Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips

5 Stars

I have fallen in love—with a book, a peninsula in Siberia, and most of all, with its native Even people.

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, opens with the abduction of two young white girls from a beach in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Their fate is compared to an earlier tsunami that wiped out an entire town, while the police’s vigorous search for them is contrasted with the earlier disappearance of a native girl, whom they dismissed as a promiscuous runaway.

Long isolated from Western influences, Kamchatka is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the currency devaluations that followed. Older people, who still hang pictures of Stalin on their walls, wrestle with existential questions about whether freedom was worth what they perceive as a breakdown in values, while young adults resent their parents’ pensions, paid-for apartments, and free university educations. Simmering underneath, like the fault lines responsible for Kamchatka’s devastating earthquakes, lies a unique urban/ rural divide: Petropavlovsk is largely white, while remote villages, including Esso and its environs, constitute the traditional homes and grazing grounds of the reindeer-herding Even people.

Told through a series of interlocking stories, Disappearing Earth focuses on the lives and relationships of Kamchatka’s women and how the girls’ abduction impacts them. These women struggle with husbands and boyfriends, their roles in life, and most of all, with how they can better themselves in a society that seeks to relegate them to chain-bound roles: dutiful daughter; slut; and housewife/mother. Under these constraints, how does any woman—native or white—manage to live an empowered life free from violence?

Like reindeer on their circuitous annual journeys, over the course of a year we follow the compromises these women make with life. We meet a white housewife who fetishizes impoverished native construction workers, simply to escape the boredom of childcare. A native woman, caught between her traditional family and the sneering snobbery of her university classmates, carries on relationships with both a controlling Russian boyfriend and an intelligent native man who understands the salmon dances of their people.

The woman who lives the freest life is a lesbian who defies Russia’s dangerous homophobia and shares an apartment in St. Petersburg with her lover. After a painful break up, she returns to Kamchatka for a New Year’s Eve party, where she reconciles with a girlhood friend whom she has never forgotten—and to whom she has never before confided her homosexuality. Be careful, the friend whispers. The police can hurt you.

As a writer, reading Disappearing Earth evoked a flitter of despair: I have never hiked volcanoes, fumaroles, or glacier-carved lakes. I have never felt the ground tremble under thousands of reindeer hooves. I have never counted the stars in a Siberian night sky or heard the air hiss with the smoke of active volcanoes. How can my stories compare?

While I struggle to empower myself as a writer, I am so glad Julia Phillips brought me into the world of Kamchatka and its brave, resourceful women.

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson phoned this book in.

Published in 1992, the book is quite dated and would not be helpful to a European traveler today. Worse, there is very little “foreignness” in the book; Bryson’s anecdotes about the countries he visits are less about the country and more about his being dissatisfied with the country. I tired of the endless complaints about his difficulty in booking a hotel room, the rudeness of waiters, and the stupidity of train staff.

The book is loosely organized around his recreating a backpacking trip he took in the 1970’s with one of his college friends, Stephen Katz. Some of the stories he tells of that time are quite funny and comprise the few entertaining spots in the book.

If you want a hilarious reading experience, instead read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which features Katz again, and In a Sunburned Country.

Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare

5 Stars

 

Chronicle in Stone is a searing coming-of-age novel, set during World War II in an Albanian hill town that has the misfortune of lying between Italy and Greece. Gjirokaster, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, is built of stone from the Southern Balkans and counts amongst its citizens Muslims, Christians, Gypsies, nuns, and prostitutes. Its highest peak is capped by a formidable fortress that has repelled invaders as far back as The Crusades; it is here that every segment of Gjirokaster society seeks refuge during the worst of the Allied bombings, peasants mingling with nose-holding aristocrats.

The protagonist, a young Muslim boy who reads Macbeth and loves words, imagines the picturesque homes of Gjirokaster to be living creatures, each with its own story. Even the cistern in his home’s basement speaks to him, and the planes from a nearby airfield become big-bellied friends that he imagines couldn’t possibly hurt him.

The boy at first casts an amused eye on the town’s traditions, such as its fear of witchcraft and the ancient women who haven’t ventured outside in decades. He grows more observant as he notes the violence inflicted on those who flaunt its sexual mores. One man, likely a hermaphrodite, is killed the morning after his wedding for the audacity of falling in love. During a bombing, a young girl kisses her secret boyfriend and is hauled home by her hair, where she disappears in what her ever-searching boyfriend fears is an honor killing. A woman, who reveals herself as a lesbian, is dismissed with the euphemism of “having grown a beard” and banned by her own father from the safety of air raid shelters.

Chronicle in Stone proves the cruelty not only of wartime, but of unexamined traditions and of a culture that attacks its own iconoclasts. The boy’s great wisdom lies in the growing realization that not all the traumas of wartime are inflicted by invading armies.

