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review 2019-03-24 18:24
An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman
An Armenian Sketchbook - Vasily Grossman

This is a vivid little book, as much a platform for the author’s musings on a variety of subjects as it is a travelogue. Grossman was a Jewish writer in the Soviet Union who had just had his masterwork confiscated by the authorities, when he traveled to Armenia to work on a “translation” of an Armenian novel. (He was actually cleaning up a literal translation into literary Russian, and did not in fact speak Armenian at all.) This short book is more essay collection than straight travel narrative; Grossman reflects on the landscape, on various people he meets and experiences he has, and on aspects of life in general that interest him.

At the beginning I enjoyed this book, appreciating the immediacy of Grossman’s writing and the thought-provoking subjects he touches on, but I found myself losing patience as I went on, and ultimately this book fell on the back burner.

Here’s an example of one of the passages that struck me, from a section in which Grossman wonders why the view of a beautiful lake doesn’t strike a chord of wonder within him:

For a particular scene to enter into a person and become part of their soul, it is evidently not enough that the scene be beautiful. The person also has to have something clear and beautiful present inside them. It is like a moment of shared love, of communion, of true meeting between a human being and the outer world.

The world was beautiful on that day. And Lake Sevan is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But there was nothing clear or good about me – and I had heard too many stories about the Minutka restaurant. After listening to the story of the lovesick princess, I asked, “But where’s the restaurant?”

. . . .

Or was it the thousands of paintings I had seen? Were they what poisoned my encounter with the high-altitude lake? We always think of the artist’s role as entirely positive; we think that a work of art, if it is anything more than a hack job, brings us closer to nature, that it deepens and enriches our being. We think that a work of art is some kind of key. But perhaps it is not? Perhaps, having already seen a hundred images of Lake Sevan, I thought that this hundred-and-first image was just one more routine product from a member of the Artists’ Union.


And here’s a passage that made me want to roll my eyes, thinking that the author puts altogether too much faith in his own feelings and perceptions:

But I repeat: there are many ways through which one can recognize that someone believes in God. It is not just a matter of words, but also of tones of voice, of the construction of sentences, of the look in a person’s eyes, in their gait, in their manner of eating and drinking. Believers can be sensed – and I did not sense any in Armenia.

What I did see were people carrying out rites. I saw pagans in whose good and kind hearts lived a god of kindness.


Why Grossman would think he could recognize Christianity from a person’s gait and syntax, of all things, especially cross-culturally, and why he is so confident in this ability that he can declare a country devoid of real Christians, I have no idea.

At any rate, this is a well-written little book that ranges over a wide variety of topics. Ultimately, I’d have liked it better if it had contained more about Armenia and less of the author’s pontification. But I did learn more about the country than I knew before, which was not much. (Judging from the selection of books shelved on Goodreads as “Armenia” – almost none of which are set there – I had the vague impression that the country had come into being only after the Armenian genocide. As it turns out, it is an ancient country with a long history and unique language.)

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review 2019-03-24 17:50
The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
The Air You Breathe - Frances de Pontes Peebles

This is a generic work of historical fiction that has me questioning my past literary judgment – because I loved the author’s first novel, The Seamstress, to pieces, and thought it was a fantastic literary adventure, featuring two divergent but equally compelling storylines. That was nine years ago, though, and I did not find any of the wonder I remember seeing there in this eminently forgettable book.

Apparently inspired by the career of 1940’s Hollywood musical star Carmen Miranda, this book relates the story of two Brazilian girls who grow up on a sugar plantation, are enraptured by music, run away from home to make their way, and end up singing samba and finally making movies. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Dores, a hardscrabble orphan who befriends the privileged, self-absorbed Graça. Dores is the smart, practical one with a talent for songwriting, while Graça is the diva who captivates audiences.

