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On Sara Gruen’s “At the Water’s Edge”

14 Apr

At the Water's Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

Damsels in distress, bearded men with thick accents, giant mythical monsters, and a backdrop of worldwide warfare. No, I’m not talking about the new season of Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the newest novel from the author of Water for Elephants. I’m talking about a young America woman who gets dragged to Scotland during World War II to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster in Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge, which, aside from the gore and the patricide, is practically the same as Game of Thrones anyway.

Rich kids Ellis and Maddie Hyde and their ever-present third wheel Hank Boyd tear through the upper crust parties of Philadelphia, drinking the best champagne and mixing it with the best drugs. But all the pill cocktails in the world can’t drown Ellis’s feelings of inadequacy after being denied enlistment due to his colorblindness. After a scathing confrontation with Ellis’s father that threatens to cut him off from his inheritance, he takes action. Since the best kind of action always involves hunting down cryptids to clear the family name of horrifying, public shame, the three sail off to Scotland to find the infamous Loch Ness Monster. Maddie Hyde narrates as she witnesses Hank’s and her husband’s desperate attempt to prove a myth. She is an unwilling passenger on this wild ride, but, as Maddie is quick to learn, she is as complicit as the two men: they are invaders of the already war-torn lives of the villagers.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

What’s that out behind Urquhart Castle? Is it …? Could it be …? Is that Yeezus? (Photo from “jan zeschky“)

Gruen poignantly describes the era’s ultra-rich and their obliviousness to warfare and suffering. Behind an insurmountable fortress of wealth, the Hydes and their companion are offensively ignorant of the actual turmoil around them. As Ellis and Hyde immerse themselves in their monster-hunting adventures, Maddie’s eyes are opened to reality and her heart changed by the people around her. She soon realizes that–whether or not a massive sea creature lurks beneath the black surface of the loch–a very real domestic monster lurks under the preening surface of her increasingly volatile husband. If only there were a muscular, bearded Scotsman around to save her from it all ….

As fun as a solid, beardy Highland romance sounds, AtWE includes a cast of extremely problematic male characters. (Maybe later, if you’re not doing anything, we can discuss the validity of arguing for male characters’ depth in romance novels that appear to be written for straight women.) Ellis’s growing manifestations of violence and vileness leave little room for his humanity. Gruen shies away from fully exploring his inner demons, of which there are many, abandoning him instead to a fully realized antagonist, who is present in this novel solely to be defeated by the powers of Goodness and True Manliness. Angus Grant provides that stark, haloed relief to Ellis’s blackness. Though the man is gruff and pithy to the point of rudeness, Angus is honorable beyond measure and seems incapable of fault. Both Ellis and Angus are cheated out of their humanity, and seem to only find a place in this novel to be way points for Maddie’s life. This is the type of novel that distorts straight women’s definitions of romance, and, incidentally, for the straight men who presumably want relationships with those straight women.

Milkman among ruins of London

Life carries on despite the desolation meted out by German bombers. (Photo from “Jhayne“)

The art Gruen performs well is toeing the line between mainstream fiction and romance paperback. Some brief lines about classism and a backdrop of one of the most horrific wars of recorded history grounds an otherwise fluffy plot, but one more shirtless Highlander, and we might have needed alternate cover art by Harlequin Enterprises. I tease, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little romance in brogue. AtWE is predictable in the best kind of way: everything you want to happen happens. Every foreshadowing comes true and every dream is fulfilled. It’s the type of book that hoards come to love because it scratches an itch, and it scratches it thoroughly.

