The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui

Translated by Emma Ramadan

Synopsis:

27135621This long-awaited English-language debut from Morocco’s most prominent contemporary writer won the Prix Gouncourt de Nouvelles, France’s most prestigious literary award, for best story collection. Laroui uses surrealism, laugh-out-loud humor, and profound compassion across a variety of literary styles to highlight the absurdity of the human condition, exploring the realities of life in a world where everything is foreign.

Review:

Why does man distance himself from his home? Why does he make himself into a foreigner?”

It’s foreign land to you, of course, but to everyone else you are the outsider.  As an American in Japan it’s a feeling I know well.

“[In France] the trees would have had familiar names, the trees and the animals and the household items at the supermarket; over there he wouldn’t have needed to consult the dictionary to buy a mop.”

(For me it was baking yeast.)

Laroui covers it all – the embarrassment of not knowing social signals, the delight in discovering a second name for everything, the frustration at always being seen as other, no matter what you do.

Just as at the zoo, the tiger seems to be the equal of the porcupine, they are fed in the same way, they are loved the same and the placard in front of the enclosure… so, what about the placard?  It’s the same for all: tiger, porcupine, or bonobo – but Anna, you’re outside of the enclosure….

The foreign angle is what made me pick up this short story collection but I was happy to find that there is much, much more in Laroui’s writing.  First of all, it’s funny.  Laugh out loud on the bus funny.  My favorite stories have a narrator spinning tales at a cafe, with a peanut gallery at the ready to put in their own two cents.

“‘We are,’ said Hamid (he paused), ‘we are (he swallowed a sip of coffee), we are (he put down his cup) an inventive people.’

“He had put the word in italics.  So we examined it closely.  Then we demanded, silent, the proof (we, too, know how to use italics).”

Often there’s a linguistic hook that makes the telling just as fun as the contents.  Some stories are absurd, like tall tales that get tossed around a bar at 1 am.  There’s truth in there – you can feel it – but after so many drinks you can’t be bothered to tease out the facts.  And who wants to, when the story stands so well on its own?  An ambassador that has his pants (and only his pants) stolen before an important meeting.  Swimming in sand when water proves scarce. Getting revenge on your high school philosophy teacher for making you think about death.  Add a layer of deep insights and beautiful language (wonderfully translated by Ramadan) and it’s easy to see why this book has won awards.

The stories range from insightful to funny, deep to absurd, and I was delighted the whole way.  After much searching I have finally, finally, found a short story writer that I love.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Downtown Devil by Cara McKenna (Sins in the City #2)

Synopsis:

29066892At the edge of thirty, Clare is feeling restless. Even though she’s gainfully employed and pursuing her passion for photography, she can’t shake the feeling that something’s missing. Then she meets Mica. A perfect subject for her portrait exhibit, Mica is sexy, exciting, and everything Clare desires.

One night with the charismatic stranger is all it takes to leave her craving more. But the intensity Mica brings isn’t confined to the bedroom, and Clare wonders if this summer fling might turn more adventurous than she anticipated—especially as a curious energy starts to simmer between the two of them and Mica’s handsome roommate, Vaughn.

As the three-way tension mounts, Mica makes a sinful proposal. It’s an invitation Clare can’t pass up, and an erotic encounter she’ll never be able to forget. Caught up between two irresistible men, Clare is about to get all the excitement she’s been looking for—and then some….

Review:

Totally hot menage – continue reading if you dare. Continue reading “Downtown Devil by Cara McKenna (Sins in the City #2)”

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Synopsis:

21948042On April 20, 1999, two boys left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma-City style, and to leave “a lasting impression on the world.” Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence-irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting “another Columbine.”

When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window — the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris, and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.

Review:

My husband is Japanese and the same age as the Columbine shooters so I asked him, what do you know about the shooting? What news made it over to Japan? His answer – two guys, revenge at jocks, Trench Coat Mafia, killed a girl for believing in God.

It turns out only the first two words of that answer are true.

It is an axiom of journalism that disaster stories begin in confusion and grow clearer over time. Facts rush in, the fog lifts, an accurate picture solidifies. The public accepts this. But the final portrait is often furthest from the truth.

