Friday, May 22, 2015

My review of The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

For the record: I received this book (an actual hardcover book!) for review from Algonquin Books, through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. This does not affect the content of my review, but since I truly did love the book, I’m incredibly thankful to have a “real” copy and not just an ARC.

I’ve delayed this review so long, I hardly know where to begin. So, I will begin at the beginning. The novel contains eight parts, with a total of 67 chapters. The lengths of the parts are wildly uneven: Part one contains chapter 1, which is only four pages long. It doesn’t quite function as a prologue, exactly, but sort of as a smoky glimpse of things to come. I use the word “smoky” to mean the scene is literally smoky. The first page of the book contains the sentence, “The smoke was so thick the moose head was barely able to see the people it was intended to spy on.” From the book’s jacket, the reader learns that the novel will include a cartoonist from Denmark -- home of “the happiest people in the world” (except for that guy Hamlet, who I seem to recall was super unhappy) -- and some CIA agents, and a high school principal in a small town in upstate New York, plus the principal’s wife. We know there are CIA agents, so the mention of spying right on the first page isn’t wholly unexpected.

Part two begins with chapter 2, in which we meet the aforementioned Danish cartoonist. The timing of my reading of this book was very strange. I got the book in October, but didn’t actually read it until early January. Only a few days after the attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I found myself reading about a similar kind of situation in a fictitious newspaper in Denmark. I had waited too long to start reading the book, but ended up reading it almost simultaneously with current real-world events. In the novel, the reason the cartoonist draws a controversial cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad is quite mundane: his boss tells him to draw one. The reason the boss tells him to draw the cartoon is really a slap in the face for anyone who believes in freedom of expression: the editor hates his job, but the newspaper had been “owned and run by his family for almost two centuries. Quitting the paper would be like quitting his family” (p. 14). He realizes that if the paper prints a controversial cartoon, the backlash will require him to close up shop, and he’ll no longer be stuck in this job that he hates. (Selfish bastard.)

The newspaper offices are attacked, and the cartoonist’s house is burned down. The cartoonist is declared dead, but in reality, he’s alive and being protected by the CIA. After a couple few years of being shuttled here and there, the Danish cartoonist is given a new identity, Henry Larsen of Sweden. His CIA handler, a woman nicknamed Locs, travels with him to the US, then puts him on a bus to a little town in upstate New York called Broomeville. We learn that Locs used to live in Broomeville, and had an affair with the junior-senior high school principal, Matty. Although he had loved Locs, he’d broken it off with her and remained with his wife, Ellen, and their son, Kurt. Before bringing Henry to America, Locs got in contact with Matty, told him that she’d joined the CIA after their affair ended, and asked him if he had a job available for the man under her protection. Matty agrees to hire Henry Larsen as the school’s guidance counselor.

The novel’s plot is fairly complicated, and there are a number of quirky characters, but I felt most of the central characters were fleshed out and interesting. Although the details of the plot were far-fetched and improbable, the characters’ actions and emotions rang true. Locs still misses Matty, still loves him, although their affair ended seven years before. Ellen is still hurt by Matty’s betrayal, and when she hears someone else refer to him as “Matthew,” the name only Locs called him, she’s instantly suspicious. Their son Kurt, now a teenager, is intrigued by Henry, and curious about his sudden appearance in Broomeville, but also tells him impulsively when they first meet, “‘I’m definitely going to be needing your guidance counseling’” (p.77).

I found Brock Clarke’s writing to be propulsive. The book I read right before this one was a novella -- I think it was less than 100 pages -- and it took me about ten days to finish it. Then I started The Happiest People in the World, and I tore through it in three days. I thought the premise was interesting, and the first couple of chapters pulled me in quickly. In chapter 5, when Locs calls Matty to tell him she’s with the CIA and ask if he can give Henry a job, this paragraph appears:

“Fair enough,” Matty said, and immediately he wished he hadn’t. She had once accused him of saying that -- “fair enough” -- way too often and in response to things that weren’t fair enough at all, and then they’d gotten into a fight about it, his gist being, did she have to be such a bitch, and her gist being, she wouldn’t have to be such a bitch if he didn’t say “fair enough” all the time. (pp. 26-27)

I read that, laughed out loud, then walked to the other room and read the paragraph to my husband. From that point, I was all in on this novel. I liked the main characters, the secondary characters were pretty entertaining, the plot kept me guessing, but the thing I enjoyed most about the book was that tone, that voice, which could be funny, or serious, or sometimes both at the same time. The all-over-the-place feeling reminded me of my response to the novel A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, which I read in 2011 and love love loved; this is the first time another novel reminded me of Toltz's book. (That title links to my post about the book, in case wacky happenings are your thing.)

