the flow, but I feel it lends a more authentic flavor to the tale. It begins with Betty Ramdin’s husband Sunil, stinking of rum and feeling big and mean after ‘working hard all week’ he is taking everything out on Betty and their little boy Solo. From the way Betty caters to him, the ugliness spewing from his hateful mouth and her terror as she watches him bully Solo it’s obvious she is like a beaten down dog, trained on the scent of her husband’s brutality. It’s for her son that she fears, who she tries to protect, often inserting herself to do the things Sunil demands of Solo, so that when his clumsy little boy hands fail he won’t get punished. To think people told her she was lucky, looking at Betty with Sunil by her side, but what sort of lucky leaves you with broken bones and a cowering child? Sunil may be dead in a few pages, but his poison has spread and his death will have damaging consequences through the years, testing the bounds of love between mother and son.

Betty is a good mother, trying to raise her boy right once she’s free from the imprisonment of a bad marriage but living in the big old house she could use money and a lodger would be ideal. After giving Mr. Chetan (her co-worker) a ride one morning, Betty mentions she needs a lodger, if he knows of anyone needing a place, particularly a mature woman, it would help her greatly. This in turn becomes the perfect opportunity for Mr. Chetan, as fate would have it, his landlord is selling everything thanks to the misfortune of crime. A gentle, quiet, private man he will be no hardship, though Betty herself seems to be talkative and possibly a meddler in time the two come to mean as much to each other as devoted spouses.

Both Mr. Chetan and Betty have shameful secrets, even criminal to some minds, but in life we are pushed to make choices to save ourselves, and others. There are rules about love and in Trinidad trying to embrace who you are under the condemning eyes of the people can be one’s ruination. People are fast to talk, Betty learns this all too well as she ventures out for a man’s touch, much to her son Solo’s humiliation. Despite Mr. Chetan’s role in his life, a type of surrogate father and a far better one than his own departed dad, when Solo discovers what his mother has kept hidden from him he concocts a plan and with his savings soon abandons their life and flees to live with his paternal uncle in New York. Betty thinks it’s temporary, but he wants nothing more than to be free of her and her lies, to cut her out like a cancer. In the process, he pushes Mr. Chetan to take a backseat role too, and the thing about leaving is that you can’t always return to the people you have left.

The dynamics change once Solo is gone, Chetan is living his life more freely, maybe more for himself finally when someone from the past is again in his life. Betty is yearning to hear about her son’s experience in America, jealous of the closeness he has with his uncle while she is again like a dog begging for a bone, resorting to sending letters to the boy who refuses to see sense in her explanations. He is keen on his pain, and finds many outlets for it.

Solo struggles in New York but feels good being a part of the Ramdin men under his Uncle Hari’s guidance, and no longer under the ‘suffocating’ care of his mother, who kept him a blind fool. Hari tells him it won’t be easy working hard jobs, he should stay in school as his dad would have wanted that but having Solo around he tells him ‘Every time I look at you I seeing piece of Sunil.’  Solo cannot go back to Trinidad and his mother’s lies. Through Uncle Hari, Solo can get to know the father who is just a fading memory and cling to the toxic blame he feels is all his mother’s due. The truth, the same as people, has many faces and may well turn us against the very people who made dangerous decisions for our sake. It will cost Solo, his mother Betty and Mr. Chetan time that they will never get back.  Solo has a lot to learn and finds he is more like his mother than he thinks; getting a mother who has cared for you all your life out of your system isn’t so easy.

In this story some people’s love is so pure they are willing to risk their very soul and yet others can’t find enough heart to accept their child for who they are. Some are so hungry for love they will tolerate any sort of arrangement just to feel alive, to be near their beloved and society itself forces people into dangerous situations just to feel the burn of it. Love shouldn’t cost this much. Shame weighs more than the soul can bear, but how do you release it’s grip? “The moon can run but the day will always catch it.” There is family dysfunction, grief, abuse, distorted memory, mother’s pure love and then some. Here, Mr. Chetan is the glue between Betty and Solo, for that it is a savage and beautiful love story.

Publication Date: April 14, 2020

Random House Publishing

One World

A QUICK NOTE: There are sexual encounters that may put off some readers but it is not the sole focus, keep going with the novel. It broke my heart.

How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa

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They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they had before didn’t count. 

In these stories Souvankham Thammavongsa allows the reader into the painful and sometimes humorous lives of immigrants. In some situations it is better to tell no one where you’re from, what language you speak so you are not judged. It is in rebirth that the future lies, and for children of immigrants there are often humiliations they don’t quite comprehend yet innately understand they must try to protect their parents from. My attention was grabbed from the first story where a little girl comes home with a note pinned to her chest (how well I remember the importance of such notes when I was a kid), notes that for this child have no meaning for the mother and lead to misunderstandings. Bigger humiliation visits this child when she brings home a book to read for practice and the parents attempt to help her understand a word. There is tender pride sometimes in misunderstandings. I couldn’t help but feel a connection with my father’s own youth when reading about the little girl in the first story. The memories he has of how it felt to be on the outside, trying to understand the American way of life, it is so much more than language but that is by far the hardest obstacle. She had my heart!

In Paris, Red is stuck in the chicken plant thinking about the shapes of women’s noses, and ‘the things that could make you happy’, but such happiness is available only to those who make enough money to attain it. Certainly a chicken plucker never could! In her town, there isn’t much a woman can do beyond chickens or shaking their own tail feathers, so to speak. This story is an exploration on what is beauty, dependent on where you are, naturally.

Age has its hungers in Slingshot, as a much older woman proves wrinkles aren’t in one’s heart, only the face. In another tale a mother has a runaway fantasy about a celebrity that causes her daughter and husband to lose their glimmer, she suffers from the disease of hopeless devotion in one form or another. A husband in The School Bus Driver finds his wife’s boss a little too helpful and present in their marriage. Disbelieving “people form this kind of friendship in this country,” he isn’t just a jealous man nor a fool! In Mani Pedi, former boxer Raymond used to knock people out in the ring but now works at a nail salon, realizing he ‘wasn’t the only person who’d ever lost the place he saw for himself in the world’. It isn’t only Raymond who is warned to keep his dreams small. In many stories there is an ache for more. There are young children driving through a neighborhood with their parents wishing to live in the bigger homes that come into view, unfamiliar with the strange customs, like trick- or-treating yet game to try to join in the door to door fun. In a heavy tale a mother impresses upon her daughter that she feels lucky earning money picking worms having been born in a peasant family who had no money for educating their children. It is through these slimy creatures and her ability to fill cups with many squirmers that she can hope for a better future for her daughter. Characters try to make their own place in the world, like Mr. Vong with his print shop, priding himself on the reputation of his deft skills with wedding invitations made in the Lao language. A keen eye, too, he has in the success or failure of relationships, but how will that play out in his own family?

Every story made the characters vulnerable, it is a visit in the lives immigrants make for themselves and often with next to nothing. There is beauty and heartbreak, shame, struggle, humor, love and resentment too. Beautifully written. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

Little, Brown and Company