Italian Americans in the 20th Century

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna Juliet Grames (2019)

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Fair warning:  Most of the men in this novel are brutes. Even the ones who are polite at the dinner table, who bring lovely gifts, and who work hard to support their families still tyrannize women outrageously. The worst of these men is a pervert who engages in criminal sexual activities, but there are gradations of nastiness—sexual, economic, and emotional.

So the women are the stars—especially Stella Fortuna, whose name, as the novelist tells us, actually means “‘star luck’ or maybe even ‘lucky star’.” (4) Stella is beautiful and smart, exceling at computation and at needlework although she’s functionally illiterate. But Stella’s most defining characteristics reside in her personality. She’s argumentative and honest and independent—whoa, is she independent. For a young woman with such a streak of self-sufficiency, it’s not an easy life in Ievoli, a small Calabrian mountain village in the early twentieth century. The rural women of Ievoli are workhorses and baby breeders, performing heavy labor until they go into heavy labor. Most of them submit unquestioningly to their domineering husbands. In these early sections of the novel there are touches of magic realism that some reviewers have found jarring. I thought the magic realism fit perfectly with the Italian Catholicism of the era, its rosaries and religious processions coexisting with charms to ward off the Evil Eye.

Just before World War II, the Fortuna family emigrates to Hartford, Connecticut, against the will of Stella’s mother. Does life get easier? Well, by boarding that ship they do miss the worst of the reign of Mussolini and the wartime marauding of Nazi soldiers. But in America Stella has a battle on her hands to stay single, as she has vowed to do, having figured out about the brutishness of those males. Though life in Ievoli afforded few material comforts, at least the inhabitants were surrounded by stunning natural beauty, which is woefully lacking in the slums of Hartford. Stella daydreams: “She pictured Ievoli, the glowing yellow-green of the citrus leaves in the April sun, the silver-blue of the September olive groves, the sun-baked July rows of bulging tomato stakes marching like soldiers along the terraced mountain.” (328)

The entire novel is framed from the viewpoint of the present day, when Stella is 100 years old. The narrator, a descendant of the Fortuna clan, gets the stories of all of Stella’s close brushes with death from Stella’s sister, Concettina, (“Cettina” in Italy and “Tina” in America). In an Author’s Note, Juliet Grames mentions that memories of her own elderly relatives inspired components of Stella’s life, and I found myself wondering which parts of the novel correspond with Grames’ own family history.

The boisterous, dramatic, hard-partying Italian Americans in The Seven or Eight Deaths are not stereotypes but rather fully realized characters, some saints but many sinners. Every immigrant family (and the vast majority of Americans come from one) has similar characters. Grames has captured the immigrant experience magnificently, using the anticipatory device of the “deaths” to get me to read late into the night to find out how Stella survived yet again. Brava!

For another story about Italian Americans, find a DVD of the classic 1987 movie Moonstruck. And for more of my reviews of books about immigrants, click on “Immigrant Stories” in the column to the right.

More Than a Mystery

The Other Americans     Laila Lalami     (2019)

Exactly who are “the other Americans” in Laila Lalami’s novel of that title? She introduces multiple narrators, each of whom could be categorized as “other.”

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  • Driss, a Moroccan immigrant who runs a diner, is a ghostly presence in many ways. On the first page he dies in a late-night hit-and-run accident, yet we get his back story piecemeal in chapters throughout the book.

  • Efraín, a Mexican doing landscaping in this California desert town, witnesses the accident but is afraid to come forward because of his undocumented status. We follow his crisis of conscience over many weeks.

  • Anderson, a prime suspect in the accident case, is an elderly white guy who runs the bowling alley next door to Driss’s diner. He sees himself as ostracized in a corporatized and increasingly diverse society.

  • Nora, Driss’s adult daughter, is convinced that her father was not killed accidentally but murdered, and she pushes the police to dig deeper into the evidence. As a musician, she finds some acceptance in the jazz community, despite her brown skin.

  • Coleman, an African American police detective, is assigned to the accident case. She’s smart and savvy, but she struggles at home in raising her teen stepson.

  • Jeremy, another police officer, is a veteran of the Iraq War who clearly suffers from PTSD. Early in the novel he becomes Nora’s boyfriend, and their relationship anchors a significant sub-plot.

