DIVIDE ME BY ZERO by Lara Vapnyar
Tin House Books, 2019
Divide Me By Zero begins with an encounter between the narrator, Katya Geller, a 40-something mother of two, and a fish seller in Staten Island from whom Katya is buying caviar. “I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents,” Katya says. The fish seller, another Soviet immigrant, understands Katya’s meaning and the two lock eyes and begin to cry. This moment of intense connection between two strangers charts the course for Lara Vapnyar’s frank and emotionally honest story of love and loss.
You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote on the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky HERE.
You can pick up a copy of Divide Me By Zero here on Book Depository.
THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING by Deborah Levy
Simply put, one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had. I think it’s best to approach this book while knowing as little as possible about it, so I’m not really going to talk about the plot. Instead I’ll just say that this book is like Penelope’s tapestry; Levy weaves a brilliant tale in the first act, only to unweave it halfway through and then stitch it back together, and she does it carefully without sacrificing either the details or the big picture.
It’s arguably easier to talk about this book’s themes than its actual plot, but I don’t want to suggest that my interpretation is the be all end all, because this is the sort of book that lends itself to discussions and contradictions. Above all else this is book is about memory – are we more than our memories, or are our memories all we are – but what also stuck out to me was Levy’s deft meditation on what it means to age, what it means to live as a foreigner abroad, what it means to love, what it means to be a part of a culture’s shifting landscape. It seems like a tall order to balance all of this in just under 200 pages while also prioritizing structural innovation, but this book is a case of form and content coming together perfectly. I wouldn’t change a single page – a single sentence – of this book, and I cannot say that often.
That said, I understand why this hasn’t worked for some readers, especially those who err on the side of more traditional storytelling, but for anyone who’s willing to take a risk, and willing to stumble blindly through the dark at times, you can rest easy with the confidence that Levy knows exactly what she is doing here. I can say with absolute confidence that I am going to reread this at some point, and I’m sure I’ll find it even more revelatory when I do.
You can pick up a copy of The Man Who Saw Everything here on Book Depository.
THE BODY LIES by Jo Baker
Despite not fitting neatly into the mystery/thriller genre, The Body Lies is one of the most tense, terrifying things I’ve ever read. It follows an unnamed narrator (a normally irritating, overused convention, which is employed here with actual purpose) who takes up a teaching position somewhere in the north of England following a violent assault in London. While at the university, she awkwardly attempts to mediate heated discussions on gender politics in her MA writing course, while receiving increasingly disturbing submissions from one of her students.
The Body Lies has a meta element that’s almost tongue in cheek; one of her students criticizes another for writing a detective novel which opens with the discovery of a dead girl, while Baker’s novel also opens with a dead female body. But this book is a series of subverted tropes, of self-conscious commentary on these common, taken-for-granted elements that comprise so many thrillers. It’s a razor sharp commentary and a compelling story all in one.
What also sets it apart from the genre is that the identity of the dead girl never really feels like the point. For the first time… probably ever reading a thriller, I cared less about the mystery and more about the safety and the sanity of the protagonist, whose experiences as a woman in academia are all chillingly relatable. This book isn’t the type of terrifying where there’s a serial killer lurking in the corner – it’s the sort of terrifying that hones in on the disturbing, oddly normalized commonalities of womanhood that are too easily accepted. I raced through this, not because I was intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery, but because of the increasing sense of crushing dread that I couldn’t escape every time I attempted to step away from this book.
If I have to nitpick, I’d say the ending was let down by a too-long resolution which insisted on wrapping up every minor subplot in a neat bow, which is probably my least favorite way to end a novel, but I loved everything else about this, and I think it’s one of the smartest, most unsettling things I’ve read in a long time, that I’d encourage literary readers and genre readers alike to pick up.
You can pick up a copy of The Body Lies here on Book Depository.
A SPELL OF WINTER by Helen Dunmore
originally published in 1995
I had such a strange reaction to this book: I loved this more than anything I have read in a long time, but when I started thinking about writing this review, I had the hardest time putting my finger on why. Its structure is a bit messy and tonally inconsistent; it doesn’t really deliver anything promised on the blurb (not a fault in the book itself – but I think it’s bound to frustrate a lot of readers who go into expecting a mystery or a Shirley Jackson-esque haunted mansion tale); but it really came together for me and gave me one of the most enthralling reading experiences I have had in a while.
A Spell of Winter is a difficult book to categorize and difficult to explain without giving too much away – but it follows siblings Cathy and Rob who have spent their lives in a quasi-abandoned manor in the English countryside which belonged to their parents; their father is now dead and their mother ran off when they were young. As adults, Cathy and Rob’s relationship begins to develop into something forbidden, and it sets off a tragic chain of events that spread into the years of the First World War.
This was my first Helen Dunmore, which I decided to pick up as it won the inaugural Women’s Prize for Fiction back when it was known as the Orange Prize, and the first thing that struck me about it was how enchanting I found her prose. Even when you get past the arresting first sentence (‘“I saw an arm fall off a man once,” said Kate‘) the writing itself continued to beguile – her prose is descriptive and evocative without being overly flowery; there was something distinctly reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier there, and indeed the book’s setting and atmosphere called to mind Rebecca (though the comparisons really do stop there).
