Archives : April 2011
It is 1978 in the Soviet Union and anthrax spores have just leaked from a lab in the unnamed city in which Rosa Achmetowna lives in a communal apartment with her husband Kalganow, her “rather stupid” daughter Sulfia, and a nosy midwife named Klavdia. When her daughter tells her she has become pregnant from dreaming about a man at night — “a real man would never come anywhere near Sulfia unless he was nearsighted or perverted” — Rosa takes immediate action. She subjects Sulfia to a scalding mustard bath and forces her to drink a vomit-inducing brew made from bay leaves. When that doesn’t work, Rosa allows Klavdia to go to town on Sulfia with a knitting needle. Klavdia assures them the procedure was successful but when a baby appears nine months later, she concludes off-handedly, “Must have been twins . . . So what?”
Rosa falls unequivocally in love with her granddaughter Aminat and, convinced that she should be the one to raise her, kidnaps the child and forges documents certifying that Sulfia is mentally incompetent to be a parent. Rosa’s stunts only grow more devious as the story progresses, culminating in her brokering of a marriage between Sulfia and Dieter, a German cookbook writer with a tendency toward pedophilia. Rosa quickly discerns Dieter’s unhealthy interest in Aminat, but pushes her concerns to one side in favor of the bigger picture — safe passage for the three women out of the quickly deteriorating USSR.
There is no doubt that Rosa is manipulative, delusional and, at times, downright cruel. She is also a riot. Take, for instance, her account of her first visit to McDonald’s in Moscow:
As we left the restaurant we had to pass a woman who said, “Thank you for your visit, we look forward to seeing you again soon!”
Sulfia was so confused she cowered against the wall. Not even I could come up with a good answer.
Or this little nugget on her relationship with her husband:
He didn’t like it when I talked to God. He didn’t believe in God and found it embarrassing that I did. Most of all he didn’t want anyone else to find out I believed in God and even talked to him. There was nobody here in our bed except the two of us, I assured him. Or rather, the two of us and God.
In choosing to tell the story from Rosa’s point of view, Bronsky also shows us another side of this hard as nails woman. Despite her considerable personality flaws, it is clear that she does what she does, however misguided, out of love. But love in Rosa’s world, where every day is a struggle, has some sharp edges. As Rosa puts it, “the best thing a woman could do for her family was to provide clear and firm guidance. They didn’t need coddling.”
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is a darkly comic tale about the ways in which three generations of women can support and betray each other in order to survive in a crumbling Communist regime. Alina Bronsky’s biting wit (translated from the German by Tim Mohr) reminds me of another Russian émigré, Gary Shteyngart, but thankfully without all the testosterone. In an interview in the New York Times T Magazine, Bronsky described the Soviet humor in the book as “a desperate humor, rather typical of very different nations, of Jewish people, Ukrainians, and of course Russians. It’s despair — just keep laughing, until you are dead.”
Note: I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher.
Although Johanna Adorján’s book An Exclusive Love is billed as a memoir on the cover, it could just as well be described as a piece of investigative journalism or a detective book. On October 13, 1991, Adorján’s paternal grandparents killed themselves by taking a cocktail of sleeping pills they learned to mix from the popular manual on euthanasia, Final Exit. They were found lying in bed together, holding hands. Her grandfather Pista was in his eighties and terminally ill, but her grandmother Vera was in her seventies and in perfect health. So why did they do it, and what were their last hours like?
The absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful thing about this book is that Adorján will never know the answers, but she needs to explore the questions regardless. Holocaust survivors, her grandparents fled communist Budapest in 1956 with nothing but their children, and eventually settled in Copenhagen. They were an elegant, cultured couple who smoked incessantly and were exceedingly private about their past. After making a trip in his old age to the notorious Nazi labor camp Mauthausen where he was imprisoned during the war, Pista would only say, “Going there by car is much nicer than going on foot.”