The list of characters goes on, and Lalami integrates the disparate narrative perspectives smoothly as she disentangles the mystery of Driss’s death. All her characters (even Anderson in his way) are outsiders, with personal histories that define them in opposition to the people around them. A sense of otherness can arise from many sources, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration status, woundedness, or occupation.

Although the ensemble cast of The Other Americans is very large, the characters are fully fleshed out, with distinct voices. I really wanted Lalami to broaden each of their stories, although I know that this would have cluttered the novel and distracted from the main plot. She does provide a brief and tantalizing wrapup of the hit-and-run accident, several years out, from Nora’s point of view.

I got to know these Americans; I sympathized with many of them and wished them well. Good novels do that to a reader.

Books in Brief, Part 5

Every Note Played     Lisa Genova     (2018)

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Lisa Genova, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, writes novels that illuminate neurological diseases. Her 2007 offering, Still Alice, told the story of a 50-year-old Harvard professor who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In her 2018 Every Note Played, Genova gives us the fictional Richard Evans, a world-renowned classical pianist who develops ALS (sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which destroys the neurons that control voluntary muscles. Genova takes the reader through the progression of Richard’s ALS over a period of a little more than a year, detailing the difficult medical decisions that he must make along the way. Even more significantly, Richard has to come to terms with the forced ending of his musical career and with his troubled relationships with his ex-wife, Karina; his college-age daughter; and his father, who never valued Richard’s musical talent. As Richard becomes increasingly helpless, Karina ends up, reluctantly, caring for him in her home. Genova depicts the stresses both on the patient and on his family and friends in painful detail, but the novel doesn’t become solely a case study in ALS. It stands on its own merits as a work of fiction about self-awareness, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

In the Midst of Winter     Isabel Allende     (2017)     Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson

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Three people with vastly different life stories come together during a blizzard in New York City in 2016. The car of Richard Bowmaster, a sixty-something American prof, slides into a car driven by Evelyn Ortega, a twenty-something undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. The resulting minor auto damage brings to light a murder and brings into the drama the character of Lucia Maraz, a sixty-something academic from Chile who is teaching in New York for the year. Each of these three has a tumultuous past, which is recounted in flashbacks as the murder mystery unfolds in present time. The narrative here is somewhat disjointed, and the mystery is transparent, but Allende’s mastery of language and dialogue, even in translation, is apparent. For an Allende novel that I consider superior to In the Midst of Winter, try reading The Japanese Lover.

The Only Story     Julian Barnes     (2018)

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This is an elegant, nostalgic, gloomy novel, in three sections. The first section, recounted in first person by the protagonist, Paul, is the story of the early days of a love affair between the 19-year-old Paul and the 48-year-old Susan. They meet at a tennis club in a town south of London in the early 1960s. In the second section, mostly in second person narration, Paul and Susan are living together in London, and their affair is not going well (read: boy, is this depressing). The third section, in third person, is a lengthy retrospective exploration of the nature of love, with a few narrative strands about Paul’s middle and older years. Barnes touches on the debate between inevitability and free will and probes the correlation between strength of feeling and degree of happiness. Throughout, the prose is refined and masterful, as you would expect from the author of the Booker-Prize winning The Sense of an Ending (2011) and many other novels. But if you pick up The Only Story, don’t expect a tidy wrap-up. Oh, and just what is “the only story”? Love. Love is the only story, and it’s infinitely complex.

The Upper-Middle-Class Façade

Little Fires Everywhere     Celeste Ng     (2017)

Ah, adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The first chapter of Little Fires Everywhere lures the reader in with a blazing house, then backtracks about a year to paint portraits of the four teenaged Richardson children who resided in that house (Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy)--plus the new 15-year-old in town, Pearl Warren. The Richardson family lives the American Dream, with trendy clothes and cars, luxurious vacations, and bright career prospects for the kids. Most of the Richardsons are also selfish and self-centered. Pearl, in contrast, is a smart but naïve vagabond who roams the country in an old VW Rabbit with her single mother, Mia, who’s an accomplished photographic artist. Pearl and Mia rent an apartment in a Shaker Heights duplex owned by Mrs Richardson and furnish it sparsely with castoffs, in distinct contrast to the elegant six-bedroom Richardson mansion. Tellingly, Ng refers to most adults as “Mrs” and “Mr,” but Mia Warren is always “Mia.”