Read It: At the Water’s Edge makes for the perfect read when you’re looking for a good intrigue and saucy romance on that spring break cruise. The historical period of 1940’s Britain makes for a picturesque setting and Sara Gruen is an expert at weaving a compelling, entertaining story of love lost and won.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to venture into the loch’s icy waters with Gruen if you, maybe, have a severe allergy to predictable plots and overwrought tropes. AtWE won’t make you think or astound you with its creativity; it’s purely fun and games with just enough heavy themes to keep the book solidly in the literature section of book stores.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s most recent novel Lucky Us tells the story of two sisters struggling through WWII-era American and England. There story crosses countries and decades as the sisters learn new definitions of love and family. I suppose I should also recommend Sara Gruen’s claim to fame, Water for Elephants, though I can’t vouch for anything other than the film adaptation starring the marvelous Christoph Waltz. You can’t say no to this face.

Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen (Photo from Goodreads)


On Ron Rash’s “Serena”

17 Feb

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

I can already feel it: 2015 is the year of the bear attacks and wilderness novels. Less than a month ago, I posted the review of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, and in a short while I will be posting the review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

It’s 1929. The Great Depression is in full swing, and Americans everywhere find themselves jobless and destitute. George Pemberton and his newly acquired wife and business partner Serena take full advantage of a desperate workforce in their logging empire in the mountains of North Carolina. The terrain is treacherous, and if the falling trees or mishandled logging tools doesn’t kill man, then the rattlers or the cougars will. And if the rattler and cougars don’t kill a man, then a vengeful, cold-hearted employer will. Serena and her husband rule their domain with an iron fist. Any and all betrayal is met with instant, lethal retribution. The only thing that equals Serena’s hate for betrayal is her derision for incompetence, but she has met her match with George Pemberton.

Logs and loggers (Photo by "paukrus")

Urban Outfitters made the whole lumberjack look cute again, but there was nothing cute about the constant peril under which loggers lived. A slip of the hand here, a falling branch there could mean a lost limb or lost eye or lost life in this lethal world. (Photo by “paukrus”)

One thing is certain upon Serena’s arrival at the logging camp, having recently married Pemberton and come down by train from the upper echelons of Boston’s high society, and that is Serena’s utter capability, her stark difference from the bodiced, high-heeled, prim wives of Pemberton’s partners. Serena steps off the train in pants and boots. When Pemberton is met with a disgruntled logger whose teenage daughter Pemberton knocked up months before, Serena cooly orders her husband to off the man with her wedding present: a one-handled steel knife. It turns out watching Pemberton kill a man is a huge turn-on for Serena, and the couple begin their married life with a long bout of passionate, if a little psychopathic, sex. The honeymoon carries on for months as the couple plots their way to world domination, one logging tract at a time, but trouble begins when politicians enter the scene on their campaign to create the first national parks of the country. Betrayal is the name of the game, but it turns out Serena–aside from activities like taming Mongolian eagles and supervising logging sites–makes a hobby of dealing with traitors. The honeymoon ends the only way honeymoons can: in a wake of the blood and bodies of your enemies. That is how honeymoons end, right?

In the backdrop to the “Serena and George Show” are several minor characters, but none more important than a motley group of loggers that makes frequent appearances to comment on the changes in the logging camp and the changes in their employers. The men–Snipes, Stewart, Ross, and Preacher McIntyre–make spirited attempts at intellectual or philosophical debates to cast light on main events. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this tragedy. Or maybe, more fittingly, it’s like Tucker & Dale vs. Philosophy, which I would watch in a heartbeat, by the way. As interesting an idea as they are–blue collar men in stark contrast to the educated, powerful Pembertons–the chorus of men seem to confuse the themes Rash presents rather than inform them.

I couldn’t help but admire Serena’s unflinching brutality. She isn’t wanton with her power or violence. Instead, she acts with a singular goal in mind and never waivers. Serena is as logical and scientific as a thunderstorm, and, like with most natural disasters, is impossible to turn away from. Rash explores aspects of Serena’s personality at great length, but it was as if he couldn’t decide if Serena is evil she breaks the laws of nature or understandable, good even, because she adheres to the laws of nature. In several passages, Serena is criticized by the chorus of peons for wearing pants, not riding horses with a side saddle, and for training her Mongolian eagle to hunt down all the rattlesnakes in the woods, making the work environment safer for the loggers. “You’re disturbing the natural order of things is what you’re doing,” one logger says.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers. (Photo by “cesareb“)

In another passage, Serena is one of “nature’s paradoxes,” and is compared to a tiger and the black widow spider for being both beautiful and “the most injurious.” Serena is one of the most capable people any of the men of Pemberton Lumber had ever known. She is strikingly beautiful because of her competence and confidence, but several people, including Sheriff McDowell and the doctor who made these comparisons, begin to recognize the threat lying just underneath Serena’s poised surface.

