This installment: very strange stories from Argentina (f); a primate service animal (f); crypto-Jews through history (f); a haunted manor house (f); brilliant short stories(f); and absurdity in the Midwest (f). [Note: the two last books only available as e-books]
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin
Short stories from Argentina. The writing is matter of fact; the subject matter is quite disturbing. Like the title story, indeed: this sweet little 5 year old girl subsists on sparrows, eaten live. Otherwise she’ll die. Another that haunted me: the woman who falls for a merman. And one about an artist who specializes in drawings of heads bashed against concrete, which she “practices” in real life as well. And finally the guy who stuffs his dead wife into a suitcase which then becomes an acclaimed work of art. Sounds horrible, but all told with such clarity, they become mesmerizing.
Still Life with Monkey by Katherine Weber
Everything’s good for Duncan, an architect, except there’s growing distance between him and his wife Laura, partly over their inability to conceive. After a car crash, he’s now a miserable quadriplegic. Laurel, devoted, gets him a primate companion, Ottoline, a quirky, charming capuchin. This kind of helps. Not enough to keep him from his ultimate goal, oblivion, but along the way he learns how a monkey can do amazing things for body and soul. Laurel’s an art restorer and there’s lots of lore about that as well as about architecture and disability. A thoroughly satisfying read.
Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris
An intense, sprawling novel about the conversos or crypto-Jews who fled the Inquisition around the time of Columbus and to present-day New Mexico. Here in a small valley (Entrada, which reflects the title) live descendants of these settlers. It’s a long, convoluted trail through the decades. They light candles on Friday nights, don’t eat pork, but are Catholics in name. The younger generation only knows they’ve always done it that way. Miguel, a very bright local teenager with a passion for astronomy but with no apparent future comes in contact with a Jewish family, is helped by a devoted teacher, finds out the mystery of his birth, and is launched. Fabulous stories, sensory richness, history “without tears,” in terms of learning but many tears over cruelty in the name of religion and racism from that day to this. A stunner!
The Shades by Eugenia Citkowitz
What a peculiar, haunting book which was over before I knew it. A big manor house in Kent, divided into three large apartments. In one lives husband Michael who’s in real estate and is a fascinated by architectural details. It would have been a great family home for his wife Catherine, a gallerist, and their two teenage children, Rowan and Rachel. But when Rachel’s killed in a car crash, everything comes undone. Guilt, blame, disaffection take over. Here comes mysterious, slightly disreputable young Kiera who used to live there. Might she become a substitute daughter? At the start I got lost. How can Catherine be observing Kiera’s plunge from the roof? Is she going crazy, as a neighbor suggests? It’s sleight of hand and baffling for this reader, yet I plunged on, so intrigued. Rowan becomes radicalized at his new school. At 16, might he put his grandfather’s legacy towards saving the earth? More questions than answers, but I still found it captivating.
Babylon and Other Stories by Alix Ohlin
Every one of these short stories is brilliant. Seamless writing that tells you what you want to know about each character like a direct transmission (i.e. “writing” doesn’t get in the way of the story.) All about human foibles—a subject that never fails. Love, jealously, bad behavior, trying to make do, etc. Some stories feature the same folks so it’s like coming home, as it were. When Ohlin writes about attraction and sex, there’s not a single cliché. I don’t know how she does it. And when she’s dealing with academics, it’s funny—never ponderous. What a joy!
The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury
I read this one in 2000 when it first came out but made its acquaintance again because it was available in ebook form and was so glad to revisit it on my vacation. Grouse County in the prairie, small towns barely holding on but the people who dwell there are firmly planted, for the most part. True, “Tiny” Darling needs to seek his dubious fortune elsewhere after crashing into the mockup display at the high school dance (theme: the book’s title). What I loved is the constant absurdity of real life, along with pathos amidst the rubble. Sad Louise and unemotional Dan connect sweetly but tragedy undoes their connection until…A load of characters, side-splitting events but heartbreak too. What else could you ask for?
Back in three days.