The social commentary on economic inequality and lifestyle choices inherent in this setup would be enough to fuel a novel—and a spectacular house fire. But novelist Celeste Ng plunges far, far deeper into the problems in Shaker Heights, where she herself has lived. This suburb of Cleveland was established early in the 20th century as a planned community, with rigid rules about all aspects of outward appearance and organization. Near the end of the book, Izzy Richardson thinks about “life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what a mess lay within.” (323)

The “mess” behind the gorgeous façade of Shaker Heights includes unplanned pregnancy, controversial interracial adoption, prejudice against immigrants, unethical journalism, and parents who pay little attention to their wayward kids. Ng’s narrative is complex, with multiple strands tightly interwoven, and all her characters, no matter how peripheral, are drawn with exquisite care. The reading becomes unstoppable as the novel barrels along toward the fire that will inevitably consume the Richardson home.

The “little fires” of the title are the blazes on the gasoline-soaked beds that the arsonist lights. But these fires are also the incendiary issues shoved under the beds of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. Ng doesn’t preach; she shows.

Bonus Post: A Woman in the Chem Lab

Chemistry     Weike Wang     (2017)

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Don’t let this book fool you. The simple declarative sentences and frequent thematic tangents might lead you to believe that it’s the work of an unsophisticated novelist. Not so. Weike Wang makes her readers think hard about the role of immigrants in American society, about the difficulties that women (of any race) face in choosing careers in the sciences, and about the tensions between the personal and the professional in the lives of talented people.

No one in Chemistry except the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, is given a name, which emphasizes the universality of this tale. The first-person narrator is a young woman who should be heading into her final year of a doctoral program in chemistry at a prestigious university—never named but presumably Harvard. She’s Chinese American, brought to the United States as a young child and raised by parents who would make Amy Chua of Tiger Mother fame seem tame. Boyfriend Eric is a paragon, a white guy who has had spectacular success in pursuing science degrees and who is just embarking on what will undoubtedly be a rewarding academic career. He wants to marry the narrator, but she demurs, worried about forfeiting her intellectual capacity. Added to this tension is a side plot about the narrator’s best friend, a physician in New York, who talks to the narrator frequently on the phone. On the edges of the novel are also students whom the narrator tutors in math and science topics.

Readers glimpse about two years of the narrator’s life, as she gets counseling to help with her decisions, eats a great deal of carryout pizza, drinks too much wine, and muses about scientific topics ranging from the details of electrical circuitry to the discovery of radium. Should she plow on with the doctorate even though the highly competitive lab work no longer gives her any joy? Should she marry Eric, a man very well suited to her personality and intelligence, even though he can never fully understand her family’s culture and language? If she doesn’t pursue chemistry, what should she do with her life? And if she moves to the Midwest to follow Eric, should she take her comical, untrainable dog with her?

The narrator touches on these questions, wanders off, and then circles back to them. Chemistry doesn’t give readers all the answers, but that’s it’s charm. And Weike Wang is an author to watch.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part I

Go, Went, Gone     Jenny Erpenbeck     (in German, 2015)

Translated by Sarah Bernofsky     (in English, 2017)

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Richard is retiring from his position as a classics professor in Berlin. In his university office, he packs up books, clears out drawers, sorts stacks of papers. His next steps are somewhat unclear, both to him and to us as readers. Maybe he’ll write some journal articles. Maybe he’ll kick back and take his boat out on the lake on which his suburban house is situated. Richard is a widower with no children, no close family, and an ex-mistress who is no longer part of his life; he does have a good circle of friends.

By chance, Richard walks by some refugees who are protesting the poor living conditions in a ramshackle tent village in a city park. In Germany, the refugee crisis is not abstract but obvious from makeshift camps and from daily news reports. Ever the academic, Richard wonders about the backgrounds of the refugees flooding his country. He decides to do some background reading, particularly on conflict in African nations, and he draws up a list of questions to ask individual refugees from Africa. It’s unclear what the end product of this “research” will be. Will he produce some written piece? If so, will he come down as pro-refugee or anti-refugee?  Without much trouble, Richard gains access to a group of African refugees housed in an abandoned building near his home, and he starts working through his question list. (I’ll pass over the potential ethical issue of failing to seek permission for doing research on human subjects!)

Go, Went, Gone holds many layers of meaning, and as a reader you can unpeel as many of these as you want. For instance, as Richard gets more and more involved with the refugees, he’s reminded of lines in classical literature that speak to moral quandaries. He’s trying to figure out how Germans should respond to the situation, all the while Erpenbeck reminds us, by brief references to online forums, of a thriving racist element in German society.

