Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: book reviews, books, dystopian lit, karen thompson walker, lit, literature, reading, the age of miracles, ya lit
Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is another entrant in the seemingly endless string of YA dystopian and apocalyptic novels parading their way across bookshelves recently. It’s been a few months since I’ve read any, because there is such a bleak sameness to so many of these novels. Apart from The Hunger Games, which in the third novel delves into the politics of Panem, there’s rarely any exploration of the dystopian world or system beyond what it does to the lives of one character and her friends and family; the dystopias are always created by humans, with the strong suggestion being that there are, then, people who may fix the system; and they end on notes of hope, so different from the uncertainty of the final words of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of the most advertised dystopian novels are really “dystopia-lite.” There’s Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, in which a virus causes people to become infertile once they’re out of their teens, so that teenagers become responsible for the survival of the human race; but most serious questions raised by this premise are brushed away in favor of questions of style and insipid teenage conversation, with the Serious Religious Issues treated more as an accessory than a real issue. Slightly heavier is Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, in which love is treated as disease; but though Oliver here suggests a brutal regime, and shows a willingness to imprison or kill off her characters for the greater good, there is throughout the novel a sense that the dystopia is already crumbling, that there is more hope for her characters than a true dystopia could provide.
Enter, then, The Age of Miracles, which happily avoids so many of the problems with YA dystopian literature by placing its characters in an apocalyptic, rather than dystopian world – a world that, by its very definition, has severe limitations in the Hope department. Walker shows us the infancy of a newly apocalyptic world, tracking what these changes and uncertainties do to people, rather than presenting (as so many of the earlier mentioned YA dystopians do) a world that, seemingly so far past saving, is finding new possibilities and hopes.
The world of this novel is changing rapidly for reasons that no one can explain or understand. As The Age of Miracles opens, days are growing longer for no readily apparent reason. Julia, the narrator, is a girl who can sense no change in her world, who even after learning that the earth’s rotation has slowed can sense nothing wrong in her world, or begin to understand why one day, which feels like the day before it and the day before that, is so different from all others. As she writes,
I was eleven years old in the suburbs. My best friend was standing beside me. I could spot not a single object out of place or amiss.
Walker never offers a real explanation for what is happening to the world, which seems fitting given the age of the narrator and the nature of the catastrophe. That the world is slowing, every day, doesn’t make sense, but also doesn’t need to, given that it serves simply as a device to force humanity into a situation from which there is no escape. At first many people attempt to ignore the changes in the length of days (Julia’s mother is the only member of her family who seems to grasp the seriousness of the problem, though her declamations are treated more with rolled eyes than sympathy), and America manages to stay in sync with the new days. School and workdays are pushed back, and Julia begins each morning by the TV, waiting for the school’s starting time to be announced. Julia’s father reassures her that this problem, whatever its source, will be fixed soon enough:
“I want you to think how smart humans are,” he said. “Think of everything humans have ever invented. Rocket ships, computers, artificial hearts. We solve problems, you know? We always solve the big problems. We do.”
Of course, this is one problem that can’t be solved, and that’s where The Age of Miracles finds much of its strength. Walker asks not how her characters can fight back against an unjust society, but how they learn to live with the fact that their world is falling apart around them. Although Julia’s father tells his daughter that humans always solve the big problems, Walker creates a world in which the biggest problem can’t be solved – in which humans have to, instead, answer the smaller ones, like how to grow food as the days become so long that Clock Time is totally disjointed from night and day, and how to deal with the temperature changes that result from 72 hours of light followed by 72 hours of dark.
Julia’s concerns are those of any 11-year-old girl, though, so that while this is an apocalyptic novel it is, just as much, a coming-of-age story. When the family of her best friend Hanna, a Mormon, moves to Utah, Julia is left in a social environment she cannot navigate without her friend. The absence of a true 24-hour day doesn’t free Julia from the cruelties of her peers or from the weight of her first crush or from her uncertainty over what to say about the dying mother of that crush, or from her confusion over what to do when she sees her father in the house of a neighbor who used to be Julia’s piano teacher. For all the ways in which life has stopped, with birds falling from the sky and plants refusing to grow, Walker shows us that life also continues, in much the way it always has. And rather than offering her readers a world of unmitigated horror, in which all characters realize what they’re facing, Walker writes of the thrill that disaster can hold, especially for a pre-teen girl like Julia.
We were girls in sandals and sundresses, boys in board shorts and surf shirts. We were growing up in a retiree’s dream – 330 days of sunshine each year – and so we celebrated whenever it rained. Catastrophe, too, like bad weather, was provoking in all of us an uneasy excitement and verve.