Here’s an extreme example, in which Ellen is driving Henry to the school in the snow, a ride that takes approximately one minute. If you like this, then you should definitely give this book a try.

In this way, Henry learned several things.That once Americans were out of the cold and in their trucks, they did not like to get back out into the cold, even if it meant making the inside of their trucks as cold as the outside; that American weathermen liked to refer to snow as “the white stuff”; that American sports talk radio announcers liked to say about something, “There’s no doubt about it,” before then expressing their many doubts about it; that American political commentators liked to preface their comments by saying, “No offense,” before then saying something offensive (the political commentator on the radio had said to whomever he was talking to, “No offense, but you have to be the stupidest human being on the planet”); that Americans were very impatient people with very short attention spans; that Americans believed as long as they were inside their trucks they were invisible, and that as long as they smoked cigarettes inside their trucks they would not then smell like cigarettes once they exited their trucks, and that in general Americans thought their trucks were magic; that while Europeans tended to think of Americans as people who liked to drive incredibly long distances in their pickup trucks, in fact Americans liked to drive incredibly short distances in their pickup trucks as well. These were the lessons Henry learned about Americans during his first minute in Ellen’s truck, and not once was he forced to reconsider them during all his days in Broomeville. (p. 92)

These are over-generalizations, of course, but there’s some amount of truth to them, in that everything in the paragraph sounds familiar to me. I’ve never driven a pickup truck, but I really do like my car, and most Americans seem to be quite fond of their motor vehicles. Meteorologists really do use the term “the white stuff” in areas of the country that get snowfall. Talk radio … well, no offense, but I think Clarke’s got the gist of it. If you can’t stand this paragraph, the book is probably not for you, although as I said, this is one of the more extreme examples. But, if you read it and thought, “Yes, I want more!” then you’ve come to the right place.

I loved taking the crazy journeys Clarke maps out in this novel. I was interested in his previous novel because of its unusual title, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, but hadn’t actually read it. Now that I’ve read The Happiest People twice, I decided to purchase that earlier book for my ereader. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My favorite books of 2014

This was a slightly disappointing reading year, in that I only read about 35 books. Part of this is because I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November and didn't read much of anything as I tried to focus on writing. I also didn't listen to as many audiobooks this year as I usually do, choosing more often to listen to podcasts. Still, I did read some very good stuff, and wanted to do a top ten list to make sure those books I enjoyed but didn't review would get a little end-of-year attention.

1. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
This memoir by Roz Chast is the first graphic memoir/novel/anything that I've ever read. I bought the brand-new hardcover after hearing about it on the Slate Audio Book Club podcast. Listening to Dan Kois and Hanna Rosin reading a section in the voices of Roz's parents, I was overcome with laughter, and also, having grown up in my own hoarders-like situation, I knew there would be parts I could relate to. This book is hysterically funny, at times heartbreaking, completely honest, and full of awesome. Everyone should read it.

2. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
In a year when I didn't blog as much as I would have liked, and didn't review as many books as I'd hoped to (in both cases, I realize that's the same story as EVERY year, but I digress), I did post a review of this amazing debut novel by David Connerley Nahm. I skimmed through several best-of-the-year roundups online, and didn't see this novel on any of them. WHY DO I HAVE TO SAY THIS AGAIN?? GO FIND THIS BOOK AND READ IT!!

3. Station Eleven
This is the fourth book by Emily St. John Mandel, and her breakout. I was lucky to be one of the first to get it from my local library, and I read the whole thing in one day, during the October Read-a-thon. It's post-apocalyptic and literary, with both smarts and heart, and unlike the Nahm book, it actually DID make many best-of-the-year lists, deservedly so. Count me on the bandwagon.

4. Can't and Won't
Lydia Davis has become a favorite of mine, and this one, her latest collection of stories (some short, and some short-short), was a solid effort. A handful of the pieces didn't do it for me, but overall, this book was a joy. Like Ancient Oceans, this is one I initially got from the library, and then bought my own copy because I liked it so much. I now have most of Davis's books, and really I should just plan to buy the new ones as they come out because I can't imagine not liking them.