We all watched Columbine unfold on TV but how many of us followed the investigation in the many months and years after? What we learned during those first few days stuck. We never bothered to update our mental map of the massacre, but Cullen did. He was at the school in the first days after the attack and stayed with the story for ten years.

The most masterful part of this book is the structure. Often books about a disaster talk about all the exciting stuff that happened the day of first, then spend the remaining 70% rehashing legal battles and roads to recovery. It’s chronologically accurate but increasingly tedious. In Columbine Cullen starts with the very basics of the attack, introducing us to key survivors and victims. He keeps that story rolling forward while interspersing it with Dylan and Eric’s life and actions leading up to their own deaths. The tension between the two story lines keeps the narrative gripping throughout, and the transitions are mostly smooth.

Myths are busted left and right, from bullying to the idea that something made Eric and Dylan “snap”. We get a fascinating deep look at the killers’ psyches and, thanks to their journals and video tapes, what they were thinking and planning.

I read an updated edition that includes a map of the school, pages from said journals, and a detailed timeline of events. There are no photographs on purpose; the rationale is explained in the introduction. I’m not sure what I would do but I respect the decision. (And really, if you want to see that sort of thing the internet is here for you.)

The main part of the book is pure journalism and very well done. In 2016 Cullen added an additional epilogue with his personal reflections and I’m not sure how I feel about it. There are some interesting passages but I usually like keeping the author and the work separate.

All in all Columbine is an intriguing look at what actually happened. It was recommended to me as an excellent example of journalism and I wholeheartedly agree.

 

Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey

Synopsis:

26114389When her beloved grandmother dies suddenly, 22-year-old Lissa Nevsky is left with no choice but to take over her grandmother’s magical position in their small folk community. That includes honoring a debt owed to the dangerous stranger who appears at Lissa’s door.

Maksim Volkov needs magic to keep his brutal nature leashed, but he’s already lost control once: his blood-borne lust for violence infects Nick Kaisaris, a charming slacker out celebrating the end of finals. Now Nick is somewhere else in Toronto, going slowly mad, and Maksim must find him before he hurts more people.

Lissa must uncover forbidden secrets and mend family rifts in order to prevent Maksim from hurting more people, including himself. If she fails, Maksim will have no choice but to destroy both himself and Nick.

Review:

Spells of Blood and Kin should be right in my sweet spot with the urban setting, supernatural creatures, and an interesting magic system.  I kept waiting for the book to pick up and get going… but it never did.

My dislike might be born in unfulfilled expectations – from the jacket copy I thought it would be straight up plotty fantasy, or maybe a more “literary” paranormal like Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf.  Instead there’s a lot of talking, a bunch of flashbacks, and action that feels inevitable instead of exciting.

The good:

  • The monsters are never named.  I like this – it prevented me from squishing the bad? guy into a neat, pre-labeled box.
  • The magic system is interesting, and I would have liked to learn more about it.  The underpinnings are never touched on (where does the power come from?) and Lissa only follows recipes.  She’s a short order cook of a witch, sticking to the same five spells and pouring over grimoires of those who came before.  No improvising, no Emeril bam.

The not-so-good:

  • While individual characters are fairly whole their relationships don’t evolve or grow.  The only exception is Lissa and Stella, who go from virtual strangers to the half-sisters they actually are.  Everyone else is stuck in a holding pattern – boyfriend and girlfriend, best buds, mentor and protege.
  • Secondary characters hover around the edges, serve their purpose, and bow out.  Nothing more.
  • The stakes are high but no one grapples with them.  They just float.  A big reason for that is…
  • …people have (and make) precious few choices.  The whole story feels like it’s set on a track, lumbering along.  Nick is slowly going mad and all anyone can do is shrug.  Lissa hears about a way to help Maksim and does it without thinking about consequences.  Gus’ novel-ending hurrah shocks slightly in method but otherwise feels inevitable.
  • I love that the book is set in Toronto but I never felt like I was actually there. Now and then I’d picture a place clearly, like a bar, just to realize it was the bar from another book I was reading at the same time.