Unlike the authors of so many other YA novels, Walker doesn’t offer false hope to her readers. Whatever Julia’s father says early in the novel, no member of Julia’s family seems to truly expect things to improve. They know things will change, but only expect those changes to be for the worse. What Walker does, really, is to take the nightmares of being eleven years old – the way that other people can make decisions (to move, to have another child, to divorce) that change your entire world, with nothing you can do to return things to the way they used to be – and write them on the scale of the world as a whole. In following Julia’s attempts to grow up in a world that offers no certainties, Walker has written a novel that is often bleak, but just as often finds moments that are much the same in Julia’s dying world as in the world of the reliable, 24-hour day. The Age of Miracles finds its best moments in these intersections of the apocalyptic and the mundane; and taking all these moments together, the novel is a happy proof that there are writers eager to test and play with the conventions of both the popular dystopian or apocalyptic novels and coming-of-age stories.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, balkans, book reviews, books, ismail kadare, lit, literature, ottoman empire, reading, the palace of dreams
Many of Ismail Kadare’s novels take place in a sort of dreamscape, a land between the real world and the world in which myths are taken to be real, in which dreams and stories have a direct influence on daily life. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (which I have not reviewed – this is one I need to reread before discussing) Kadare moves so far into this mythical middle world that it’s hard to gain your bearing as a reader in the short novel. The Palace of Dreams, though explicitly dealing with dreams and myth, is better-grounded in an understandable world, making it a more welcoming novel than Spring Flowers.
The palace referred to in the novel’s title stands during the Ottoman empire, for the purpose of evaluating the dreams of the empire. Branches of the palace collect the dreams and send them on to the Palace of Dreams, where they make their way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of sorters and analysts who attempt to find some meaning or hint of the future in the collected dreams. One dream each week is passed on to the sultan; this is the Master Dream, and is taken to be the most important and impactful dream of the past week.
Kadare follows a new employee of the palace as he struggles to make his way through the palace, which is both physically and mentally labyrinthine. Mark-Alem is a member of a well-known noble family that has a storied history with dreams, having frequently been the victim of the cryptic analyses of dreams. In following Mark-Alem, and showing not only how the dreams of the empire touch his family, but how he rises at unprecedented speed through the palace’s ranks, Kadare shows us a sort of everyman. Although Mark-Alem rises to a high position within the bureaucracy, he rarely seems to understand his own interactions with the empire.
As with so many of Kadare’s books, this novel speaks clearly to the time of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania. Here, though, Kadare never overreaches or overstresses the links between the old world he writes about and Hoxha’s regime (as he did in The Pyramid, where ties between the pyramid-building Egyptians and Enver Hoxha’s scheme to build thousands of concrete bunkers around the Albanian countryside were so nakedly pointed out that it was hard to feel Kadare fully trusted his readers), and the Palace as a mental and physical space suggests rather than demands that we use this story as a means of considering the dehumanizing effects of power.
Where Kadare really shines in The Palace of Dreams is in the bureaucratic stylings of the Palace. He nails everything about this, from the way Mark-Alem gets lost in the building even as he receives promotions, to the way that most employees have little sense of what work others in the building do, to the way Mark-Alem appears set up for failure but somehow stumbles through this incomprehensible system. Just see his first day on the job, when Mark-Alem’s boss offers vague instructions on his task, suggesting not only that he has little real idea of what his employees do, but that each dream makes countless directionless loops around the Palace before finally being deemed important or filed away in the basement.
“This is your first file. It contains a group of dreams that arrived on October nineteenth. Read them very carefully, but whatever you do don’t be hasty. If you think there’s the slightest chance that a dream might have been fabricated, leave it where it is and don’t be in too much of a hurry to remove it. After you there’ll be another sorter, or, to give him his proper title, a second inspector, and he’ll check what you’ve done and correct any errors. Then there’s another inspector to check up on him, and so on. In fact, all the people you see in this room are doing just that. So good luck!”
He stayed there another few seconds looking at Mark-Alem, then turned around and left. Mark-Alem was momentarily rooted to the spot, then slowly, trying not to make any noise, he edged the chair back a little, slid between it and the table, and, still very cautiously, sat down. (31)
In The Palace of Dreams, Kadare’s spare prose is the perfect counterweight to the ineffable subject matter. The novel at times verges on farce, as inspectors and interpreters in the Palace struggle to find some meaning in that which may have no meaning, looking to the lives of the dreamers and to past dreams for help in deciphering the images placed in their file. When it shifts from farce to tragedy – when we, and Mark-Alem, see the impact these dreams, and their interpretations, can have on a life – Kadare keeps the novel so tightly tied to the dream descriptions that reality itself begins to shift into a sort of dreamscape. The Palace of Dreams is a gorgeous imagining of the attempt to impose reality upon dreams, and dreams upon reality.