 “Serena’s beauty was like certain laws of math and physics, fixed and immutable. She walks in beauty.”

The foil to Serena’s hardness, her personality like a force of nature, is the impregnated teenage girl whose father was slain by Pemberton at the beginning of the story. Rachel gives birth to Pemberton’s bastard son and raises him alone while tending to the property left to her by her father. Young, motherly, sensitive Rachel is Serena’s antithesis. Serena–whose opportunity to bear children (obviously, the most “natural” act a woman could perform) passes her by, whose only offspring will be the animal familiars she consorts with–sets out to destroy the mother and child who threaten her dominion. I still have reservations about Serena’s treatment as the unnatural, sexual yet genderless, psycho woman, because this story should be more than a cautionary tale against marrying the “crazy bitch.” Told from another angle, this novel tells the tale of a competent, ambitious business person in a ruthless landscape, and Serena is someone to be admired–from a distance, naturally. But I think Rash missed a few opportunities to forge a fantastic, lasting antagonist (or protagonist, you might view her), and, in the end, finds a resolution that tempers the wild, adventurous story line rather than affirming it.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn't last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn’t last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

I’m interested to see how Jennifer Lawrence uses her angel face in this role as a ruthless, lethal business person. Serena is the more ambitious version of Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Even more intriguing is Bradley Cooper playing the brutish, capable, yet utterly smitten George Pemberton. I watched him play the puppy dog-eyed bff in Alias, so I know he can do it, and I guess Lawrence and Cooper’s chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook was too good to pass up again. They are equally messed up in Serena, but in an extraordinarily different way. The casting choices should be interesting to watch when the film adaptation by Danish director Susanna Bier is released on February 26.

Read It: Serena is a fantastic piece of historical fiction that gives the reader a view of a dismal time in the United States. The research Ron Rash executed to make this novel authentic had to have been extensive, and because of it, the story is immersive. The descriptions of the destructiveness of human nature and the constant threat of a lethal, angry natural world are captivating backdrops to an interesting story line, and I got chills reading Serena’s increasing violence and insatiable hunger for power.

Don’t Read It: If you’re in the least bit squeamish, steer clear of Serena. Aside from straight up people murdering other people, the novel is filled with the deaths of other animals. Whether an eagle is preying on–in gratuitous, excruciating detail–snakes in the underbrush or the Pembertons go hunting for deer, the blood doesn’t stop flooding in. This is not to mention the natural brutality of the profession of logging, where the smallest slip could mean the death or maiming of a fellow logger, so in case you didn’t get it the first time around, this book is about killing and death and violence.

Similar Books: The one book that comes instantly to mind is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, if you haven’t read it, also features a married couple desperate for each other in a bizarro love-hate-lust-more-hate relationship. If you haven’t already read Flynn’s blockbuster novel or seen the film adaptation, get ‘er done, at least before Flynn’s novel Dark Places hits the big screen with its film adaptation later this year.

On Michael Punke’s “The Revenant”

20 Jan
The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

There are inspirational books that make you marvel at the perseverance of the human spirit, the resourcefulness of our minds, the strength within all of us that drives us to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds–books that fill you with the warm, fuzzy satisfaction of belonging to a truly dominant and admirable species. And then there are books that remind you that you will never be as badass as that guy. Not ever. Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant.