Faithful Place, by Tana French

 

3 Stars

 

Faithful Place is a police procedural set in Dublin, Ireland, about Frank Mackey, a divorced undercover cop determined to shield his 9-year-old daughter, Holly, from his crazy family, especially his violent, alcoholic father and his battered mother, who could teach master classes on inducing guilt in children.

Frank Mackey has been estranged from his parents and three of his four siblings for twenty-two years, ever since the night his teenage love, Rose Daly, disappeared from Faithful Place in Dublin’s Liberties section. He and Rose had plotted to escape the Liberties’ brawling jealousies and working class pecking order, intending to start new lives in London. Only Rose never showed up, creating a scar in Frank’s heart that ultimately would lead to the demise of his marriage to Holly’s mother. What living woman could compete with a ghost, one who forever retains the perfection of youth?

As the third book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the book wields less of the staccato writing that is Tana French’s trademark style, although the dialogue is often cutting and insightful (one scatological comment about ZZ Top was jaw-droppingly funny).

To my disappointment, I indentified the murderer about halfway through the book. The perpetrator seemed so obvious that I kept hoping to be proven wrong, but the ending contained few surprises.

Faithful Place will appeal to Tana French’s fans–and I am one, but I would argue that In the Woods and The Likeness are more suspenseful.

 

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Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

5 Stars

 

Elmet is a literary suspense novel set in Yorkshire, England, about John, a fighter for pay and former enforcer of rents, struggling to protect his two children and to save their home, which he built himself on land owned by Mr. Price, his violent and rapacious old boss.

Invoking an ancient Celtic Kingdom that once existed in Yorkshire, Elmet is a story that could take place across the centuries. 15-year-old Cathy and 13-year-old Daniel come of age in the woods, each whittling their own bow and arrow from ash trees, hanging homemade Christmas lights from pine trees, and hunting for deer for their dinner in the copse behind their house. What little formal education they receive is provided by a school where their poverty makes them targets and, later, by Vivienne, a next-door neighbor who teaches Daniel—while Cathy runs free in the woods—the beauty of old sagas and imparts rudimentary technology skills using household appliance blueprints.

Cathy is a wild child at heart, unsuited to society’s norms and consumed with anger at the dangers women and girls face, whether from strangers, from the sons of Mr. Price, or from the ginger-haired travelers with whom they sometimes interact. Like her father, she is a formidable opponent and drives much of the story’s disturbing ending, when the conflict with Mr. Price and his cartel of fellow landowners reaches a horrifying crisis.

Elmet is a grim story, but its gorgeous prose and sharp delineation of character speak deeply to the love of a son for his Daddy and the bond that exists between siblings—and how hard one will search for the prodigal family member who has not yet found her way home. Elmet was a finalist for the Man Booker prize in 2017, an honor that it richly deserves.

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

2 Stars

Manhattan Beach is a World War II historical novel about a pioneering young woman, Anna Kerrigan, who becomes the first female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Unfortunately, Manhattan Beach was a deeply unsatisfying book.  My biggest complaint is that major characters routinely disappear:  Anna’s father, Nell, Dexter Styles, and Anna’s mother. Anna has no significant emotional reaction to these disappearances, instead making horrendous decisions that jeopardize everything for which she has toiled in very dangerous circumstances. Two scenes in particular—the first in a boathouse, the second at the bottom of New York harbor—left me questioning her devotion to her father, whom she supposedly adored.

I was disappointed that the characters were not very well developed.  The most interesting character in the book turns out to be Anna’s invalid sister, Lydia. Anna’s relationship with Lydia is sympathetic and endearing and the only one where she demonstrates emotional depth.

 


The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

5 Stars

 

The Elementals is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction. It upends the notion that scary things only happen at night and turns the hot Alabama sun into a terrifying and enervating character of its own. By the time the reader finishes The Elementals, he or she will fear a sun that blazes too strongly, sugar that tastes like sand, and dunes that swallow both houses and people.

The book opens in Mobile, where Marian, the matriarch of the Savage family, is being buried in a gruesome funeral ritual that dates back hundreds of years. The grieving Savage and McCray families then retreat to an isolated spit of land called Beldame on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where they have been vacationing—and dying—for decades.

Three houses sit on the shore at Beldame, but the third is falling apart, as it is slowly being consumed by a sand dune. No ghosts appear in the book, only mysterious, violent creatures who inhabit the third house, where their movements are visible as shadows flitting past the windows during the hottest hours of the day. Their presence can be heard in a bedroom door slamming shut of its own accord and in the sound of sand sifting through a broken window.

Each of the characters has his or her own reasons for fearing the third house, but it is India McCray, the granddaughter from New York, who brings about the final resolution. That resolution is equal to the finest in horror fiction, even as it leaves the reader wondering just who or what the creatures in the third house really are.

 

#books #amreading