This installment: bizarre speculative fiction from Germany (f); Livingstone’s last journey (f); an intense memoir of parent-child enmeshment (nf); a storytelling Irishman at the end of his life (f); Black-Korean strife in LA (f); and opioids in Philly (f).
Oval by Elvia Wilk
Speculative fiction set in Berlin where a peculiar company has created the (supposedly) ultimate in green living. But many glitches arise early on and it turns out ill-conceived sustainability is not sustainable. Anja, a scientist, gets very mixed messages from her company and her boyfriend Louis, who works for a related enterprise, goes off the rails and devises a pill that makes people extremely generous and giving. Sounds great in theory, but absolute chaos in practice. This is an odd book but it ended up working a spell on me.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah
Nothing like history from unlikely sources. In this case, the explorer Livingstone’s last journey as reported by his tart-tongued, gossipy cook Halima and his deeply Christian secretary, Jacob, who was rescued as a boy and speaks in high-flown English. Livingstone has died and a ragged retinue is carrying most of his body back to the coast. (His heart and other organs were buried in situ and his corpse dried out for transport.) One of Jacob’s precious books is Pilgrim’s Progress and his journals weave that dramatic language into the narrative. I was especially struck by how Africans themselves had a flourishing, brutal slave trade. Atmospheric and fascinating.
Motherland by Elissa Altman
Subtitled a memoir of love, loathing, and longing. I got to know the author and her parents through her previous books which I just ate up (they had food themes but along the way dished up great interpersonal material). Here she focuses on the primary figure in her life and it was mesmerizing and (to me) often horrifying: a beautiful, narcissistic mother who won’t let her daughter go. Until Altman gets sick and gets away, kind of. She makes a life for herself in the country with a loving wife yet the phone keeps ringing, the demands keep coming, and her seemingly frail mother keeps on keeping on. The book ends on love but the other two adjectives kept batting me around emotionally. Beautifully written.
When All Is Said by Anne Griffin
Subtitled five toasts, five people, one lifetime. So that’s what Maurice is doing in the hotel’s bar. He’s old, bereaved, and wants to pay tribute to those near and dear (some gone) and those not so dear whom we also meet along the way. A beloved uncle, his beloved child who lived only 15 minutes but is still with him, his wife’s daft sister, his son who lives in America and last but not least the love of his life. Tangles with the local aristocracy but ultimately we learn what secrets torqued them: a very successful (some might term rapacious) expansion of his lands. (So there, aristocracy!) Great Irish storytelling and a denouement I guessed at.
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
A fictionalized rendering of a terrible incident in LA history in 1991 in which a young black girl was shot by police called by a Korean store owner for supposedly shoplifting a bottle of milk. The owner, then called Jun-Ja (now Yvonne) got off and riots ensued. Initially we meet Ava (the girl) and her family. But then action shifts to a present day Korean family which owns a pharmacy. The relationship between the stories? Yvonne went underground after the verdict, changed her name and her neighborhood, and hoped to live in peaceful obscurity. The two families intersect again with tragic results. A very disturbing book which tries to balance each family’s anguish but it’s hurt all around and much too timely.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Mickey is a single mom in Philly, as well as a cop fighting the opioid epidemic. It’s especially challenging because her sister Kacey is a victim of drugs and seems to have disappeared. Mickey’s beat partner Truman is out on disability and her boss, Ahearn, is the opposite of supportive. She’s also estranged from her large Irish Catholic family. Such heavy-duty burdens and a secret all make for suspense and a surprising revelation. Powerful.
Back next week.