5. The Days of Abandonment
This was the first book I read by elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante. I bought it at the library book sale a few years ago, and finally read it because of the World Cup of Literature event hosted by Three Percent. It was blisteringly angry, and also maybe a little crazy. I bought into it, and I loved it. I bought another Ferrante book soon after finishing this one, so definitely plan to read more of her.

6. Bluets
Like the Ferrante novel, this book by Maggie Nelson sat on my bedside table for a LOOONG TIIIIME, while I hoped to write a review or at least post some of the passages I liked best. (As usual, I didn't get to it.) It's hard to say whether this book is prose, or prose poetry, or something else I don't have a name for. It consists of over 100 passages and short paragraphs, all numbered, all growing from thoughts about the color blue -- thus the title. This book isn't for everyone: there are F-bombs in it, and sexually graphic moments, and you might wonder if Nelson has them in there merely to shock the reader or to make some point that's not entirely clear. But good heavens, a lot of the sections in the book are SO BEAUTIFUL, so finely-crafted and moving, I don't even care about the comparatively small number that mention screwing and sodomy and what-have-you. I'd really like to read more by Nelson, and look forward to hearing what she'll do next.

7. My Life in Middlemarch
This book by Rebecca Mead is part memoir, part biography of George Eliot, and part literary criticism/appreciation of Eliot's novel Middlemarch. As a huge fan of Middlemarch, I was eager to read this book, and it didn't disappoint. It brought me to tears several times. My only problem with it is that it's the kind of book I would have wanted to write, and Mead has already written it, dammit. Since she's British, and read Middlemarch far earlier in life than I did, she clearly had an advantage over me anyway, so I forgive her, and truly appreciate her work. Moreover, she brought attention to Middlemarch, and that makes me very happy.

8. Let's Pretend This Never Happened
Confession: I listened to Jenny Lawson's "mostly true memoir" on audio, very early in 2014, and haven't revisited it. But when I looked at the list of books I read during the year, and saw this title, all I could think of was how incredibly funny it was -- I mean laughed-till-I-cried, might-need-my-inhaler, almost-wetting-my-pants, loud-guffaws-in-public kind of funny. Anything that makes me laugh that hard is always worth my time. If you like funny books and you don't mind one that includes at least 85 occurrences of the word "vagina," give this one a shot.

9. Home Leave
I got an ARC of Brittani Sonnenberg's debut novel from LibraryThing, so I've already written a review of it, and don't need to say much more. I really admired all the different perspectives, and the variety of styles, that Sonnenberg used to tell this story. That willingness to experiment helps her to stand out from the crowd.

10. Bury Me in My Jersey
This one is a memoir by Tom McAllister, a writer who also co-hosts my favorite podcast, Book Fight! Because I love the podcast, I was probably predisposed to enjoy the book. Moreover, since it's a memoir, and I know Tom's voice from the podcast, I could "hear" him narrating as I read it. A big part of the book is about Tom's adolescence and young adulthood in and around Philadelphia, and specifically his family's devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Tom's experiences in Eagles fandom, and the loss of his father to cancer when Tom was only 20, are woven together into a mosaic of love for both family and a wider community (in this case, both fellow Eagles fans and Philly itself), and of grief at losing his dad when he still badly needed his dad's guidance and encouragement. I've learned a decent amount about basketball and baseball from my husband and sons, but I still know almost nothing about football, and I'm happy to remain in ignorance. And yet, I enjoyed this book very much. It doesn't matter if you have an interest in football, or in any kind of "fandom," or if you've lost a loved one too soon, or like to read about father-son relationships, or you've considered writing as your vocation but don't see how you could ever actually do it -- there is something in McAllister's book for all of these readers. And if you're like me, and you've listened to enough episodes of the Book Fight! podcast that you can tell which voice is Tom's and which is Mike's, then you should definitely read Tom's book. Like, stop reading this now and go find a copy!

Cheers to discovering some excellent books in 2014, and let's hope 2015 is full of fantastic reading!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books I want to reread

(Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.)

Most of my November writing will be for NaNoWriMo, but I saw this topic today and had to join in. Links are to my reviews or to "appreciation" posts about the books mentioned.

