Late last week I found myself in search of one last book to round things out for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. I didn’t have much time to read and review anything so my choices were limited. So nothing too lengthy or complicated. I thought about something set in Ukraine, Hungary or the Czech Republic but nothing seemed to fit the bill. But thanks to my local public library I found a novel set in Denmark. While I initially had my doubts, by the end it become obvious Thomas E. Kennedy’s 2013 novel staring a bar-hopping, self-destructive middle-aged jazz aficionado was the perfect end to another year of the European Reading Challenge.
Lately life hasn’t been kind to Kerrigan, an American expat residing in Copenhagen. In his mid-50’s his health is already starting to fail. His wife, a beautiful and vivacious Danish woman almost 30 years his junior has fled abroad with their infant daughter, who may or may not be really his. Broken hearted he succumbs to the instructions of his estranged wife’s lawyer and signs the divorce papers, even though he still loves her despite her transgressions. His once promising academic career is no more and instead he spends his days researching a travel guide to the countless bars of Copenhagen. However, in reality he’s been drinking himself into oblivion, wandering the streets of the Danish capital in an alcoholic haze as he travels from one bar to another. Just to complicate things he’s fallen in love with his literary assistant, a twice divorced voluptuous Danish woman. Not only is he attracted to her physically, but he finds her intelligence, humor and world-weariness just want he needs considering his current wrecked state.
Yes, Kennedy’s novel is a tale of middle age loss and bumbling search for love but it’s also an homage to James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Just as Leopold Bloom (also cursed with an unfaithful wife) traveled the streets of Dublin so Kerrigan migrates back and forth across Copenhagen. Other similarities become apparent as Kennedy mentions Joyce’s belief that Danish blood coursed through his veins, thanks to the Viking conquests of the British Isles.
Perhaps another reason I ended up liking Kerrigan in Copenhagen more than I expected is I have a weakness for self-destructive individuals, much like the protagonist Charlie Kolostrum in the Austrian novel Pull Yourself Together and Mark Richard as he recalls in his memoir House of Prayer No. 2. No matter what they still manage to achieve some level of success. Kennedy’s repeated inclusion of historical factoids and jazz trivia made for interesting reading and reminded me a bit stylistically what Marisha Pessl did with her outstanding novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I guess when it’s all said and done, how could I not like a novel about bars, jazz, history, love and middle-aged regret?
Funny, I’ve never read a novel set in Switzerland. Last week while looking for books I could read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I noticed there was an available copy of Rose Tremain’s novel The Gustav Sonata. Seeing it’s set Switzerland I was tempted grab it. But not knowing anything about Tremain’s 2016 novel I was a bit hesitant. However, after seeing it won the 2016 Jewish Book Award for fiction and received a glowing review in the Guardian I decided secure a copy. After whipping through it in no time I knew I’d made the right decision.
The Gustav Sonata begins a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War when two five-year old boys meet in kindergarten. When Gustav meets Anton, he’s a sad Jewish boy choking back tears. Gustav is immediately drawn to him and takes him under his wing. Before long Gustav finds sanctuary as a treasured guest of Anton’s well to do and loving family. Unfortunately, Gustav’s own home life is less than stellar. Since his father’s death he and his mother have lived a hand to mouth existence, made worse by his mother’s struggles with physical and mental health issues as well as alcohol abuse. Despite the two boys’ differences and Anton’s frequent bouts of nervousness and self-doubt (today he’d probably be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder) a strong bond develops between them, leading to an intense life-long friendship.
Gustav and Anton’s relationship is a reflection of post war Switzerland as whole. Looking back decades later many in that country and around the world condemn Switzerland for its reluctance and eventual refusal to admit Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. This has led to debates on what should be the country’s priorities during times of extreme emergency. Just as Anton and especially Gustav explore and reflect on the successes and failures of their respective parents so others have scrutinized the actions of previous generations of Swiss when faced with tough moral choices.
I found The Gustav Sonata well written, moving and engaging. With a story that begins in the aftermath of World War II and continues for half a century The Gustav Sonata makes a nice companion novel to All the Light We Cannot See. It’s left me wanting to read more stuff by the novel’s author Rose Tremain. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see more of her novels featured on my blog.
I’ve been participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge for several years and based on my experience it’s easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. But when it comes to Bulgaria it’s been tough. Only once have featured a book set in that particular Eastern European nation. I’d almost given up when I learned author Elizabeth Kostova had recently written a novel set in Bulgaria. In spite of hearing this good news, I still didn’t run out and grab a copy of her latest novel The Shadow Land because I still remember a friend of mine calling Kostova’s earlier novel The Historian the worst novel she’d ever read. (Daunting too is the The Shadow Land’s length weighing in just a shade under 500 pages.) But knowing that novels set in Bulgaria are few and far between I took a chance, easily securing a copy from my public library. Much to my relief, The Shadow Land is not an awful novel. To my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.
The story begins with the novel’s 20-something American protagonist Alexandra Boyd arriving in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to begin her new job teaching English at a local school. Immediately upon her arrival, due to a mix-up while entering a taxi she gets stuck holding an urn of human ashes meant for interment at a Bulgarian monastery. With the helpful assistance of a local cab driver she’s nicknamed Bobby Alexandra embarks on a search to reunite the cherished remains with its rightful owners. But much to her surprise, she quickly learns there are powerful people actively trying to stop her. But why?
On one hand, while I’m tempted criticize the author for her novel’s length, on the other hand I must praise her because The Shadow Land possesses so many of the elements one would expect from a quality novel. Readers of The Shadow Land will encounter exotic locations, heart-breaking loss, action, mystery, shifts in timeline as well as narration and even a bit of romance. And plenty of plot twists.