The other reason this book came alive for me is that Cathy was such a fascinating, sympathetic, well-developed character, and the depth of emotional complexity that Dunmore was able to excavate with this book was staggering. This book is about sexuality, societal restraints, and female agency, all examined through the lens of one woman’s fraught relationship with her own family inheritance. It all sounds like a rather standard female-centric historical fiction novel, but Cathy’s journey and Dunmore’s psychological insights took on a hard edge that subverted all of my expectations and then some.
I don’t think this is the kind of book that people intensely hate – I think it’s more of a ‘it was fine, nothing special’ for a lot of readers. So again, it’s hard to recommend this enthusiastically knowing that it’s bound to fall flat for a lot of people who find themselves disappointed by the (anticlimactic?) direction it takes. But I was so utterly enchanted and riveted by this book, and I cannot wait to see what else Dunmore has to offer.
You can pick up a copy of A Spell of Winter here on Book Depository.
DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD by Olga Tokarczuk
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Riverhead, August 13, 2019
A subversive feminist noir mystery set in a remote Polish village, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead both dazzles and defies categorization. Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel (her fourth to be translated into English) follows Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living as a recluse on the outskirts of a Polish town close to the Czech border, who spends her days reading horoscopes and translating the poetry of William Blake. But it’s a far cry from an idyllic life for Janina, whose beloved dogs have gone missing and whose neighbors keep mysteriously turning up dead.
Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can also read a piece I wrote on Women in Translation Month HERE.
You can pick up a copy of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead here on Book Depository.
THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
My only experience with Yoko Ogawa before now was her terrific short story collection Revenge, and though I’d heard that all of her books are drastically different from one another, I think I still expected to see a bit of Revenge‘s dark and macabre tone here. Instead, The Housekeeper and the Professor is utterly and unapologetically charming.
It focuses on the relationship between a housekeeper, her son, and a man whose house she’s assigned to by her agency, who she refers to only as ‘the Professor.’ The Professor has a condition which prevents him from creating new memories – his memory lasts only 80 minutes. He is nevertheless a brilliant man, and the likewise unnamed protagonist becomes increasingly spellbound by his unsolicited mathematical lectures.
There are any number of reasons why this book shouldn’t have worked for me; it’s sweet in tone, it’s about math, it’s about baseball. I don’t like any of these things. However, this book’s passion is positively infectious; this was like listening to a friend tell a story about something they love which you don’t particularly care about – sometimes regardless of the content, the enthusiasm itself is contagious. Also, I will say that this book helped me understand the sentiment that ‘math is like poetry,’ that I’ve heard a few times throughout my life, better than anything else ever has. No matter how many times I’ve witnessed an individual’s passion for math, it’s always seemed to me like this cold and rigid thing, but The Professor’s perspective on the relationship between numbers, and the solace he takes in their familiarity, really moved me.
But beyond the math and baseball, what makes this quirky book near-universally appealing is the unconventional, infinitely touching relationship between the two titular characters. The Housekeeper and the Professor is about empathy; it’s a testament to the unexpected possibilities of human connection. I just found this book to be a joy to read – quiet and subtle and nostalgic and affecting. Very highly recommended.
You can pick up a copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor here on Book Depository.
THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
Orenda Books, 2016
What a bizarre, enchanting, darkly chilling little book. I am not in the habit of quoting others’ reviews in my own, but there’s a blurb from crime writer Rod Reynolds on the book that says ‘A masterclass in suspense and delayed terror, reading it felt like I was driving at top speed towards a cliff edge – and not once did I want to take my foot off the pedal’ – and I think that sums it up better than I could.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, and I can’t remember where or how I first heard about it, but I think I had it in my head that it was going to be a fairly standard thriller, which I had been in the mood for. But it was no disappointment to me when it turned out to be a different beast entirely. The Bird Tribunal felt to me like a modern-day Scandinavian Rebecca, following a young woman living in the shadow of her enigmatic employer’s first wife, but with all the dreary atmosphere and profound social isolation of Wuthering Heights. But though I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a thriller, and I think it might disappoint readers who are specifically seeking out twists and turns, the tension and sense of growing dread I experienced while reading this were palpable.
The relationship between Allis and Sigurd is a tender, terrifying thing; this is the hook that gets its claws in you from the offset. Through Allis’s first person narration we’re drawn into her obsession with Sigurd, a distant, surly man who employs Allis as a kind of housekeeper while he awaits his wife’s return. Though Allis is blind to so many of the warning signs that the reader has access to, her obsession with Sigurd doesn’t feel unnatural or unrealistic or frustrating – reading this book isn’t like watching a train wreck so much as feeling like you’re the one steering the train. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this as the sense of discomfort I felt while reading it was pretty significant, but the fact that I stayed up until 1 am finishing this after taking Benadryl two hours earlier since I couldn’t tear myself away kind of says it all.
You can pick up a copy of The Bird Tribunal here on Book Depository.