What’s worth the risks of time travel, murder, revenge, catastrophic weather and a mother’s wrath? A Midwestern beauty with wit to match. When 2017 doctoral student Cameron Coelho lays eyes on journalist Candice Bell’s 1925 portrait, he falls in love, plunging into his research on 1920s social norms in the Midwest via time-travel, crime-fighting, and old fashioned courtship. Cameron joins Candice in her investigation into Evansville’s dark side, while trying not to get on the dark side of could-be mother-in-law. With mother’s permission, the pair travels by rail across the country to gather important time-travel accoutrements for Cameron’s physicist benefactor and Candice’s future relative, impressing and mystifying one another on the way. John Heldt entertains with short chapters packed with punch and conflicts that resolve. The characters are dreamers who “overcome the odds… they make things happen,” most notably blending past, present and future with charm and genre-bending creativity. This isn’t your average sci-fi; it is his eighth book, third in the American Journey series. As a bonus, the self-published author offers a prediction about 2041. see other indie reviews here
The Gringo Champion is a “wetback” who earns his title by beating all odds. After crossing the Rio Grande into an American border town, Liborio is rescued by migrants, naked and blistered. He lives and works with them until they’re nearly caught by immigration officials. He escapes to a city where he finds work in a bookstore. There, he discovers the loves of this life: books and “the chickadee,” a beautiful neighbor. A fight to defend her lands him unexpected fame and a chance to channel his anger toward good.
Liborio’s primary opponent is not the one he hits, but his past. Aura Xilonen inserts Librorio’s recollections of his past in italicized sections sprinkled into his narration of the present. For the first half of the book, past and present are equally represented. But after Liborio shows his boss what he writes: “I saw her there for the first time, or what the hell ever, spinning serendipital through the trees of a pleistocene paradise. But she, with the fucking sweetness produced by blindness, didn’t see me until it was too late, mingled with a pagan night on a red bus, when we monsters sprout from the alveolar sewers of the city, under the hieroglyph that rains down ectoplasmic beatings on only a few, when amid the streets, amid the streetlights, amid the hanging gardens of the fucking starts, someone, in silence, falls in love,” the italicized segments end and the present takes over as the only narration. Jefe, the bookstore owner and Liborio’s boss, can’t believe this isn’t plagiarism. Just like other authority figures throughout Liborio’s nineteen years, Jefe can’t believe Liborio is capable of his own creativity. And until he begins to write, Liborio is merely the product of years of abuse. He is, at first, leery of the words he reads in the bookstore (where he devours books), and feels threatened by anyone who tries to do him a good deed. He lashes out. But in this pivotal confrontation with Jefe, Liborio recognizes his own power – his pen and his fists. From then on, he puts his power to work for his own benefit. He lives in the present. He becomes not only a gringo but a champion.
As Liborio becomes more settled and the text becomes less bifurcated and less profane, I wondered if the story would devolve into a fairy tale. Would he marry the girl of his dreams? Would he become rich and famous? I didn’t want it to happen both for the sake of the story, which is beautiful in its edginess and the way it hops back and forth in time, and for the sake of truth. Fairy tale endings aren’t common among illegal immigrants; I didn’t want this fiction to spread false hopes. But the book exceeds my expectations. I was surprised by the final scene. Love wins, but not as I thought it might.
A Separation, the story of a dissolved marriage, also asks what links people together. The unnamed narrator promises her estranged husband, Christopher, she’ll tell no one about their separation. But when his mother, Isabella, calls to find out what’s become of him, as she hasn’t heard from him during his research trip to Greece, our narrator begins to question her promise. She goes to Greece to find him but returns without him. He’s gone from her forever, and yet, in his absence, he and his family loom large in her life.
Kitamura weaves a psychological drama not by analyzing and delving into characters but by exploring how the characters don’t know one another. What Isabella doesn’t know about the narrator and Christopher keeps the two women in contact. So, too, between the narrator and the taxi driver she meets in Greece: “the same mechanism of destruction that had operated upon my own life, it was something that we shared… neither of us said anything further” (157). The negative space between them becomes a bond. She is also aloof from her new fiance, Yvan, with whom she is “still waiting” at the end of the book, “for what… neither of us could say” (229). Her inability to act, the persistent questions and inquiry that stall her, rather than what she does, characterize her. Therefore, it is hard to picture her with Christopher, a charismatic and adventurous womanizer (his mother says he “can’t keep his cock in his pants”), who loves to make connections and write about them, but not to get to the bottom of things. His shallowness is at odds with the narrator’s thoughtful and probing tone. She tries, throughout the text, to put her finger on what brought them together; all she knows is what keeps her from severing the last tie: her promise not to tell of the separation.