The novel is set in the present day, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has left residual tensions between West and East, between capitalism and communism. Richard lived for decades under an oppressive regime in East Berlin, so he’s receiving a pension that’s significantly less than that of his counterparts who worked in West Berlin. Still, in some ways he’s a beneficiary of the removal of the Wall:  “Who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle [in the former East Berlin] now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows? But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around. For a moment, this thought opens its jaws wide, displaying its frightening teeth.” (95)

As Richard’s views on the refugees are slowly, slowly developing, small incidents take on larger meaning. Here it’s windblown dust on leaves: “The Sirocco . . . came from Africa and across the Alps, sometimes even bringing a bit of desert sand along with it. And indeed, on the leaves of the grapevines you could see the fine, ruddy dust that had made its way from Africa. Richard had run his finger across one of the leaves and observed how this small gesture produced a sudden shift in his perspective and sense of scale. Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.” (55) Bodies of water take on a liminal quality, marking some critical transition. Richard thinks often about the lake in his backyard, which holds the body, never found, of a man who presumably drowned a couple of months before the novel begins. This sad fact reminds Richard of the thousands of refugees who’ve drowned in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

Novelist Erpenbeck could easily have slid into didacticism or preachiness, but she doesn’t. She juxtaposes the quotidian activities of Richard’s life (making toast, taking his car in for service) with his increasing existential concerns about the direction of his life and the direction of the world around him. She presents the refugees mostly as benign figures, victims of civil wars or sectarian repression in their native countries, but not every refugee is honest or honorable.

Sarah Berofsky’s translation of this novel is exceptionally good, especially considering the difficulties of dealing with characters who are presented as speaking in many different languages. Richard himself speaks German, English, Russian, and Italian, in addition to his fluency in ancient Greek and Latin. He communicates with the refugees mostly in English and Italian—many of them crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Italy. They work hard to learn the language of each country they arrive in, with the hope of remaining. The “go, went, gone” of the title refers to their language learning, since the conjugation of the German verb for “to go” (gehen, ging, gegangen) is important to eventual fluency. The title also refers to the constant “going” of the refugees, their peregrinations from one European nation to another, from one government office to another, from one squalid camp to another, in hopes of finding asylum and work.

Very few books written in other languages get translated into English. I try to report on a few of them on this blog, to reveal non-Anglophone patterns of thought. Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant and profound novel that you should not miss.

Watch for my upcoming review of Here in Berlin by Cristina García, under the heading "Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2."

A Refugee Fable

Exit West     Mohsin Hamid     (2017)

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Author Mohsin Hamid is known for his experimental prose: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). His latest novel, Exit West, can appear to be a more conventional novel—that is, until you hit the magical doors. These doors whisk Hamid’s characters to another country, with some similarities to the door through which CS Lewis takes his characters to Narnia. But Hamid’s characters definitely do not end up in Narnia. They’re refugees, fleeing their native country, where “militants” cause increasing upheaval and danger.

Nadia and Saeed are middle-class, college-educated professionals, working for an insurance company and an advertising agency, respectively, and living in an unnamed large city in an unnamed country that seems to be in the Middle East. The story opens as these two are just getting to know each other romantically. In the background, terrorism gradually encroaches on their lives and the lives of their families. Buildings are bombed and militants haul away people considered to be dissidents. Nadia and Saeed try to maintain a semblance of routine at first. They continue to go to work, attend their evening class, meet for coffee. Eventually, as electricity and water are cut off and their places of employment are shuttered, they hunker down with hoarded supplies. They truly do not want to leave their country, the place of their birth, but if they want to stay alive, it becomes clear that they must flee.

Nadia and Saeed seek basic survival in three successive refugee encampments, in Greece, England, and then the United States. Even though these nations are named, Hamid transforms them into dystopias. The narrator of Exit West tells us that “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end.” (245)

The frequent dislocation of their lives as refugees takes a toll on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” (212)

Saeed, in particular, misses his home: “He was drawn to people from their country, both in the labor camp and online. It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”  (213)

Mohsin Hamid was writing Exit West as the global refugee crisis was escalating, but he could not have foreseen world events of the year 2017, such as the travel bans instituted in the United States or the uptick in terrorist attacks in his native Pakistan. His prescient novel personalizes the plight of refugees—ordinary people who through no fault of their own are caught up in war and terrorism, who flee with great reluctance, leaving behind virtually all their possessions, clinging to the few family members who have not perished.