The novel flows smoothly enough, with competent writing; it’s a quick read and long enough to live in for a little while. That said, it lacks rawness, vitality, momentum; we basically know what’s going to happen from the beginning, and then spend 450 pages following the course that’s been charted out from the start, without any real excitement or surprise, but with standard-issue philosophizing about life from a character supposed to be looking back on events from her 90s. Unfortunately, the first-person voice tends to obscure rather than reveal any personality Dores may have; it’s a generic voice for a generic character in a generic historical fiction story.

The other characters are pretty generic as well – Graça is the only one with much in the way of personality, while the supporting members of the band lack not only personalities but also lives and relationships of their own, to the point that how they feel about unexpectedly spending several years in a foreign country is never even mentioned. The two women’s antagonistic devotion to each other was never entirely convincing to me either; it largely felt like a result of the fact that the novel didn’t have room for distractions like developing their relationships with lovers or other friends, rather than anything organic.

So, unfortunately, the generic title and cover art turned out to be representative of the work as a whole – fine escapism if you want a nice long predictable novel, but nothing more than that. It isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing in the plot or characters or writing that stands out. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest music lover and don’t tend to love books about music; if you did love this, you’ll likely also enjoy The Gods of Tango, another Latin American LGBT music-focused novel (which also disappointed me). I am curious to listen to some samba, though.

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review 2019-03-18 16:57
Review: "The Crucifix Killer" (Robert Hunter, #1) by Chris Carter
The Crucifix Killer - Chris Carter

 

~ 3.5 stars ~

 

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review 2019-03-15 19:05
In the Country by Mia Alvar
In the Country: Stories - Mia Alvar

This is a brilliant story collection, full of tales from the Philippines and their diaspora. The author is one of those literary writers who does a fantastic job at creating characters, with distinct personalities and psychological complexity, in just a few pages. The stories tend to focus on the characters’ personal journeys, and are sometimes quietly brutal, but stand out for the vividness of the characters and of the author’s imagery. I finished this a couple of weeks ago, and took my time reading it, but most of the stories still stand out clearly in my mind. The author’s writing is also excellent, and has a certain weight to it that will keep you from breezing right through: every word has meaning and is there because it needs to be. It’s by no means dense, but it’s solid literature, the kind of writing that loses nothing when you re-read it.

Because I often look for others’ reactions to specific short stories as I finish them, here are my mini-reviews, in order of appearance:

“The Kontrabida”: A young man working in New York returns to the Philippines to visit his abusive father, who is seriously ill, and his apparently saintly mother. To my mind this is one of the best in the collection, deliberate and atmospheric, with a whammy at the end.

“The Miracle Worker”: A young special ed teacher, living in Bahrain with her husband, is approached by a wealthy Arab woman who has unrealistic dreams for her severely disabled child. This is also one of the best, complex and surprisingly dark, leaving a certain awful secret to be fleshed out by the reader, and with a final image that stuck with me long after finishing.

“Legends of the White Lady”: An American model with some personal issues visits the Philippines for a shoot. My least favorite of the collection, this story is lightweight compared to the rest, but it still feels grounded in authentic experience.

“Shadow Families”: A community of newly-well-off Philippine wives in Bahrain includes less-fortunate immigrants from their country in social events, but these include a challenging young woman who’s more interested in their husbands than their friendship. This story is told in the first-person plural – there’s a “we” but no “I” – and none of the many wives included in that “we,” or their husbands, really stand out. Meanwhile, it goes on too long, as if an epilogue had been appended to a short story.

“The Virgin of Monte Ramon”: A boy in a wheelchair befriends a girl from the local shantytown and learns a disturbing secret about his own family. This is a perfectly fine story, though not my favorite.

“Esmeralda”: A cleaner in New York, who works hard but has a difficult life, falls for a lonely banker in the World Trade Center when she cleans his office. This one is told in the second person, which I usually hate and which literary writers seem to need to get out of their systems . . . but the story is strong enough to shine despite that (or perhaps even because of it). It’s vivid, memorable, and does a great of splicing together different timelines even in a short space.