Filed under: short stories, Story Sundays | Tags: etgar keret, flash fiction, grab the cuckoo by the tail, literature, reading, short stories, story sundays
Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.
A while back I read a critique of flash fiction that singled out Etgar Keret as one writer who actually does flash well. As a fan of flash fiction I was a bit averse to the central idea of the article (that a lot of people think they can write flash fiction because it’s short, and that the internets publishes a lot of flash fiction that is truly terrible [ok, I can kind of agree with that]), but sold on reading Keret. I am a busy girl, though, and also lazy, so it took me a few months to get around to it. And, holy crap guys, I wish I had read something by him earlier! His story “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail” is so good that I believe it makes up for the months without any Story Sunday posts.
What is so great about this story (and I am going to try and skip over summary – it’s short enough that you can read the story in only twice the time it would take me to tell you about it) is that Keret fits entire lives into this short piece. There’s not a word wasted, and in following two friends as they eat a meal, talk money, and visit a brothel, Keret captures the course of their friendship, the defining elements of their personalities, their marital problems, and their divergent hopes for the future. Unlike so many pieces of flash fiction, “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail” doesn’t take one scene and milk it for whatever small revelation can be found; it takes these moments from one day and spools out, in either direction, all of the lives that we see in this moment.
The story’s title references something the narrator’s friend, Uzi, keeps saying about the stock market – he is planning to put money into a NASDAQ option, the QQQQ (or “cuckoo,” as Uzi calls it), and is insistent that they have to grab on to the QQQQ and hold on as it lifts them up. But Keret is so exacting in this story, and what makes this such a great piece of flash fiction is how everything, right down to the title, matters and can matter in more than one way. At story’s end, there’s the sense that the title references not just Uzi’s wordplay, but the way these two men are, in so many ways, holding on to each other in the expectation that they will lift one another up.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, balkans, book reviews, books, ismail kadare, lit, literature, ottoman empire, reading, the siege
Ismail Kadare’s The Siege is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, but it does give a broad sense of life, and life during war, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As with Kadare’s other novels, The Siege takes place in his native Albania; and, more specifically, is set at an unnamed citadel belonging to Skanderbeg (an ethnic Albanian member of the Ottoman army, who left Islam in favor of Christianity, and the Turks for the Albanians). Strange though it may sound to say that this novel, which has no narrative thrust other than that of shifting levels of despair, succeeds because of its plotting, The Siege works because there is a tension to the story even as we suspect that it will lead to no real conclusion. Kadare sometimes gives in to an excess of dreaminess in his writing, but here keeps that tendency in check in favor of describing the council meetings and varied attempts to break the citadel’s defenses, and following the lives of those members of the Ottoman army waiting out their lives beyond the walls of the citadel.
The Siege is told largely from the view of the Ottomans, with short – two-page – narratives inserted between chapters, describing the Ottomans’ latest actions from the view of an Albanian inside the citadel. This means much description of the minutia of siege warfare, from deciding which soldiers to send over first, to when to pull back, to how the successes and failures of an attack can change the careers of the men making the decisions. This may sound dull, but Kadare is pitch-perfect in this novel, giving his characters the space to battle over their preferred strategies, and thereby giving the reader a chance to, as it were, join the negotiations. In focusing not only on the details of the siege, but on the decision-making process, Kadare also offers an extensive exploration of the idea of power, and of what influences the men fighting this battle.