Near the end of Exit West, we hear from an “old woman” who has lived her entire life in Palo Alto, California:  “. . . it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (237)

There’s a very good reason why Exit West was on so many lists of the best books of the year 2017.

The Immigrant Experience

The Leavers     Lisa Ko     (2017)

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Adoption has been the subject of several books I’ve reviewed recently, including Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Celine, Leaving Lucy Pear, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. The yearning of some adopted children to find their birth mothers—or of birth mothers to find their biological children—can be a powerful theme for a novel. Lisa Ko takes a slightly different approach to adoption, and in the process she illuminates the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The immigrants in this story work long hours in difficult jobs to provide food and shelter for their loved ones. They have to make heart-rending decisions in their struggle to survive. As the dust jacket tells us, “The Leavers won the 2016 PEN Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.”

In The Leavers, Deming Guo was born in the United States, but his mother, Polly/Peilan, is an undocumented immigrant from Fujian province in China. She owes large sums to the loan shark who brought her to New York. One day when Deming is in fifth grade in the Bronx, Polly fails to return from her job at a nail salon and disappears from his life. Deming is fostered and then adopted by a well-meaning but misguided white couple in upstate New York and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. Deming/Daniel is the only Asian kid in the quiet community where he spends his teen years, and he constantly longs for his old city neighborhood and for any information about what happened to his birth mother. As novelist Lisa Ko encapsulates the problem, “If he could just talk to his mother in person, maybe he could figure out who he should be.” (270)

As Daniel moves into his twenties, he becomes involved in the music scene in New York City, as a composer and performer.  He routinely experiences synesthesia: “Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t included violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird.” (71) And music keeps him going when he sees no other future for himself:  “A song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.” (258)

Polly and Daniel both have their flaws—Polly is often self-centered, Daniel develops a gambling addiction. I think that these characteristics help to keep the novel from falling into clichés. The Leavers alternates between Daniel’s side of the story and Polly’s, between New York and China, gradually revealing what happened on that day when Polly vanished. Did she take the bus to Florida, where she’d talked about relocating? Did the loan shark send her back to China? Did she leave her son (as well as her kindly boyfriend) for a new lover? Did she get hit by a truck? I won’t spoil the ending. I will say that, although the reason for Polly’s disappearance makes sense, the reason for her long-term absence from Daniel’s life doesn’t ring true for me.

However, as usual, I loved the parts of The Leavers that were set in New York City, which is beloved by Daniel:  “Daniel saw the Manhattan skyline, recognized the sketched spire of the Empire State Building, the sparkle of bridges, and from this vantage point the city appeared vulnerable and twinkling, the last strands of sunshine swept across the arches as if lulling them to sleep, painting shadows against the tops of buildings. No matter how many times he saw the city’s outline he pitched inside.” (110)

There are many kinds of “leaving” in this novel. Polly leaves China, and then she leaves her son. Daniel leaves the Bronx, but then he leaves upstate New York to return to the city. In a way, all of us are “leavers,” since we make choices in life that involve leaving other options behind.

Books in Brief, Part 4

Here are short reviews of three books that I buzzed through recently.

The Lost History of Stars     Dave Boling     (2017)

The background: The Second Anglo-Boer War (often known as the Boer War, 1899-1902) was fought to determine control of rich gold and diamond mines in southern areas of the African continent. The British Empire sent troops against the Boers, who were mostly descended from Dutch settlers in the region. The outnumbered Boers waged a guerrilla war that outraged the British, who expected to win easily. The British responded by burning Boer farms and herding the women and children from those farms into concentration camps. Twenty-seven thousand of them died. The Lost History of Stars tells of one fictional family’s horrific experiences during this period. I skipped over large chunks of this novel because the story, though well told, became too painful for me. Author Boling has illuminated a “lost history” of terrible suffering, in which the stars of the southern hemisphere and the love of family are among the few bright spots for the characters.