The Stand -- Stephen King
I read this when I was about 19 or 20 years old, and I remember loving it. I also loved the mini-series that aired a few years later. While I re-watched the mini-series a couple of times, I don’t think I’ve ever reread the book. It’s been over 20 years, and I still have it, so I really should find the time to revisit it.

The Madness of a Seduced Woman -- Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
A co-worker lent me a copy of this book was I was about 17. Not only did I love it, but Schaeffer became one of my favorite novelists. I’ve read her book The Injured Party at least four times, but I’ve never reread this one. Since it was the first one I read by her -- and yes, I have my own copy now -- I’d love to read it again.

The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors -- Michele Young-Stone
Another one I loved to pieces. I recently got a digital ARC of Michele Young-Stone’s next novel, and it makes me want to experience The Handbook all over again.

Middlemarch -- George Eliot
Because I’ve only listened to the audiobook three times, and that’s not nearly enough!

The Passage -- Justin Cronin
I bought and read this when it first came out, and then I reread it two years ago before reading the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve. I’m planning to read BOTH of them again when we get close to the release date for the third book -- which is sometime in 2015, but not soon enough for me!

Tinkers -- Paul Harding
I read this three or four years ago. I thought the writing was beautiful, but I didn’t truly appreciate it. When I read Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky last month, it reminded me of Tinkers. I think I’d get more out of this if I read it a second time.

My Cousin Rachel -- Daphne du Maurier
This one is a similar situation to the Schaeffer book: I read My Cousin Rachel first, enjoyed it, and then went on to buy and read a bunch more books by Daphne du Maurier. (I actually own a pile by her that I haven’t read yet -- she wrote A LOT of books!) Since it was my first du Maurier, and it was so long ago, I’d like to go back to it.

King Dork -- Frank Portman
This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read -- laugh-so-hard-my-stomach-hurts kind of funny.

Florida -- Christine Schutt
This book mesmerized me. I’ve since read two other novels by Schutt, and one story collection, and they were all good, but they didn’t infect me the way Florida did.

Appetites: Why Women Want -- Caroline Knapp
I’ve struggled with my addictive tendencies, and still do too much emotional overeating. This book touched me deeply, and I probably should have read it again before now.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Go read this book! Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the kind of book that can cast a spell over you, one that pulls you in. The writing is so beautiful, and the book’s mood so evocative, after you finish it, you’ll find yourself wanting to read it again.

I learned about this debut novel when the author, David Connerley Nahm, was interviewed on Brad Listi’s Other Ppl podcast. (That’s the podcast formerly known as Other People, which is still called “Other People” but is now spelled in that shorter and hipper style.) During the interview, I heard that the book was getting good reviews, that it involved kids telling scary stories, that Nahm is actually a practicing lawyer, and that he spent fifteen years (off and on) writing this novel. I decided to check my public library's catalog, and was amazed to see that it had been pre-ordered. (This appears to be the first book published by Two Dollar Radio that my library has purchased.) When it was available and I checked it out, I was honored and excited to see I was the first person to borrow it!

The book is about Leah Shepherd, a woman directing a non-profit agency in her hometown of Crow Station, Kentucky. When she was about ten years old, her younger brother, Jacob, went missing. He was never found, neither alive nor dead. The story is told by a third-person narrator who might be omniscient, but if he is, he certainly doesn’t tell us everything. Most of the book is written from Leah’s perspective, though some of the short sections put us inside other characters’ heads -- primarily Leah’s mother, but also her father, and Jacob (in flashbacks). There are also passages about the everyday life of the town and its residents, which add to the immediacy of the story. I felt like I was inside the skin of everyone in Crow Station.

The story is not linear, and there’s not much “action.” Instead, Nahm masterfully takes us inside Leah’s thoughts, emotions, and memories. We see her at work, or walking outside, or talking with her mother, and alongside the mundane activities of most days, we watch her mind wander, and we learn about her past. Through her, we get to know Jacob, find out what they both were like as children, and share the confusion and grief the family felt when Jacob first disappeared, and in the months and years that followed. In the same way that people get distracted, or if they see or hear something that reminds them of something else -- perhaps from far away and many years in the past -- the novel follows Leah’s trains of thought more than any kind of plot.