In short – the story didn’t keep my interest, I didn’t care about the characters and their inescapable fates, and while the magic system is innovative (eggs!) it’s thin (only eggs).  After reading the blurb I was hoping for so much more.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Her Highland Master by Anya Summers (Dungeon Fantasy Club #1)

Synopsis:

29920605Zoey Mills’s life is in shambles. She’s been accused of leaking her upper crust Hollywood clients’ data to an online magazine for a large payday. After a wine and chocolate-filled evening of drowning her sorrows, she determines that her best course of action is to leave her home in sunny Los Angeles for a week-long vacation in the Scottish Highlands. It’s the only way she can escape from the fact that her image is being splashed across the nightly news – and it might actually give her a chance to consider what her next move should be, now that her Great Master Life Plan has disintegrated into dust.

Unfortunately, she’s only just landed and is navigating the tiny roads in her rental car when a freak early autumn snow storm hits. Zoey finds herself stranded and winds up on the doorstep of Mullardoch Manor; home of the sexy Scotsman, Declan McDougal, who is her every dark fantasy brought to life.

Review:

On the surface this should be a “me” story – woman on vacation in Scotland gets caught in a snowstorm and puts her car into a ditch. She finds herself in front of a fancy manor, complete with two crazy hot Scottish dudes and a dungeon in the basement. She’s stuck there for a week – how ever shall she pass the time?

Bwahaha. Continue reading “Her Highland Master by Anya Summers (Dungeon Fantasy Club #1)”

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Translated by Barbara Wright

Synopsis:

13792324On a crowded bus at midday, Raymond Queneau observes one man accusing another of jostling him deliberately. When a seat is vacated, the first man appropriates it. Later, in another part of town, Queneau sees the man being advised by a friend to sew a new button on his overcoat.

Exercises in Style — Queneau’s experimental masterpiece and a hallmark book of the Oulipo literary group — retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the alexandrine, onomatopoeia and Cockney. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. Queneau once said that of all his books, this was the one he most wished to see translated. He offered Barbara Wright his “heartiest congratulations,” adding: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable. Here is new proof.”

Review:

I love authors that treat language like the pliable, plastic thing it is, playing with words just to see what happens. Queneau is a master of it, retelling the same story 99 times in such a way that you never get bored. Some styles are academic (permutations of letters, dropping syllables), others are a change in form (haiku, cross-examination), and yet others luxuriate in sound (homeoptotes, onomatopoeia). All are fun, and many left me giggling to myself (in hospital waiting rooms, no less).

On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate…

Doesn’t the sound of that make you smile? What’s even more amazing is that this is a translation from the French – Barbara Wright does a stellar job rendering the text in English. I don’t even want to think about how hard it must have been. Her preface is the perfect introduction:

His purpose here, in the Exercises, is, I think, a profound exploration into the possibilities of language. It is an experiment in the philosophy of language. [In a published conversation Queneau] says… “People have tried to see it as an attempt to demolish literature – that was not at all my intention. In any case my intention was merely to produce some exercises; the finished product may possibly act as a kind of rust-remover to literature, help to rid it of some of the scabs.”

I am all for knocking off the rust. Best read in short spurts, this book will delight and entertain and leave you marveling at how the author (and translator) managed it in the first place. A hearty recommend to anyone that doesn’t take reading (or themselves) too seriously.

Shrink Rap by Dinah Miller, Annette Hanson, and Steven Roy Daviss

Synopsis:

9827786Finally, a book that explains everything you ever wanted to know about psychiatry!

Based on the authors’ hugely popular blog and podcast series, this book is for patients and everyone else who is curious about how psychiatrists work. Using compelling patient vignettes, Shrink Rap explains how psychiatrists think about and address the problems they encounter, from the mundane (how much to charge) to the controversial (involuntary hospitalization). The authors face the field’s shortcomings head-on, revealing what other doctors may not admit about practicing psychiatry.

Candid and humorous, Shrink Rap gives a closeup view of psychiatry, peering into technology, treatments, and the business of the field. If you’ve ever wondered how psychiatry really works, let the Shrink Rappers explain.