“Old Girl”: Set in Boston, this is taken from the life of Corazon Aquino, who became a major figure in Philippine history, though you might not have guessed it from the meek wife here who caters to her flamboyant and ambitious husband. You don’t need to know anything about her to make sense of the story (though if you do, it won’t spoil the story and will add resonance to it). The family dynamics are carefully observed and the characters have no less complexity than if the author had had free rein to create them herself.

“A Contract Overseas”: A college student from an impoverished family is supported by her beloved brother, who takes a job in Saudi Arabia, but she can’t save him from his own problems. This is a vivid story with strong characters and realistic emotions, but I wanted a little more from the end.

“In the Country”: At about 85 pages, this is closer to a novella than a short story. It switches between two timelines – a young nurse who fights for better pay and marries an ambitious journalist, and that same woman later, after a devastating loss. This story fleshes out a lot about the recent history of the Philippines, and provides the context for “Old Girl.” It is quite good; the history perhaps overshadows the characters at times, but it’s fair to say that the two can’t be entirely separated for people whose lives are so tied up in history.

Overall, this is a great, well-written, well-observed collection of stories. I am definitely interested in reading more from this author.

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review 2019-03-11 21:23
Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe
Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War - Helen Thorpe

This book is a fantastic window into the real-life experiences of three women deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq with the Indiana National Guard. I would definitely recommend it to those interested in seeing behind the headlines to what soldiers and their lives (much of this book is applicable not only to women, though they are the protagonists) are like.

 

Michelle Fischer joined the National Guard at age 19, just a few months before 9/11, in order to pay for college. Facing a difficult financial situation, as the first in her family to attend college and with a chaotic home life, she thought this would be a safe bet, even though she was a pot-smoking Nader voter who definitely didn’t want to deploy.

 

Debbie Helton joined up at 34, and deployed at 51; a hair salon manager and divorced mother who’d grown up in a military family, she wanted to do something that would give more meaning to her life. She became the team mom at home, but wanted more and pushed to deploy with the rest of her unit.

 

Desma Brooks joined in her 20s for reasons that seem unclear even to her. She’d had a difficult life – foster care, a teen pregnancy, an abusive marriage producing two more kids – and was struggling to provide for her children, but always claimed she’d joined the Guard by mistake. While skilled with the military’s technology, she had little patience for authority or interest in deploying and leaving her young kids behind.

 

The book follows these three women, as well as those around them, from 2001 until 2013, through training, deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, and reintegration into American society. It’s a very close look at their lives; some reviewers have claimed it’s too detailed, to which I say, that’s the point! The point is to immerse us in their experiences, show us what their lives are like. Thorpe is a great storyteller, and does a fantastic job of bringing them to life.

 

And it’s very much a warts-and-all look at military life. Unlike prior books I’d read about women in the military, it is neither a rah-rah celebration of women in the military (these women’s deployments took place before they were officially allowed on the battlefield, though they face danger driving trucks, repairing weapons in Kabul and living on a frequently-shelled base), nor is it a call to arms about sexual assault (which is not a focus here). The women are competent at their jobs, but they are not extraordinary soldiers, and many of their experiences aren’t exactly family-friendly. There’s a lot of drinking (much of self-medication), some drugs, and a lot of infidelity (having a “deployment relationship” seems to be the norm among the younger women, regardless of their relationship status at home). Their relationships with families back home are complicated and often leave the soldiers exhausted; Desma uses her leave to take a vacation somewhere else rather than visiting her children and leaving them all over again.

 

If this book has one weakness, it’s that it’s very closely focused on the three protagonists and those around them, without much information about the larger picture of women in the military. That said, while I was at first disappointed that the women seemed so superficially similar (all white women in the Indiana National Guard, and all friends with one another), I ultimately found their experiences and opinions to be quite diverse, and each one brings a lot to the book. I’m impressed that they all opened up as much as they did, even about subjects on which they’re likely to be judged; two of them even use their real names. And the author tells their stories without judgment and without ever inserting herself into the tale.

 

In sum, I found this to be a great book, telling compelling real-life stories that opened my eyes to a lot about military life that I hadn’t previously known. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in walking in female soldiers’ shoes for awhile.

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