Just as the narrator asks what attracts her to Christopher, we wonder what draws us to the narrator? We know little about her appearance and scant information about her job as a translator. But we are intimately acquainted with her observations. We see as she sees. We share a perspective, separate, anonymous form each other, but both in position of observer.
In this way, exploring the void between knowing and unknowing becomes a literary as well as a psychological theme. Comparing her situation to that of the Colonel and the Countess in Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, which she has translated, our narrator says, “and so despite the clear differences, life rarely finds its exact likeness in a novel, that is hardly fiction’s purpose, there was a similarity to the situations, a resonance that was the product of the mutual chasm between the letter of the law and the private reality. The question was which to serve, which to protect” (188). Don’t we all read our own lives into novels? Don’t we compare our lives to those around us, in books and in reality? We want to learn from others’ mistakes and successes. And authors capitalize on our desires to know one another, not to exploit, but to inspire new outcomes. Like the professional mourners Christopher researches in Greece, master singers with lugubrious voices, who are paid to honor the dead as laypeople cannot, Kitamura’s carefully wrought prose mitigates our confrontation with others’ private affairs. We are in the hands of an artist. Hers is not an intrusion into her characters lives, nor into our own, rather, an invitation to see beauty in what we know as well as what we will never know.
In THE BREAKING OF A WAVE, Fabio Genovesi simulates a tsunami of interwoven tales that crash over us, leaving a wake of devastation as well as hope. Serena, a knock-out single mother of two, allows eighteen year old Luca go to France surfing for his birthday. Younger sister Luna, an albino teen derided by schoolmates, stays home with Serena and her friend-by-default, Zot, a newly transplanted Chernobyl orphan who supplants her as the most ridiculed middle schooler. Meanwhile, a threesome of n’er-do-well forty year olds, Sandro, Marino and Rambo, scheme to make money and lure chicks. When catastrophe strikes Serena’s family, Sandro steps in to win her heart. But, as usual, his best intentions end in disaster – or do they?
Genovesi cites many instances of waves, but also creates a wave by building stories to a peak that inevitably comes crashing down. Waves of pleasure thinking about sex, waves of shock as bullies pounce, waves of grief, waves on which to surf and waves to survey while sitting on the beach eating pizza: these are the small waves of our main characters’ ordinary time. A storm is brewing as they try to change the course of their lives with a trip to Pontremoli to see the ancient statues made by moon worshippers of Lunigiana. Luna convinces her mom and Sandro to take her and Zot to find out what message these relics might bear for them. Back at home, Marino and Rambo, fleeing a scheme-gone-sour, meet the crew in Pontremoli. When they come together, myth collides with reality, youth confronts maturity, and best laid plans fails. The giant wave of narrative breaks in these climactic scenes. But that isn’t the end. “And whatever is behind us we don’t see, though something is there. The whole gigantic sea and the water that never rests and the waves that have always come and will always come, one after the other. They break on the shore and that seems to be the end of them. Only it’s not. They withdraw so that the next one can rise and the next and the next, with a shove from who knows where, but it’s there and it sends us up and down, up and down, sending us up and down, up and down, in this warm embrace that we don’t need to face to feel, it’s all around us, while we keep looking ahead, at what the current carries us, at the break of day, which looks like an enormous orange gift waiting to be opened” (461). Rather than wrapping up the story, the last chapter opens up new possibilities, the early stages of a new wave.