What Adorján does know about her grandparents she learns mostly through her own bare recollections of them and the interviews she conducts after they died with the few who knew them well. The memories of those her grandparents left behind are not always complimentary, but Adorján refuses to sentimentalize them, especially her grandmother, who she admits was her least favorite grandparent growing up. “She was temperamental, unpredictable and egotistic. Just like me, so I felt she should be punished for it.”
Interspersed throughout the book are Adorján’s vivid reimaginings of the last day of her grandparents’ life. At a time when yet another literary scandal has exploded about truth in memoir, Adorján’s account of her grandmother cleaning the house and wrapping Christmas presents and her grandfather napping on the couch is all the more powerful because of its acknowledged fiction. She will never know what happened that day, but her attempt to imagine it in such great detail rings noble and true. Take, for instance, this paragraph about her grandmother dressing for her death, rendered in spare but haunting English by translator Anthea Bell:
By now she has made herself ready for the night. She has applied a little rouge, only a touch so that it won’t rub off on the bedclothes. She has brushed her hair and put on her best nightdress. It is white silk, with a girlish frill at the collar. The silk is very lightweight, she hardly feels it. She has put on jewelry. Her mother’s gold necklace round her neck, her delicate gold watch on her wrist. She has taken off the gold ring that she normally wears all the time, three intertwining circles, and put it on the bedside table. The ring is for Erzsi, and she already feels that it is no longer hers.
Like any good memoir, Adorján’s journey ends in a shared discovery, but the paramount truth of the book is not so much the why of her grandparents’ suicide, as it is the emotional core she shares with her grandmother:
The deepest feeling known to me is the sense of not belonging . . . . No one loves me, no one can love me. This is my deepest conviction and at the same time my greatest fear . . . . And suddenly I also understand my grandmother’s love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great, and alternatively conditional. Prove that I am worth loving, and then I will always be with you. I will follow you even into death.
Stunning, unsparing, devastating. One of my favorite books of 2011 thus far.
As a child, Meghan O’Rourke spent summers in Vermont with her family. She read books on the porch, took walks with the dog, and lay in the tall grass watching the clouds. In the prologue to her memoir, The Long Goodbye, she writes:
I was a child of atheists but I had an intuition of God. The days seemed created for our worship. There was grass and flowers and clouds. And then there were the words for these things: mare’s tails and a mackerel sky, daylilies and lady’s slippers and lilcas and hyacinth. There were words even for the weeds: goldenrod and ragweed and Queen Anne’s Lace. You could feed yourself on the grandeur of the sounds.
Not surprisingly, O’Rourke grows up to be a poet, publishing two volumes of poetry and becoming one of the youngest editors ever at The New Yorker. Then, when O’Rourke is only 30, her 53-year old mother Barbara is diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer. Less than three years later, on Christmas Day 2008, she dies.
Finding herself adrift in a sea of grief and despair, O’Rourke longs for the comforts of belief, the ritualized acts of mourning that, she speculates, could help makes sense of the profound grief she is experiencing. In a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates published in the New York Times, O’Rourke explained, “When it comes to ritual, I was thinking partly of laments and widows tearing their hair and rending their garments — things that help express grief’s physical intensity — without the mourner having to be embarrassed.”
The product of a secular household, she has no such rituals to fall back on. What she turns to instead is the same religion she cultivated while a young girl lying in the tall grass in Vermont: she turns to words. O’Rourke’s ritual, as it happens, is the memoir of her loss.
There have been enough grief memoirs written now for it to qualify as its own genre. Two of my favorites are Joan Didion’s National Book Award winning account of the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Elizabeth McCracken’s heart-wrenching story of the loss of her baby in the ninth month of pregnancy, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. But O’Rourke’s is the first, of which I am aware, to deftly capture the incredibly common but profoundly life-changing experience of a daughter’s loss of her mother.
