My reading life: a few good books

The other day I called a local, independent bookshop to get the status on two recent orders. As the shop owner searched for the updates, he casually said, “These aren’t usual books.” I took that to mean they’re not frequently requested. I replied, well, yes, being used to that with my forever hunt to find singular, good books. (It’s amazing what you discover when you go off the well-worn path of anything.) One of those books I’ve ordered is Blueberries by Ellena Savage. It’s published by Text Publishing, an independent publisher in Melbourne, Australia. I have no idea how I discovered the book before I ordered it, but clearly and thankfully it’s available in the U.S. I’ll write more about it, and the other books ordered from the bookstore, later. Meanwhile, below are books I think are equally unusual in their explored subjects and treatment of those subjects: betrayal in Berlin 1942, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the nature of memory loss, and Paris Communards clashing with French forces loyal to Versailles in 1871.

Takis Würger’s second novel Stella, translated from the German by Liesl Schillinger, uses an interesting protagonist viewpoint: We experience Berlin in 1942 through the eyes of a privileged, traveling young man who carries a Swiss passport. In other words, he’s off limits to Nazi intimidation, control, and power. He’s free to leave. He’s also naïve, turning a blind eye to the secretive German woman he’s fallen in love with. Friedrich recognizes the danger but moves through it as if it’s hot coals he doesn’t have to step on.

He meets Kristin in an art class. Afterwards, Kristin invites him to an underground jazz club, where she sings forbidden songs. There, Friedrich meets her aristocratic friend Tristan von Appen, who’s as enigmatic, alluring, and provocative as Kristin. Von Appen invites Friedrich to his luxurious apartment, where they fence, eat Roquefort cheese, and drink cask beer from earthenware mugs, as if life is normal. He’s curiously chummy, and he appears close to Kristin but also distant. When Friedrich learns Kristin’s real name (Stella) and the burden she carries, a chilling reality comes to light for this carefree Swiss boy.

Of note: The character Kristin/Stella is based in part on the real Stella Goldschlag. The fictional portrayal has caused controversy in Germany, some saying Würger lacks gravity in the way he uses the Stella Goldschlag history, specifically the atmospheric lightness of jazz and romance amidst Nazi horror and collaboration. You can read about the controversy in this LitHub article. It will heighten the story with insight and, with the spoilers, add tension. I couldn’t put the book down.

I spoke about Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan on the March 19 radio show but want to mention it here for those who missed the conversation and may want to get lost in a compelling epic story, specifically, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century.

This first book, in a series of four, entangles us in an unforgettable cast of characters who, as the novel progresses, become ever more fascinating. There’s the self-involved, paranoid Sultan ruling from his palace overlooking the Bosphorus, oblivious to his failing empire; his beleaguered personal physician and confidante whose son, Hikmet Bey, marries the glamourous, lustful Melpare Hanim, who creates erotic bedroom drama; Hikmet Bey who must stay alert to keeping his wife satisfied as he works at the palace and secretly translates subversive news articles arriving from France; an Ottoman army lieutenant who joins his brother in the simmering revolutionary beginnings; and the Muslim spiritual leader, a kind, restrained man whose wisdom many seek for guidance and comfort.

Like a Sword Wound, translated from the Turkish by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, is told through Osman, a middle-aged man who lives alone in modern-day Turkey. He experiences ghostly visits from the aforementioned characters who tell him what happened a century ago, the inside stories of lust, power, and politics. No need to worry about keeping straight how all the characters are intertwined: The book includes a helpful character index and also a word glossary. Love in the Days of Rebellion, book 2, is out now, and I’m saving it, with anticipation.

My Heart, translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth, begins with Semezdin Mehmedinović suffering a heart attack at the age of fifty. Doctors operate, installing stents in his blocked arteries and saving his life. The medicine Mehmedinović needs to take to prevent another attack comes with side effects, one being memory loss. After several years of taking the medication, in an effort to discover the extent of his forgetting, he returns to Phoenix to see the first apartment he lived in with his wife and son in 1996, after fleeing the siege of Sarajevo. He also joins his son Harun on a week-long journey through the desert as Harun, a professional photographer, captures the night sky. Mehmedinović wants to compare memories. At times he addresses his son directly. At others, he muses, searching and explaining to understand his present and past, as the two drive the empty roads, stay in cheap hotels, and sleep under the starry night sky.

My Heart is memoir disguised as fiction, what’s called autobiographic or auto-fiction. While it is a story of remembering and forgetting, it’s also one of foreignness and loneliness. “Always, on every continent, I’m an endangered minority,” Mehmedinović writes, living as a Bosnian refugee. Also, “Foreigners are no longer welcome here. And, as I say, the man at the next table was looking at me awkwardly, surprised by the foreign language I was speaking.” Throughout the pages, this sense of difference and isolation reverberates without drama or insistence, rather as a given, unfortunate, and sad reality.

The book is divided into two parts, the first part taking us on the road trip, and the second part, five years later, when Mehmedinović’s wife suffers a stroke. Much of Sanja’s memory returns, but not all of it, and Mehmedinović leans into what this means for her and them. In the hospital, Sanja says, “When I die, please have me cremated. And then you absolutely must take me home.” It’s a straight-forward request, but not so simple is the immeasurable nostalgia, and yearning to belong, that lie beneath it. By the book’s end, I was astonished at my enormous emotional feelings for this soul-bearing narrative. So much of the book seemed at first to be an informative recounting of events combined with a sifting of thoughts and memories, and yet, little did I realize, they were building a moving, sincere, utterly affecting human story.

Finally, I’m looking forward to reading In the Shadow of the Fire by Hervé Le Corre, translated by Tina Kover, to be released next week. The unusual time period in French history — of the Paris Communards clashing with French forces loyal to Versailles in 1871 — combined with the search for a missing woman portends a good book to sink into. From the publisher’s description: “Amid the shrapnel and the chaos, while the entire west side of Paris is a field of ruins, a photographer fascinated by the suffering of young women takes ‘suggestive’ photos to sell to a particular clientele. Then young women begin disappearing…” 

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