Who knows, after lucking out with The Shadow Land I might even give her other books including The Historian a chance. Don’t be surprised if I do.
Awhile back a former co-worker raved about a novel with the intriguing title of The Lonely Polygamist. Figuring with a title like that I couldn’t go wrong, I vowed to someday read it. Well, last week or so that day finally came. As I happily made my way through Brady Udall’s 2010 novel I quickly realized my former co-worker of mine did not steer me wrong.
Considering the book’s primary character, Golden Richards is male Fundamentalist Mormon and by default a polygamist, one would assume Golden lives a life of unfettered male privilege. A plethora of subservient wives to indulge his every whim and an army of loving and devoted children some might argue Golden has got it made. Or does he?
His construction business is failing, forcing him to take on projects hundreds of miles from his home. (So desperate for construction gigs he’s agreed to remodel a legal brothel in Nevada, telling his wives he’s working on a retirement center.) His family is a train wreck riven by factions and power-struggles as his four sister wives jockey for control of his chaotic and overpopulated household. Father to 28 children, there’s so many kids under Golden’s roof he’s forced to employ a mnemonic device just to remember their names. Complicating his predicament, while away on business he finds himself falling in love with another man’s wife.
The Lonely Polygamist is one of those wonderful novels you just went to keep reading. Not only is the writing crisp, Udall takes the reader through a full spectrum of emotions. Also, without saying too much, there’s no shortage of plot twists that if you’re like me, you never saw coming. I loved The Lonely Polygamist and it easily made my year-end list of best fiction.
It was hard to resist Jonathan Rabb’s novel Among the Living when I came across a copy last week at my public library. What could be more intriguing than a 30-something Holocaust survivor thrust into the Jim Crow world of Savannah, Georgia?
Among the Living begins in 1947 with the arrival in Savannah of Czech Jew Yitzhak Goldah. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust he comes to live with his American relatives, Abe and Pearl Jesler, a middle-aged childless couple. Despite their initial awkwardness the Jeslers welcome Yitzhak with open arms, not only providing him with employment but also introducing him to their friends, business associates and fellow members of city’s Jewish community. Thankful nonetheless for the Jesler’s hospitality and with it a chance to restart his life, Yitzhak soon learns the city is riven both racially and religiously. As an outsider who’s experienced firsthand the racist atrocities of the murderous Nazis he must learn how to navigate the circumscribed worlds of white and black. If that isn’t challenging enough, even Savannah’s Jewish population is fractured with the city’s Conservative and Reform communities having little, if anything to do with each other. This animosity becomes apparent when he attracts the attention of an intelligent and beautiful young widow from the city’s Reform congregation.
Overall, I enjoyed Among the Living and now I want to read more of Rabb’s fiction, especially his historical thriller Rosa. (Come to think of it, for that matter his entire Nikolai Hoffner series.) It’s also rekindled my interest in reading Ghita Schwarz’s 2010 novel Displaced Persons because it also features Holocaust survivors. Perhaps sometime in the near future you’ll see a few of these novels featured on my blog.
Filed under Fiction, History
I know I’ve said it a million times but Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Because the rules of the challenge state each book must be by a different author and set in a different country it inspires participants to read books set in countries from across Europe. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool.
I’ve made pretty good progress up to this point, reading and reviewing about a dozen books representing countries from the United Kingdom to Russia and everything in between. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the challenge wraps up on January 31, 2018. Last weekend, while searching my library for books to apply towards the challenge I came across a novel set in Ireland. Published late last year, The Magdalen Girls looked like a nice departure from the “deep thinker’s” diet of books like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century I’ve been reading of late.
The year is 1962 and the place is Dublin, Ireland. After 16-year-old Teagan Tiernan is wrongly accused of having improper relations with a young Catholic priest she’s promptly sent away to the Sisters of the Holy Redemption’s laundry house. Forced to work in the laundry as “penance” for her “sins” she and the other imprisoned girls endure malnourishment, back-breaking labor, and physical and emotional abuse. Teagan soon realizes she needs to escape before she’s reduced to a broken shell of a human being like the rest of girls in the laundry. Passionately proclaiming her innocence she secretly conspires with two of the girls to escape.
Sad and maybe a tad melodramatic at times, nevertheless I enjoyed The Magdalen Girls. I found it fast-paced, decently written and possessing a few plot twists that I never saw coming. I needed something light and entertaining and The Magdalen Girls did not disappointment me.
You can probably tell from one of my earlier posts, I have weakness for Iranian writers. The crazy thing is even though I’ve read lots of Iranian writers, I’ve read few who write fiction. Clearly, if I’m to widen my exposure to Iranian writers I need to read more Iranian fiction. Therefore, when I came across Parnaz Foroutan’s novel The Girl from the Garden at the public library I figured it was an excellent opportunity to read some Iranian fiction.
Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran. After spending her childhood there her and her family immigrated to the United States, where she currently resides in LA. Her debut novel is set in the Iranian town of Kermanshah sometime in the first third of the 20th century and follows the lives of family of Iranian Jews. It’s told from the perspective of the sole surviving daughter Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in LA.
As much as I wanted to love The Girl in the Garden for whatever reason(s) it just wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a shame because I was excited to read a novel about a family of Iranian Jews living in pre-Revolutionary Iran. (In all fairness while reading The Girl in the Garden I was also reading several other books. Based on my personal experience a distracted reader is frequently an unfulfilled one. It wouldn’t surprise me if those literary distractions adversely impacted my ability to truly appreciate Foroutan’s novel.) But this first time novel shows considerable promise. I’m confident before I know it I’ll be reading one of her future novels and enjoying the heck out of it.