The best thing about Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the quality of the writing. At the most basic level -- sentences and paragraphs -- this is truly a fantastic book. Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of the style:

It is impossible to sleep in such heat, the body turning and twisting and tacky with sweat, so everyone stays up all night, listening to the chorus of crickets sounding the depth of the dark. And every night is every night that ever was all at once and every lonely boy prone in his bed is every lonely girl prone in hers, chests heaving with that painful pressure of hoping that there is someone out there unable to sleep on their account. The thunder ends. The crickets quiet. The houses settle and the only sound left is heavy breath in the night air. They get up, walk to the window and stare out at the dark yard, shallow breaths catching as they watch the shifting shape of the shadows, but it was nothing, they are certain, nothing but breeze, nothing, they are certain. (p. 28)

Distant howls and cries. They crept up the stairs toward a dim hallway and heard a voice, distant and low, and they knew that they’d found the horrific heart of the crumbling maze and would have to face the creature that writhed there. They peeked around the corner, to see what they could see. (p. 14)

And for this one, part of a description of Leah's workplace, I just had to share a photo of page 69 so you'd get the full effect:

As I read Ancient Oceans, the other book that kept coming to mind was Tinkers by Paul Harding, another stream-of-consciousness type of novel with gorgeous language, that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Do I need to say more than that? David Connerley Nahm is a gifted writer, and I hope this novel becomes one of those small press success stories. And then, I hope he can find time to write more beautiful books.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Yep, I'm doing Dewey's Read-a-thon!

I took the day off from work, but since the boys were also out of school, and Jeff left a to-do list for me, I haven't had a chance to do what I'd originally planned to do today: to get some more of my books in order before the read-a-thon, and do some of the housecleaning I won't do tomorrow because I will be reading. So, this is not a long or fancy or detailed post, but just a quick one to say:

It's Read-a-Thon time, and I am IN!

I'm so excited for tomorrow!  :-)

Updating at 2pm Central Time, 10/18

The read-a-thon started at 7am my time, but I didn't start reading until 8. My progress so far:
8-9am:  Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck (poems), 35 p.
9-10am:  Gluck, 23 p.
10-11am:  Gluck, 11 p. (finished book)
11am-12noon:  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (novel), 18 p.
noon-1pm:  Mandel, 24 p.
1-2pm:  none -- I had lunch, looked at a few blogs, then took a shower and got dressed. I feel refreshed and am ready to get back to Station Eleven, which is very good so far!


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Book review: Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg

(I really love this cover!)

I received an advance reader’s copy of Home Leave, the debut novel by Brittani Sonnenberg, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Many thanks to LT and to Grand Central Publishing (Hachette Group) for the opportunity to read and review it.

Description from Hachette’s site:
Chris Kriegstein is a man on the move, with a global career that catapults his family across North America, Europe, and Asia. For his wife, Elise, the hardship of chronic relocation is soothed by the allure of reinvention. Over the years, Elise shape-shifts: once a secretive Southern Baptist, she finds herself becoming a seasoned expat in Shanghai, an unapologetic adulterer in Thailand, and, finally, a renowned interior decorator in Madison.

But it's the Kriegstein daughters, Leah and Sophie, who face the most tumult. Fiercely protective of each other -- but also fiercely competitive -- the two sisters long for stability in an ever-changing environment. With each new move, the girls find they can count on only one thing: the consoling, confounding presence of each other.

When the family suffers an unimaginable loss, they can't help but wonder: Was it meant to be, or did one decision change their lives forever? And what does it mean when home is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? With humor and heart, Brittani Sonnenberg chases this wildly loveable family through the excitement and anguish of their adventures around the world.

Brittani Sonnenberg is a talented writer, and the range of narrative styles in Home Leave illustrates a willingness to be experimental. I looked at the other LibraryThing reviews, and a few of them expressed frustration at some of the narrators Sonnenberg used. For me, that was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. When I started reading, I couldn’t figure out who was narrating. I re-read the description on the back of the book, looking for some hint. On page three or four, it became clear who it was, and I thought of starting my review with: “You won’t be able to guess the first narrator, so just go with it; you’ll know who it is by page four.” Other reviewers hated that beginning, but I thought it was cool. There are two chapters written as mini-plays, and there’s a chapter near the end of the book written in first person plural. All of these worked fine for me, but they won’t work for everyone.