Part of the book is a detailed, unflinching account of her mother’s last months as O’Rourke shuttles back and forth from Brooklyn to Connecticut to help her father and two brothers care for her. She does not shy away from the painful details as her mother’s body grows increasingly more ravaged, and then her mind, as well, falls captive to a cancer-induced dementia. In the hospital toward the end, questioning why she and brothers spend their last hours with their mother watching episodes of Lost, O’Rourke refuses to sentimentalize her experience: “Time doesn’t obey our commands. You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing.”
The remainder of the book recounts O’Rourke’s struggle to adjust to a world in which her mother no longer exists. On seeing the ocean for the first time since her mother’s death, she remarks:
If children learn through exposure to new experiences, mourners unlearn through exposure to absence in new contexts. Grief requires reacquainting yourself with the world again and again; each “first” causes a break that must be reset.
O’Rourke’s ritual ends, as many do, with a sort of acceptance. She accepts that she will never fully recover and her life will never be the same: “It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.”
[Note: I was provided with a free advance copy of The Long Goodbye by the publisher.]
- In an epic girls vs. boys book battle, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad narrowly beat out Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in the Tournament of Books. Having read both books, I agree with the judges who found Egan’s book to be more structurally innovative. And I was astounded by the Power Point chapter, which is so much more emotionally resonant than I imagined possible.
- Over at The Awl, six writers discuss book covers and blurbs.
- There’s a new addition to the Sweet Valley High canon, and even though she finds it “terribly, terribly written” and “horribly contrived,” Roxane Gay loves it.
- Interested in a group read of Bleak House?
- What your favorite children’s book when you were young says about you now: If you loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, “You’re a creative gastronomist with a flexible policy on slave labor.”
- The ABA announces the winners of the 2011 Indies Choice Book Awards: Room (reviewed by me here) won for Adult Fiction Book of the Year.
- Patti Smith announces she will write a sequel to her National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids.
- The Guardian examines dictator-lit. (Apparently Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong II and Colonel Gaddafi have all penned novels.)
- An evening gown made entirely out of children’s Golden books.
Young adult literature has come a long way since the time when, after devouring every exquisite word written by Judy Blume, your only option was the endless supply of Sweet Valley High books. It’s not that I have anything against the Wakefield twins, but the staggering choices available to today’s teens — everything from paranormal romance to historical mysteries to gritty realism — makes me wish I could take a time machine full of books back to my thirteen-year old self. And here’s a few of the books I would bring with me:
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly: Equal parts mystery, romance and historical fiction, this award-winning book is based on the same real-life murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Set in 1906 in the North Woods of upstate New York, sixteen-year old Mattie Gokey discovers that the secret letters given to her by a hotel guest hold the truth to the girl’s drowning death. The book tackles not only Mattie’s coming of age, but also issues of race, gender and class in early twentieth century America. (Donnelly recently published Revolution, another riveting historical mystery, although the injection of a paranormal element into the storyline made this book less successful for me.)
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: The quintessential YA novel. An incredibly accurate portrayal of teenage depression and the strength it takes to climb out of the abyss and speak the truth.
Sold by Patricia McCormick: The author interviewed women in Calcutta’s red light district and girls rescued from the sex trade to write this harrowing tale. None of the realities of sexual slavery are spared for the teenage audience. One of the harshest truths that McCormick illuminates is the way in which women are often each other’s cruelest oppressors.
Draw the Dark by Ilsa J. Bick: A baby’s corpse found hidden in the walls of an old house, a Nazi prisoner of war camp in rural Wisconsin, and a seventeen-year old boy who can draw other people’s darkest secrets. This is a real page turner. And the partially unsolved mystery at the end means that readers have a sequel to look forward to!
Next up on my YA journey back in time: (1) Anderson’s Wintergirls, which tackles teenage eating disorders and I hear is equally as compelling as Speak. (2) Nightshade by Andrea Cremer: a werewolf romance with an intellectual bent (Cremer has a PhD in early modern history). (3) Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando: this book is not out until next month but a mystery set amidst Coney Island freaks and geeks is just up my alley.