The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself. In late summer of 1822, Hugh Glass joined a company of Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers in their pioneering journey up the Grand River. Together, the trappers hoped to make their way to Fort Union before the snows set in and, along the way, pick up plews of beaver fur while evading attacks from the hostile Arikara tribe. Easier said than done.

On September 1, 1822, Hugh Glass scouted ahead of the trapping party and finds a campsite by the river. He is ready to take his German-made, silver-trimmed Anstadt rifle to hunt for dinner when he sees two grizzly cubs trundling up to him. We could all learn a thing or two from this scene: “trundling grizzly cubs” is equivalent to “you’re screwed,” because where there are grizzly cubs there are grizzly moms.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there's that.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there’s that.

I’ll leave the grizzly details (sorry, I had to) to Punke’s novel, but I’m sure you get the picture of how this turns out. Mauled and a whisper away from death, Glass isn’t given a chance by his comrades. His captain leaves behind two trappers to do him the honors of burying him after he dies, while the others keep to their course. The two scallywags who volunteer to stay behind with the ailing Glass feel the impending threat of the Arikara. While Glass looks helplessly on, Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald take Glass’s supplies, his knife, and his coveted Anstadt rifle, and they leave him to die. Only, Glass doesn’t die.

In truth, The Revenant is the tragic romance of a man whose most precious loved one is stolen by another man. Punke sets up the love story himself: “Glass’s rifle was the one extravagance of his life, and when he rubbed grease into the spring mechanism of the hair trigger, he did so with the tender affection that other men might reserve for a wife or child.” Aside from the care Glass gives it, the Anstadt is also the envy of all the trappers. He’s got the biggest, baddest gun of all the men in the crew–the gun that’s going to get all the ladies. So it’s no wonder that Fitzgerald jacks it when he gets the chance, and it’s no wonder Glass traverses hell and high water to get it back. The film adaptation ought to be called Taken 4:The Revenant. Glass’s very particular set of skills is what gets him through hundreds of miles of hostile frontier country to save his only love from the clutches of a perverse, amoral kidnapper.

I mean, who wouldn't cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

I mean, who wouldn’t cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

Teasing aside, Punke is careful (or perhaps he’s just oblivious) not to make this a tale of manliness–a self-stroking, exhibitionist’s tale of old school masculinity or a pining for a long-gone era of true American machismo. A story like this could easily swing from super badass to super sleazy in a few clacks on the keyboard. Props go to Punke for resisting. Likewise, the story could also have easily fallen into the tired trenches of white American apologetics when Punke depicts Glass’s interactions with local tribes. The author steers clear and focuses on the story at hand.

Punke’s writing style makes The Revenant an easy novel to consume. The prose is neither lyrical nor didactic, humorous nor academic. In a way, the novel reads like a lengthy Wikipedia article: events and name-dropping dot the book like landmarks on the way toward a destination, and no reader would be able to get themselves lost along the way. Readers are just along for the wild ride that is this mountain man’s insanely eventful life, and nothing stands in their way to enjoying the second-hand satisfaction of Hugh Glass’s survival and quest to get back what’s his.

Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy's John Fitzgerald in the upcoming film adaptation.

Ladies and gentlemen, gird your loins, because Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald in a battle of the beards in the upcoming film adaptation.

Read It: Readers who enjoy historical fiction and historical non-fiction will dig it. The Revenant is filled with dates, landmarks, and references to minor historical figures. The book reads quickly because of the utter lack of art and artifice in its prose, which some will see as a virtue, and which certainly makes the novel accessible to most.

Don’t Read It: Since this novel is based on true events and is written by an author who writes nonfiction, don’t read The Revenant if you’re not a fan of histories. You may be looking for character development or quirky little literary devices or carefully constructed plot points, but you won’t find them here. This is a novel that takes its cues from real historical events and doesn’t stray far from the trodden path. Punke doesn’t let his imagination much of a lead.