There are few characters who maintain their role throughout the novel – who aren’t sentenced to death, or demoted to the lowest ranks of the army, for a loss, an accident, or a wrong decision – but even those who do maintain their position (most notably the pasha – the army’s leader – and Çelebi, the chronicler assigned to turn the siege into myth) are keenly aware of their precarious position and the odds that they will lose their power far more quickly than they gained it. When assigning punishments, decreeing that men should go “down below” to dig a tunnel underneath the citadel, the pasha recognizes not only that he holds these men’s fate in his hands, but that someone else holds his:
He hastily initialled the sentences but added in the margin, “Send below”. As he scrawled those words, which meant “to the tunnel”, he felt the well-known sensation of the powerful of the earth who can cast another man into the abyss. The idea that his own fate was also in the hands of another did not hold him back, but, on the contrary, put fresh energy into his view. He had long known that the world is but a pyramid of power, and the loser would always be the man who gives up the exercise of his own power before the other. (124)
Kadare also explores the minor, and often failed, assertions of power the men make, their attempts to break into the Pasha’s inner circle where they can be heard with the other top men of the army. In Kadare’s vision, even the secretary recording these meetings is seeking opportunities to declare his own strength:
The Pasha had spoken. In the utter silence that ensued all that could be heard was the scratching of the secretary’s quill as he put down on paper everything that had been said. They were all accustomed to this sound which was always identical, whether the words being transcribed were sharp or smooth, scorpion bites or soft summer wind. Those among the council members who were familiar with administrative accounts realised that the secretary was making his quill squeal more than was necessary. To judge by the serious face he made at such times, it wasn’t hard to guess that these silent pauses in which his pen scratching was the overriding sound gave him his sole opportunity in life to assert his own importance. Once someone started talking again, his very presence would be forgotten. (201)
There’s a sense of the forgettable to the events of this novel. As anyone with a rough understanding of the history of the Ottoman empire can guess, this siege won’t be successful; it is nothing more than a footnote in history, months of war that are of note only as a part of the tide that will eventually overwhelm the Albanian defenders. The scribe who spends so much time observing soldiers and battles for the account he will eventually write is confronted not only with the question of whether this will be read and remembered, but by the fact that what he records is not really the truth. Throughout the novel, men make note of the things the scribe won’t write in his chronicle – the aspects of warfare that are so wholly ugly they’ll find no place in the glorious chronicle of this siege.
Kadare perfectly captures the deadening effects of war, how its horrors become commonplace; the political machinations that go into decisions down to the level of what soldiers should be eating; how power is claimed and used and, in time, lost; and the circular nature of war, the way that one army will so easily replace the last. By showing so much of the siege through the chronicler’s eyes, Kadare also questions how memory is shaped, and what aspects of war will be remembered, and which should be remembered. The Siege is a remarkable novel, one worth repeated visits for its unsentimental look at mythmaking and the nature of war.
“In the raging storm of battle the crocodiles charged the ramparts again and again, but fate…” It was a hard sentence to finish off, and he had a headache. He was tempted to write “…did not smile on them”, but “smile” seemed the wrong word here. How could there be any smiles in the midst of such horrible butchery? He put his quill down and stared pensively at the pages he had written in a hand now weakened by age. One day, they would constitute the sole remains of all this blood spilled beneath a burning sky, of those thousands of dreadful wounds, of the roar of the cannon, of the yellow dust of forced marches, of the unending, nightmarish ebb and flow of assailants beneath the castle walls, of men clambering up ladders under showers of hot pitch and arrows, falling to the ground below, then clambering up again alongside comrades who don’t even recognise you because you are already disfigured by your injuries. Those pages were going to be the sole trace of the soldiers’ tanned hides, of these innumerable skins on which sharp metal, sulphur, pitch and oil had drawn monstrous shapes which, when the war was over, would go on living their own lives. To cap it all, these pages would also be the sole remnants of the myriad tents which, when they were dismantled, as they would be in a few weeks’ time, would leave thousands of marks on a wide empty space, looking as if it had been trampled by a huge herd of bizarre animals. Then, next spring, grass would grow on the plain: millions of blades of grass, utterly indifferent to what had gone on there, with no knowledge of all that can happen in this world. (294)
Filed under: Book Reviews, Travel | Tags: albania, balkans, book reviews, books, lit, literature, reading, robert carver, the accursed mountains, travel
Questions I am struggling with as I begin reviewing Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania:
What is the point of reviewing/eviscerating a little-known (and now out-of-print) book about a little-known country?
Should I even bother reviewing the book, or just launch my attack on people (see: Greg Mortensen) labeling their Awesome Stories “non-fiction” because they know that only a handful of people will be able to see through their bullshit?
Should I address everything that is stomach-turning about this book (see: the author’s sexism*, wishful thinking/dramatics, and lack of respect and understanding about Albanian culture; that huge and basic errors in the Albanian printed within show that Carver did not collaborate with Albanians even to get the damn phrases right) or just the big ones?