The book opens with two epigraphs; one of these explains, “The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” Chris Kriegstein is from Indiana, and Elise grew up in Mississippi. The young family spends about four years in Atlanta, and two or three in Shanghai, but for sisters Leah and Sophie, “home” is really one another. Sonnenberg paints these two girls, and their relationship, very realistically. Leah sometimes takes care of Sophie, but is just as often annoyed with her. Leah is quiet and bookish, while Sophie is more energetic and adventurous. As Leah becomes a moody teenager, they drift apart somewhat … but not far apart.

Readers who prefer “likeable” characters could have problems with Elise. The publisher blurb says that she “shape-shifts,” and one of her identities is “unapologetic adulterer.” When Leah is a baby, Elise often feels trapped by motherhood, and when she learns she is pregnant for a second time, she isn’t happy about it. However, when the girls are a bit older and the family is abroad, Elise often seems like a “normal” mom: she has her quirks and bad moods, but it’s clear that she loves her daughters. Chris is probably the least vivid of the main characters, to me, and yet I did like him a good deal. We learn in the second chapter (which seems to be set the closest to present day) that Chris was a star athlete in his Indiana high school, became a successful businessman who lived in several countries, and is now his company’s CEO. He and Elise are still married and living in Madison, Wisconsin, having made it through her affair, his overseas jobs, their mutual grief.

The backdrop of the novel is the panorama of international settings, but at its heart are grief and loss. The family suffers a tragedy, and can’t return to normal. There’s some irony, too, in the title of the book: “home leave” is what Elise and the girls take for a couple of months each summer, while Chris remains in China, but Leaving Home is what Chris and Elise both wanted desperately to do when they were growing up -- and succeeded, spending several years on the other side of the world. Leaving Home is what Leah and Sophie do as well, in very different ways. Sonnenberg weaves a fine tapestry of people, place, time, and loss, that will stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth): The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

A blogger who goes by Biblibio (and only just posted her real name this last week) created an event called Women in Translation Month, to increase awareness of books in translation written by female authors, and to highlight the fact that there are far more books by men translated into English than books by women. You can read more about it on the Biblibio blog.

I've been following her posts all month and wanting to join in, if only in a small way, and finally have a small window of time to get this review up. Back in the spring of 2012, I won a copy of the novel The Hunger Angel by Nobel Prize-winning German author Herta Müller through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. (It wasn't an ARC, but an actual hardcover book -- very rare in LTER giveaways! Many thanks to Henry Holt and Company, and of course to LibraryThing, for the opportunity to read and review the book.) I posted my review on LT in August 2012, but it appears that I never posted a review here on the blog. So, I decided to copy it here from LT, in recognition of #WITMonth. I'm thrilled that Biblibio decided to create this event, and I hope it has brought some much-needed attention to women writers in translation, and the fact that we need more of them!

The Hunger Angel tells the story of 17-year-old Leo Auberg's deportation to a Soviet labor camp, and the five years he spent there. If you read novels mainly for plot or character development, this one might not be for you. It helps to know BEFORE you try to read it that the story isn't really linear, but could instead be called episodic. The chapters are very short, and some of them describe actions and events that occur during Leo's time in the labor camp. However, some of them are primarily descriptive; their purpose is not to move the story forward, but to add another layer to our understanding of Leo's experiences in the camp.

Because the chapters are short and serve these two different purposes, I found some to be more interesting than others. It also made for a slightly disorienting reading experience. But the book is well worth reading -- for the power of the writing and language, and the light it shines on a dark period in history. Müller places Leo's focus on physical experiences and specific objects, and this stylistic decision draws the reader into the labor camp. I believe that reading this novel is MEANT to be disorienting, that the reader SHOULD feel a sense of unreality and nightmare, in between moments of hypnotic focus on physical objects.

Müller made the not-uncommon decision to omit quotation marks from the novel. At some point while I read, I realized that it also contains no question marks. In the translator's note at the end of the book, Philip Boehm confirms that he followed this stylistic choice from the German original -- and that's where I learned there are also no semi-colons in the book. The limited punctuation adds to the reader's confusion and disorientation, particularly when reading a sentence that is obviously a question. The last sentence in the chapter called "Cement" is, "So why can't I disappear" (p. 33). This happens again and again, increasing the sense of confusion and dislocation.

Don't read The Hunger Angel looking for plot, and don't try too hard to keep track of all the characters mentioned -- many of them are not clearly defined, and not too important in themselves. Read it to admire the way Müller uses language to bring this dark history to life, and to pull you into Leo's world.