Difficult Women     Roxane Gay     (2017)

My husband prefers philosophy to fiction, but he picked up Difficult Women from the bedside table because he’d heard about Roxane Gay’s 2014 book of essays, Bad Feminist. Here’s his take on Difficult Women: “I used to think that the legislative bodies in the US would work to defeat rape culture and racism. Now we’re relying on fiction writers to draw our attention to the violence and bigotry in our society. These stories are grim—very dark. Almost all the male characters are creepy, and both the male and the female characters are obsessed with sex.” Of the 21 stories in this collection, I read a half dozen, recommended by my husband as the least brutal. For example, “Bone Density” is about a married couple who both have affairs. “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is a moving fable—or maybe a parable—about a miner who can no longer stand underground darkness and flies into the sun, with devastating consequences. Gay’s writing is sharp and slashing. 

Saints for All Occasions     J. Courtney Sullivan     (2017)

The plot of this novel is pretty predictable: Two young Irish women emigrate to Boston in the late 1950s, one of them gets pregnant, and fuss ensues. Stock characters from the Irish-American playbook populate the text:  the alcoholic bar owner, the stoic matriarch, the cruel nuns, the saintly nuns, the pitiful little brother, the dance hall cad, the faithful friend. What bothered me most, as someone who has lived in Ireland, was that the Irish-born characters talked like Americans. I’m not saying that the author should have thrown in “faith and begorrah” to establish Irish cred, but some representation of Irish idiom might have brightened up this serviceable but somewhat plodding family saga. For a much better fictional take on the Irish immigrant experience in the America of the 1950s, I heartily recommend Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009).

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.

Books in Brief, Part 1

I start reading about twice as many books as I finish, and that’s after I’ve narrowed the list of books that I even start. (I eliminate thrillers and science fiction, for example.) I like a plot that I can hang on to, and I don’t like extreme violence. A few years ago I swore I’d never read another novel set in World War II because they were all so grim. Then along came All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr in 2014, and I decided that extraordinary novels set in World War II would be okay.

My Books in Brief posts are about books that I gave up on or just skimmed through. These are not necessarily badly written books! Many are bestsellers that got stellar reviews from reviewers whom I respect. But I did not read these titles in their entirety, and in my posts, I’ll tell you why. You may decide that you want to dash out to your nearest library or book shop to get a copy!

The Mortifications     Derek Palacio     (2016)

This complex tale about a Cuban-American immigrant family, set in the 1980s, has well-drawn characters and some lovely language, especially when the author is describing Cuba, to which some members of the family return. Palacio commingles realistic and mythic elements in an odd way in this novel, but that was not why I stopped reading. At about the halfway point in the 308 pages, the deep sadness of the story was making me too miserable. I skipped to the end to see how the plot tied up. The ending was sad, too. I should have guessed this from the title.

Pond     Claire-Louise Bennett     (2016)

Bennett positions her book somewhere between prose poetry and stream-of-consciousness. After the first few pages, I jumped around in the chapters (are they chapters?) trying to find threads of a cohesive plot, but I failed. The dust jacket says that Pond is “suffused with the almost synesthetic intensity of the physical world as we remember it from childhood.” I like descriptions of everyday experience, but I could not stick it out inside the brain of the young woman narrator for 195 pages. I prefer poetry that’s more distilled.

Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold     Anne Tyler     (2016)

I’ve enjoyed several of Tyler’s past books, most recently A Spool of Blue Thread (2015), but Vinegar Girl was a disappointment. The book is one of a series of novels, by different modern novelists, based on the plots of Shakespeare plays. I was fine with a modern adaptation or rewriting of Shakespeare, who himself reworked the stories of other authors. What caused me to send this book back to the library after two chapters was the lifeless dialogue. Tyler usually spins out highly believable language, but the characters in Vinegar Girl were not coming alive for me through their words.

The Vacationers     Emma Straub     (2014)

Emma Straub gets a lot of press for her breezy novels and is held up as comparable to Anne Tyler. I don’t see it. In 2012, I tried a couple of chapters of Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures but found the reconstruction of 1920s Hollywood unconvincing. Giving Straub another chance, I quickly skimmed The Vacationers. It reads like the script of a sit-com, with a few witty zingers but not much depth to the plot or the characters, who are New Yorkers on vacation in Mallorca. Despite some glowing reviews of Straub’s next offering, Modern Lovers (2016), I don’t plan another foray.

A Great Reckoning     Louise Penny     (2016)

This is the twelfth book in the Canadian mystery series starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I’ve read a couple of the previous titles in the series. I loved the setting (present-day Québec, Canada), the well-developed characters (especially Gamache and his family), and the plots (intricate). I gave up on this series solely because Louise Penny’s style of writing in sentence fragments drove me crazy. If you can handle that herky-jerky movement in every paragraph, these are terrific mysteries.

