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.

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.

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

5 Stars

 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, set in a Cambridge-like city in the martial state of Gilead. The book is a stunning achievement, a prescient tale written in 1985 about the subjugation of both women and opposition forces in a future, totalitarian America.  In Gilead, women are treated as nothing more than wombs for the procreative benefit of the ruling class, while opposition forces are hung up on a citadel wall and left to rot until the next batch of executions.

After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, you will be terrified of women who can smile and cry at the same time and long for bad-ass friends like Moira. Most of all, you will listen, with growing desperation, for the word “Mayday.”

 

 

 

January 1st, 2018

Today is the start of a new year and the start of my first blog, Weekends@Peet’s, named after the warm and inviting coffee shop in Lexington, MA that I frequent on weekend mornings. I have been considering blogging about books for months, and New Year’s Day strikes me as an appropriate time to start. Maybe blogging is a resolution I will actually keep in 2018.

A light coating of snow had fallen yesterday and, as I stepped outside around 8:30 a.m., ice crunched under my boots and the air smelled of wood burning. It was -1 degrees when I arrived in Lexington Center and a thick frost coated Peet’s windows, with only four or five of the regulars having straggled in. I struggle with insomnia, so I had awakened on this holiday morning at 6:20 a.m., the time my alarm clock buzzes during the work week. After staying up a wee bit too late last night, only a large extra-hot latte could fortify me enough to write today.

One of the things I love about Peet’s is the sense of community it provides. Retirees, young mothers pushing babies in strollers, and cyclists fresh off the Lexington bike path (at least in warmer weather) all wend their way in for coffee, scones, and conversation. Many of the patrons are avid readers, so I oftentimes notice someone engrossed in a book and have to fight the temptation to ask his or her opinion of it. If you are a writer, or an aspiring writer like me, it is a great place to escape to when the walls of your usual writing space–in my case, a spare bedroom–feel like they are conspiring to shut out any original ideas.

I ordered a latte ground from Ethiopian Super Natural beans and, just before the cashier held out her hand for my card, I requested a pecan roll (an act of spontaneity that doomed my just-made dieting resolution). The coffee tasted like blueberries and counteracted the temperature, which rivaled that of Siberia during a cold snap. I chose a seat far from the frigid blasts coming in every time the front door opened and sat down to make my plans for this blog.

So, what will I be blogging about? Books. Nothing more. I am passionate about great storytelling and want to share my thoughts on fiction that worked, or didn’t work, for me. I hope to learn how to write better from analyzing the books that I am reading.

What type of books do I love? Everything from high-brow literature to bestsellers. I devour the Brontes and Dostoevsky and have a weakness for English tea cozies and police procedurals. I am amazed at the great books coming out of Hachette/ Ireland. (If you haven’t read Tana French’s The Trespasser or The Secret Place or Susan Stairs’ The Boy Between, please do.) I love the scratchy feel of unread pages between my fingers (or the cool touch of an eBook on my Kindle), adore a character who doesn’t do what I expect, and long for endings that surprise me. Wonderful dialogue is like a conversation overheard and never forgotten.

Where will I start? With Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day. I’m seventy-five pages in and the book already reads like one I will find memorable.

So, here’s to discovering great books in 2018. Maybe this blogging resolution really is one that I’ll keep.

Happy 2018.