Similar Books: The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which looks like it will also get the silver screen treatment with a 2015 adaptation starring the one and only Benedict Cumberbatch and Sienna Miller, tells a similarly improbable story of Col. Percy Fawcett, the last Victorian explorer, who disappears in the Amazonian jungle in the attempt to find the real El Dorado. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is the story of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, and Daniel H. Burnham, the architect of the 1893 World’s Fair. It is written in the same novelistic style as Punke’s The Revenant, and the film adaptation might star Leonardo DiCaprio, to boot.

Michael Punke--Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador--is pretty badass himself.

Michael Punke–Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador–is pretty badass himself.

On Gail Tsukiyama’s “The Samurai’s Garden”

7 Oct
The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama explores the lives of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo–three old friends sharing a tragic past–through the eyes of  a young Chinese man named Stephen.

I’m back, bitches! Two-month reading hiatus, be damned. Thank God for book club for keeping me honest and keeping me reading, because I was going to a dark, book-less place that consisted only of mind-numbing white collar work and mind-numbing Skyriming. Needless to say, I won’t be making my goal of reading 70 books this year (unless I decide to start working my way through the 52-book Magic Tree House series), but I will be finishing the year on a strong note, starting with Gail Tsukiyama’s brief but impactful novel The Samurai’s Garden.

The Samurai’s Garden is told from the diary of a young man from Hong Kong in the late 1930s. Stephen returns home from school to recuperate from tuberculosis, only to find the dense Chinese city of his childhood suffocating and alien. He leaves for his family’s summer home in the Japanese coastal city of Tarumi, and in the solitude and peacefulness of the village, Stephen begins to heal in more ways than one. He sets out to bond with the summer home’s long time groundskeeper, Matsu, and begins a journey of discovering the heartbreaking and mysterious past of the gardener and his two childhood friends. As Stephen pieces together the story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo, the Japanese Imperial Army marches its way through China, leaving in its wake havoc and death. Tsukiyama’s characters all find solace in their elaborate gardens of blossoms and stone–extensions of life beyond the tragedies that shape their lives.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

As Stephen regains his vigor for life under Matsu’s quiet, unassuming care, he returns also to his true passion: painting. Stephen speaks and writes like a painter–describing the garden and Tarumi life in a palette of colors and reflected light and subtle lines. Tsukiyama’s prose is a lovely portrayal of both Stephen’s painterly observations and the delicate tranquility of the characters’ lives. Hidden in that same prose, though, is the deep sadness of Matsu’s and Sachi’s stories, and the volatile elements of war and pestilence. Side by side with the growing garden and peace of Tarumi are the lingering illness Stephen battles, the growing unrest in Japan, and the affliction that Sachi and her fellow villagers endure.

In the mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu's hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In Yamaguchi, the hidden mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu’s hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In a story about uncovering mysteries, TSG certainly presented some heartbreaking revelations. Tsukiyama’s understated style helps deliver the blows of Matsu’s tragic past in what feels like a distinctly Japanese way. I couldn’t help but think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose: a steady wash of waves that carries with it torrents of emotion. But as the book drew to a close, the shocking revelations kept coming, one after another. The blows felt tedious, and because they were tedious, they felt contrived. Other than this slight bit of melodrama, it’s difficult to find fault with Tsukiyama’s obvious knack for storytelling and her evil gift for making me want to cry-read for 100+ pages.

Read this book if … you enjoy gut-wrenching, World War II-era fiction. The Imperial Army’s invasion of China is a mere backdrop to the story unfolding in Tarumi, but the historical context is firmly set, adding to the beautiful but tenuous peace of Stephen’s retreat.

Don’t read this book if … your version of tragic romance requires Atonement-style sexy times and beautiful young people. TSG is a story of lost opportunity and youth, but tragic and romantic all the same.

This book is like … Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a similar story of lives full of regret, of youth and opportunity lost, of the intense sorrow of unrequited love. TSG also strongly reminded me of the film (I haven’t read the book yet) The Painted Veil because of the era, the quasi-romance fraught with regret, and element of tragic illness.