The Book That Matters Most     Ann Hood     (2016)

I didn’t make it past page 40 of this 358-page book, about a middle-aged woman joining a book club to get over her divorce. I’m not opposed to books about book clubs or books about people who read a lot of books. I read a lot of books myself, and I did read and review the Swedish novel The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. However, in those first 40 pages of The Book That Matters Most, the dialogue is strained and the interior monologues are trite. I can’t imagine that it gets better.

Gentle Swedish Novels

Although the international taste for Nordic Noir is strong, not all the books coming out of Sweden are dark thrillers. The novels reviewed below may not suit you if your taste runs to authors Stieg Larsson (with sleuths Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander) and Henning Mankell (with detective Kurt Wallander). I harbor a fascination with Scandinavian culture, so I embrace a wide range of titles from the land of Volvos, fjords, aurora borealis, and IKEA. Here are two gentle offerings from the Swedes.  

Review #1

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend     Katarina Bivald     (2016)

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies

A stranger comes to town:  it’s an ancient and oft-used storyline, maybe because it has built-in plot development potential. The stranger learns the ways of the town. The town learns the ways of the stranger. The author can add to this mix some conflict, some romance, or some comical misunderstanding. Debut novelist Katarina Bivald takes advantage of all the plot possibilities in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.

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Sara Lindqvist arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa, one August day in 2011 to visit her pen pal, Amy Harris. Sara and Amy have in common that they’re voracious readers.  Over a couple of years, Sara has gotten Amy to read Swedish bestsellers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Amy has introduced Sara to American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird.  Sara, who’s in her late 20s, has never traveled outside her native Sweden, but when she gets laid off from her job as a bookstore clerk, she decides to use her savings to take an extended trip to Iowa. Sara’s fluent in English, but she’s not prepared for small-town America still in the grips of a major recession. Not to mention that she arrives on the very day of the elderly Amy’s funeral.

The residents of Broken Wheel include all the stock characters. A gay couple owns the saloon, and an unemployed schoolteacher is the local busybody. A semi-reformed alcoholic with a sad family history serves as Sara’s chauffeur. The loud-mouthed, overweight proprietor of the diner keeps Sara fed. Amy’s handsome nephew Tom becomes Sara’s love interest.

Sara has a talent for finding just the right book, from Amy’s extensive collection, for each resident of Broken Wheel. As the Iowans embrace their European waif, the story plays out with the involvement of befuddled US immigration officials. The premise of Bivald’s novel has become more far-fetched since the 2016 American election, when anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States elected Trump, who is especially popular in Iowa. Bivald not only romanticizes rural America but also hits on many clichés.

Still, I don’t want to disparage this book. Bivald’s character Sara has wide-ranging literary tastes. She adores Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels, but she also knows her Jane Austen backward and forward. She’d just as soon pick up a book by Goethe or Annie Proulx as one by Fannie Flagg. I’m more of a book snob than Sara—I draw the line at The Bridges of Madison County. But Sara’s encounter with the Americans of Broken Wheel cheered my heart for a while.

Review #2

A Man Called Ove     Fredrik Backman (2014)

Translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

Good luck with finding a definitive pronunciation for “Ove.” I pronounce it something like “oo-vuh,” but I don’t speak Swedish.

No matter how the name sounds in your head, Ove is a Swedish curmudgeon in late middle age, and he’s not an endearing one. We meet him making his rounds as self-appointed, and unwelcome, policing agent for his neighborhood. He’s also figuring out how to commit suicide, which is perhaps a nod to that Nordic Noir tradition. The other characters in this novel are pretty much stereotypes: the saintly wife, the vivacious neighbor, the unfeeling government official, the malicious cat.

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Over the course of the novel, we gradually get Ove’s life story, and we come to be more sympathetic to him. The ending is not exactly happily-ever-after, but there’s satisfying plot resolution for a number of the characters.

A Man Called Ove and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend are not "literary fiction," true. However, they present optimism in the face of difficult circumstances, which many readers may welcome in this troubled world. There’s also in each novel a refreshing societal acceptance of cultural outsiders. I think that both books have some affinity with the work of that prolific Scot Alexander McCall Smith. I read McCall Smith’s books in one sitting, and I always arise feeling a bit better about life.