The book won the Stega Prize for Young Readers. Its fast pace and the age of the characters (both mentally and physically) clued me in to the intended audience. The characters, although well drawn, are bumbling and likable and not fully developed as people. They’re reminiscent of holy fools in Russian literature – wise and dumb at the same time, not made for this world. First and foremost of these “idiots” is Luna, the narrator, who sometimes speaks as “I” but sometimes addresses her mother as “you,” as though she’s looking back on her life from another era, perhaps as Tages, the little white man we meet in a fable told in the first chapter, with whom Luna identifies. The novel is a coming of age story, for all of us coming into our own age; all of us who need relief from growing pains. It is not a challenging read, rather, utterly enjoyable and engaging. It makes me want to do something rash and spontaneous, like hop a plane to Italy and find these friends I’ve just made!
Inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic, Master and Margarita, in Mikhail and Margarita, Julie Lekstrom Himes tells a tale of enduring love: what threatens and what saves it. (Is it coincidence that both Bulgakov and Himes are physicians and novelists?) Satan figures prominently in Bulgakov’s original novel. In Hime’s novel, Party official Ilya Ivanovich plays the part of the evil tempter luring Margarita away from one form of imprisonment to another. Meanwhile, satirist Mikhail Bulgakov, her lover and the reason for her imprisonment, tries to rescue her himself. This love triangle tells us not only about the devotion and betrayal between the participants, but the risky act of writing that engages them all in the first place.
Mikhail and Ilya aren’t the only ones who love Margarita. Almost everyone who meets her falls for her. Bulgakov becomes smitten when he first meets her as his friend’s mistress. Her bunk-mate at the women’s work camp becomes attached to her and the guards show attraction, too. We don’t know much about her. She is gaunt and assertive, but kind and vulnerable, too. She works at a newspaper and, even though she doesn’t know why, she prefers writers to anyone else, which begs the question, “what is it about Margarita?”
Himes provides clues to Margarita’s key role in the drama with her choppy prose and curt dialogue. Many sentences come across as interruptions, like the bugs and other creepy- crawlies that make several unexpected appearances throughout the book. The effect is of constant suspense. I read with my face close to the page, nervous not to miss any tiny detail that might jump out at me. “Quite suddenly, her skin prickled; to the far right, along the distant wall, she caught the movement of an animal, a large rat, making its way along the silvery floor” (147). Margarita, like the bugs that fall from the ceiling onto the table, or the drowning boy she catches in the corner or her eye, represents those overlooked, undervalued, marvelous paradoxes worth fighting for. She ignites something in both men and women that gives them a reason to keep going.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt, a contemporary of Bulgakov, said that only good is radical; not evil. Evil is banal and has no core. It is nothingness. It reduces humans while good elevates and can be pursued to its depths. Both are exemplified in Hime’s superb novel. “She reached across the dark car toward Ilya; her fingers stopped short of him. Why Bulgakov? She thought back to Patriarch’s Ponds [where she first met him] – had he known then? Before everything, had she known of those things of which she could be capable? She withdrew her hand. Write your most flawed character, she wished to him so far away. She squeezed her eyes shut until the darkness turned red. She strengthened her prayer. Tell all of humanity and write your grandest villain, your most foul sinner. Write as though mankind depended on this. And render some parcel of that humanity for me” (338). Literature is means both to explore moral extremes as well as to create new possibilities of which we become the products. Like Margarita, beloved of two main characters and others, we, too, are rendered a parcel of humanity in the gift of Himes’ writing.
The problem with borders is that they’re opportunities. In his novel, Borders, originally published in Norwegian, but released October 2016 in English by Graywolf, Roy Jacobsen explores the borders as clear distinctions, and also limits to push against. Traversing the border between past to present, Jacobsen develops strong characters who fight to define their place in time.
The book begins with the story of a bridge over the river Our in 1894. A miller inquires of the governments on both sides of the river about building a bridge so that he can get between his house and the mill more easily. Others would find the bridge useful, too. But bureaucracy delays the project long enough that the miller ends up building a bridge himself. So starts the story of border people, forging their own paths often contrary to institutional arrangements.
