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: House of Spies, by Daniel Silva

5 Stars

I bought House of Spies because it won Kirkus Best Book of the Year—and I am thrilled that I did. The book deserves the award and the bestselling status it has enjoyed

House of Spies is the only book I have read (so far!) in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, and I am hooked by the strong characterization, the sense of danger, and the tenuousness of the lives that Israeli spy chief—and ostensible art restorer—Gabriel Allon seeks to protect. The plot centers on capturing the Iraqi terrorist Saladin, who has perpetrated a series of deadly attacks on western cities that have scarred national treasures like The Lincoln Monument. A committed jihadist, Saladin seeks to install a caliphate that will destroy the very freedoms those monuments celebrate.

I especially loved the various settings of the novel, which take the reader from London to Provence and Marseilles and, in the climactic scenes, to the Berber lands of Morocco. Any book that has me drinking tea at sunset in a Bedouin tent in the Middle Atlas Mountains is going to enthrall me.

One caveat: other reviewers have criticized the repeated sentences, which should have been edited out. I agree, but these were minor foibles in an otherwise strong narrative.

When I finished House of Spies, I downloaded The Kill Artist, Book #1 in the Gabriel Allon series. If the other 19 books live up to House of Spies, I will read the entire series.

Fans of spy novels will love this book.

#thrillers #suspense #spy #espionage #fiction #danielsilva #houseofspies

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.

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent

5 Stars

 

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent, is a deeply engrossing psychological tale of deceit set in Ireland and France.

Oliver Ryan is endowed with dark good looks, but he has suffered a harrowing childhood. He was born out of wedlock to a father who works for the Church and regards himself as an icon of moral purity, his only slip-up a seduction by a woman whom he dismisses as “a whore.”

His mother abandons the newborn, leaving him on his father’s doorstep, who acts as if he would rather the child died than raise him. When his father marries, Oliver is sent to a nearby boarding school, where he spends years spying on his old family home from an upper window. Through his binoculars, he discovers that his father has begat another son, a blond-haired golden child who is showered with paternal affection. The boy even attends the same school as Oliver, who is never allowed to reveal their shared parentage.

Oliver constructs a careful façade to hide the damage his childhood has wrought, becoming a best-selling author of children’s books. After a tragic, failed romance, he rebounds by eloping with his illustrator, a woman described by his primary mistress as “way beneath him.” For a boy who grew up wearing tattered clothing and lacking spending money, he now enjoys literary acclaim, fawning acolytes, and a home in which he can hide his secrets.

Years later, suffering from writer’s block, he punches his wife into a coma.

Told from the perspectives of those whom he has hurt, the book attempts to decode Oliver and explain his violence. This book ultimately asks—and answers—the question, “How well can one really know a person?” In the case of Oliver Ryan, it appears one can only know a sliver of the fractured, shattered man.

 

 

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.

 

#amreading #fiction #books #TanaFrench