Review:

As a medical interpreter I relay what was said in one language in another, so technically I only have to grok the words. However it helps if I know what the speakers are thinking and why they say the things they do. In many cases the patient’s thoughts are simple: “OW. Ow ow ow ow ow – a little help here?” In acute cases the questions make sense: “You have a fever, ache, and chills… have you been in contact with anyone who has the flu?” The one specialty that tends to throw me off, though, is psychiatry. Questions seem to come out of left field and I have no idea what’s going on in the doctor’s head.

Luckily the three doctors who wrote this book have my back. They each have a different area of expertise – hospital psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, and psychotherapy – and their combined depth of knowledge is evident and awesome. We’re shown scenarios with fictitious patients, explaining why the (also fictitious) doctors ask the questions they do, when and why certain medications should be avoided, and what they hope the patient will achieve via treatment.

This look inside psychiatrists’ heads was invaluable for me. I was able to think about cases I’m familiar with and finally realize why a certain medication was stopped, or why the doctor asked a seemingly unrelated question. I have yet to interpret in an institutional setting but I now feel much more prepared to tackle a jail or involuntary hospitalization assignment. The legal system is different where I am, of course, but the basic tenants of treatment remain the same.

In a similar vein, there is a lot of discussion about how psychiatrists are reimbursed and how this or that insurance authorizes treatment. It isn’t relevant to me, and things have probably changed under the Affordable Care Act, but it’s still interesting.

The writing is clear and easy to follow, striking a balance between jargon and a more general writing style. If you have some kind of contact with mental health professionals (like me) or an interest in the area you’ll love Shrink Rap. I’m not sure I would push it on friends not into medical non-fiction, though – give them some Mary Roach first.

The Fairest of Them All by Cathy Maxwell (Marrying the Duke #2)

Synopsis:

26242359The penniless orphan of a disreputable earl, Lady Charlene Blanchard thrives on the adventure of picking the pockets of unsavory gentlemen to survive. But due to her extraordinary beauty and prized bloodlines, she is hand-chosen as a potential bride for the Duke of Baynton, who is on the hunt for a suitable wife to provide heirs. All Char has to do is act the part she was born to play and charm a duke she’s never laid eyes on into proposing. Except the duke turns out to be the tall, dark and sexy stranger who just caught her red-handed as a thief!

Or is he? Jack Whitridge is the duke’s twin who had “gone missing” over ten years ago. Now back in England, he knows that the supposed Lady who has his brother’s love is hardly duchess material—except he needs her to save his adopted country from war. He is willing to bargain with her heart, until he finds himself falling for Char….

Review:

The jacket copy drew me right in – twins!  A heroine that’s a pickpocket!  While I did enjoy those aspects other elements ended up being hit or miss.

The good:

  • The War of 1812 is brought into the plot in a realistic and interesting way.  It made me wonder why more Regencies don’t mention it!
  • A virgin hero!
  • I like that the twins are fraternal and there’s no identity switching after some initial confusion.  I haven’t read many twin romances so I’m enjoying the trope.
  • Char dresses up like a guy, which usually bothers me, but everyone sees through her disguise as soon as they stop to look at her. It’s realistic and appreciated – it’d be nice if more books could get this right.  I’m looking at you, The Rogue Not Taken!
  • This book works well as a standalone (I haven’t read the first) and easily introduces you to the concept of the series.  It’s an interesting idea to link several books together and I’m curious how Maxwell will continue.

The so-so:

  • We spend a lot of time watching the heroine with the not-hero.  It shows that they might grow to love each other but yeah, it’s not a love match.

The not-so-good:

  • The heroine is told early on that of course the duke will notice her at the ball because she is so special.  Special!  She just has that stuff that guys fall for.  …oookay.
  • I would have liked more interactions between the eventually-hero and Char.  I get why he kept his distance when he did, but it makes their declarations of love feel like too much too fast.
  • I’m worried that the not-hero is now irredeemable.  He says some stuff that ruffles my feathers and make me want to write him off, but it looks like he’s the hero-hero of the next book.  So… hmm.

All in all a decent read but it didn’t capture my imagination.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.