Gail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama has written several successful novels, all within a similar context as TSG, which is considered her finest work.


On Ismail Kadare’s “The Fall of the Stone City”

9 Dec
The English translation of The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare was published in 2013.

The English translation of The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare was published in 2013.

The first book I have read after a whole month’s (a WHOLE MONTH’S!) hiatus was Ismail Kadare’s The Fall of the Stone City, a choice made by my book club. A couple of confessions here: I probably wouldn’t have read this book if not for my book club, and I probably would have disliked it if anyone in my book club had liked it.

The whole reason why I wanted to participate in a book club was to expand my reading horizons. My tendency to read books based on New York Times or NPR or Time Magazine reading lists gives me a fairly narrow view of the literary world, so I always appreciate the nudge to get out of my limited, Ameri-centric reading habits. Kadare’s novel–originally written in his native language of Albanian–approaches a familiar subject from an unfamiliar, distinctly un-American (also, un-Western European) perspective. The Fall of the Stone City is the story of Gjirokastër, a small Albanian town caught in the sites of the Italian, German, and Russian empires during the second World War, a town that spends more time gossiping about what their neighbors are eating for dinner than caring which tyrant rules their lives, a town trying to stay grounded in a time of rapidly shifting currents. In this town are two men, both surgeons and both, coincidentally, with the last name of Gurameto. Because of these two similarities, the Drs. Gurameto–dubbed “Big” and “Little” by the townspeople–are inextricably tied to each other. Tumult meets the stone city of Gjirokastër, not when Mussolini breaks ties with Hitler and the Nazi Army invades, but when Big Dr. Gurameto hosts German officers in his home for a mysterious dinner party. History battles myth, truth battles half truth, and a Communist inquiry into Big Dr. Gurameto’s night with the Nazis transforms memory into madness. 

Here's Gjirokastër post-madness. It's probably pretty similar to Gjirokastër pre-madness, but believe me. Shit goes down.

Here’s Gjirokastër post-madness. It’s probably pretty similar to Gjirokastër pre-madness, but believe me. In The Fall of the Stone City, shit goes down.

It all looks grim on paper, but Kadare’s lighthearted prose–full of so many quips sometimes I thought I was reading Douglas Adams or Pratchet, maybe–creates a mood that’s guiltily funny. One isn’t supposed to laugh at invading armies, oppressed peoples, and torture at the hands of fervent, deranged, police bullies. Kadare plays with those feelings of guilt and propriety, challenging the way we read history and the way we understand reality. The most enjoyable part of this book for me was the thin line Kadare walked between humor and horror, between magical realism and psychological thriller. Big Dr. Gurameto finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble with the authorities, and by default Little Dr. Gurameto gets dragged along with him. The identities of both men are at stake, and all hell breaks loose. And by, “all hell breaks loose,” I mean, “things get really confusing.”

There are no flying cats in The Fall of the Stone City, but I think Dali really captures that whole "WTF, mate?" sentimentality.

There are no flying cats in The Fall of the Stone City, but I think Dali really captures that whole “WTF, mate?” sentimentality.

Kadare does, however, sacrifice plot and character development to squeeze in his lines of black humor in this regrettably brief novel. The strongest character of the book isn’t Big or Little Dr. Gurameto, but the stone city itself. Gjirokastër is described as a collective, a city without a stable history, “inscrutable as a sphinx.” Its houses are called “ladies in stone,” and its ladies are called “the city’s hidden face, its soul, its exact reflection.” Anyone can see Kadare’s love (or at least obsession) with Gjirokastër, which was his birthplace, and his passion shows in his writing, making the city the fullest character of the novel. This is hardly a bad thing, and I can think of at least two other books I loved whose main character was a city/place (The Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño). I would be curious to know of more examples that others have read. Please post them below!

I recommend this book to readers who like

WWII, war, magical realism, black comedy, or slightly trippy novels;


books by Italo Calvino or Kurt Vonnegut.