Really, after listing those things out I realize that there is nothing I want to say about this book that I can hold back from saying, even though exactly zero (0) of my readers will ever lay hands on Carver’s masterwork. As someone who has lived in the Balkans, it’s absolutely clear to me that Carver’s travelogue is as much a product of his imagination and the spy thrillers he reads as anything that actually happens around here; and my suspicions about this work leave me feeling nearly as unsettled as I did after I finished reading Three Cups of Tea with the sense that Mortensen had managed to pull one over on every person who had never worked in foreign aid.
So, where to start. Carver visits Albania in 1996, just five years after the fall of Communism and shortly before the 1997 collapse of the pyramid schemes that many Albanians had invested their life savings in. Although the book’s title refers to the Accursed Mountains of the country’s north, Carver spends more of his three months in Albania in the south and in the country’s capital, Tirana, lending the book a slightly unbalanced feel.
Carver makes some astute observations about the Albanian character and, in particular, about what the easy availability of Western foreign aid has done to the country. He describes Albanians as “Westernized but not Western” (26), which is about the best way I can think of describing the Balkans today – many people listen to American music, watch American films, dress in American styles, but maintain a very Albanian mindset. Carver makes some good points, as well, about what Communism followed by foreign aid has done to the local initiative, writing that “nothing would ever be done to clean up and rebuild the country, because that was always and would always be ‘someone else’s’ job” (26).
It’s unfortunate, then, that the things Carver gets right about the country are so outweighed by what he gets horribly, and seemingly purposely, wrong. Carver doesn’t take a single bus journey that doesn’t involve numerous stops to pay off local policemen and/or bandits. Within a hundred pages of the book’s start, the writer is convinced that people are plotting to kill him at every turn. Given that Albania had been home to Peace Corps Volunteers since 1992 (and Peace Corps doesn’t place its volunteers in countries where Americans are regularly hunted down by wily locals), it’s only logical to conclude that Carver’s conviction that so many Albanians were out to harm him is the result of either an unbalanced mind or a desire to sell more copies by dramatizing the story a bit. Probably the latter, since the lead-in to the sixth chapter of The Accursed Mountains is, “The first attempt to murder and rob me was a hopelessly amateur affair” (88). This attitude of paranoia pervades the remaining 250 pages of the book.
That Carver chooses to show Albanians in such a light is offensive precisely because it is a country that is known by so few. To color an entire nation as being populated by thieves, rapists, and murderers, as Carver does, is an irresponsible act. It’s one that’s all the more upsetting for the moments in which Carver reveals himself to have known so little Albanian during his travels, and to have done so little fact-checking while writing his book, that he was not even able to get correct something as simple as asking for a coffee “without sugar.” (He writes “ska sheker.” It should be “pa sheqer.” Literally, the first thing I learned to say in Albanian.) And yet, to most readers of The Accursed Mountains, Carver’s word would be taken as good as fact, just as so many readers believed what Greg Mortensen laid out in Three Cups of Tea. Maybe the impact wasn’t as wide-ranging here as with Three Cups – Carver, after all, didn’t find a way to make millions via a charity playing off the goodwill of his readers – but it’s upsetting nonetheless to think of an author twisting his story in order, presumably, to sell more books.
What else does Carver get wrong? The biggest fault is probably when he writes about the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini. The Kanun is a code of law that Albanians in the northern mountains used to govern themselves – I wrote about it a while back in relation to an article about blood feuds. The Kanun of Lek Dukagjini is just one example of these law codes, and the best known. Carver seems unaware that there are other Kanuns, and makes the further error of writing about all Albanian society, northern and southern, in light of the Kanun. If Carver had spent even a few weeks reading about Albania, he would have known that his entire chapter on the Kanun deserved to be cut.
For all the times that publishers have been criticized for not fact-checking anything they publish (is this an exaggeration? I don’t have a fact checker to tell me), they’re going to continue printing books like The Accursed Mountains that are full of factual errors and offer a false picture of something most people will never experience for themselves. I guess the unfortunate conclusion is that we have to approach all these books with caution and suspicion, an awareness of the limitations of our own knowledge, and an awareness that the author in some cases may be seeking to sell books rather than offer something close to the truth. Which, frankly, sucks.
* Further offenses, that as a woman I feel I can’t leave off without mentioning, come in the form of Carver’s sexism. The man appears incapable of describing a woman other than by the size of her breasts; he seems to view women as nothing more than a pair of legs with a pair of breasts attached at the top. See:
Prominent, unavoidably so, were also a pair of splendid, gauze-enveloped breasts which fully deserved to be declared national monuments in their own right. I didn’t dare ask ‘Falso or vero?‘, although it did cross my mind. (154)