We skip to the same geographical region in 1960’s. The community now includes the main characters, Leon and Markus, veterans of WWII, Leon’s sister, Leni and her mentor, Maria and Maria’s son, Robert, whose father, a now-absent American soldier and pianist, fought opposite Leon and Markus. In the bulk of the novel, Markus tells Robert, and through Robert, us, how he lost track of his son during the battle of Stalingrad. Markus and his son both worked as radio operators with the German army. Markus, from his post in Command Headquarters, relayed sensitive messages to his son, in the thick of the action, that would affect the outcome of the battle, as well as their relationship. Meanwhile, Leon loses track of his regiment (defects?) and spends time in a POW camp. Both men come home to families who accept them, changed as they are. (Leon is distant and Markus is “blind.”) Jacobsen sets the two war stories alongside one another. They do not intersect, but play off of each other and shape Markus and Leon’s relationship. So, too, Jacobsen inserts stories from the more distant past, about William of Orange and a traveling sword thrower, like wavy, distorting mirrors held up to the main action.
“‘War is mother of all things,’” Markus quotes Robert. “But what [Carl von Clausewitz] had in mind was state building, constitutions, demarcation of borders and that sort of thing, while my attention is directed toward the little man and the invisible lines within ourselves which we never cross but which move like swaying ribbons, first we’re on one side, then we’re on the other, we keep our word and we keep our peace, but the borders move and the words are changed, the interpreters die and our reason fails us, it’s almost like sitting down at the piano when all hell breaks loose” (206). After reading his story, I think what Jacobsen means is that war – rifts and destruction, pain and failure – bears the potential for something entirely new and unexpected, perhaps even reconciliation. In other words, war cannot exist without the chance for not war, without peace and fecundity and creativity. Borders exemplifies this claim through its border crossing characters, characters at war in themselves. They are each accused of being traitors. Markus has to choose between his son’s safety and the safety of the army. Leon has to decide which army to call his own. And each has to choose how best to love his own family, however unorthodoxly. Are they traitors for making the decisions they make or are they simply human for making a decision, crossing a border, at all?
Borders is not about war and borders so much as it uses these things to make a point about the act of writing itself. Like war, any story’s conflict is pregnant with possible resolutions. And we are all stories. Jacobsen makes this clear as Markus narrates his tale to Robert. He inserts questions and commentary to Robert, which is really Jacobsen speaking to us from the text. Just as Markus queries Robert, Jacobsen asks us to take the risk of crossing the border between reality and fiction, to let the story have currency for us. We aren’t traitors by crossing such a border, rather, it is how we create new worlds, new endings, ones we never would have conceived if not by the help of a gifted storyteller like Jacobsen to give us something to unpack.
In THE PRINCIPLE, narrator Jerome Ferrari (“I”), addresses physicist Werner Heisenberg as “you.” They play off each other like dueling measuring devices personifying Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: that the more precisely one measures the position of a given point, the less precisely its momentum can be measured and vice versa. The narrator measures his own momentum as a writer trying to make his way in the aftermath of the discovery of quantum physics and nuclear power, while also trying to understand Heisenberg’s “position,” what his mental state must have been as he discovered what his work could mean. As the narrator draws Heisenberg forth from the past into his own present, Ferrari explores the enduring fundamentals that shape all our lives, through triumphs and setbacks, controversy and compromise, precision and immeasurability.
The book both begins and ends overlooking a magnificent landscape. First, early in his career, on the island of Heligoland, Heisenberg “looks over God’s shoulder,” then, after his return to Germany following WWII, he returns to the mountains and lakes, “a place where it’s impossible for God’s love to lie.” These bookends link themes present throughout the book, and bind the narrator and Heisenberg. Chapter titles name these themes – Positions, Speed, Energy, and Time – but the beautiful scenes show how Ferrari develops them. Coming back again and again to key phrases, such as those about God, as well as “the white rose, the almost inaudible sound of the silvery string,” and “master of Delphi,” Ferrari gives structure where “things have no core.” The repeated phrases point to the abiding questions prodding the narrator and Heisenberg as they both build careers (or, in the narrator’s case, fail to build) during tumultuous times: what can I accomplish with the elements at hand and what is it all for? Overlooking Earth’s grandeur provides perspective.
Perhaps, by working on the atomic bomb, Heisenberg undermines the beauty he lives for; Ferrari refuses to let judgement be the last word. Instead, he tells a story, not unlike a letter, the overall effect of which is a sweeping, panoramic view of both the internal workings of one’s soul, as well as the wide scope of science in modern history, in short, the quantum effect. On that note, I’ll end with the book’s last line, “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life.”