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All Things Tending Towards the Eternal

Kathleen Lee. Triquarterly Books, $18.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-8101-3061-6

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In her debut novel, Lee (author of the story collection Travel Among Men) delivers powerful observations about roaming abroad. Fanny Molinari, a middle-aged hospital unit clerk, has lost her brother Bruno in a motorcycle accident. In August of 1989, in the shadow of the quelled Tiananmen Square protests, Fanny travels to the People’s Republic of China to find a woman named Wen Li, whose correspondence with Bruno could help Fanny unravel the events leading to her brother’s death. Meanwhile, Zhou “Joe” Chi, a hotel clerk driving a taxi to support his hospitalized brother and family, is enlisted by Yevgo Velasquez to drive from Guangzhou to China’s western border. Yevgo, a naturalized U.S. citizen, hopes to return to his home in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Accompanying Yevgo and Joe are Liu, Joe’s scheming best friend, and Daniel Lowe, a conman infatuated with Fanny. Each with his or her own motives and desires, these travelers’ paths converge near a small town called Emei Shan. Lee’s protagonists are engaging and intersect in interesting ways. There is humor, mystery and adventure. Including topics like opera, history, and philosophy, the narrative moves in many different directions and covers a wide range of subjects as diverse as its characters. Lee’s novel shows off her exceptional storytelling gifts: fun, moving, and perceptive in its comparison of differing religious and political ideologies. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Adventures in Immediate Irreality

Max Blecher, trans. from the Romanian by Michael Henry Heim. New Directions, $14.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-8112-1760-6

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Originally published in 1936, Blecher’s novella spins the narrative of a nameless young man who suffers from self-proclaimed “crises,” moments of uncertainty and loss of identity, as he drifts across a small Romanian town one warm summer. Episodic chapters find him acting similarly to most of his peers—experimenting with sex, visiting the cinema, wax museums, local fairs, and attending weddings—yet during each of these events, the adolescent breaks from his contemporaries by ruminating on internal and peripheral occurrences impacting his life, and he searches for the existential and physical connection between himself and his surroundings. “The notion of the world as stage accompanied me everywhere,” he claims, and Blecher uses his account to scrutinize how we all perceive our fellow man, as well as the emotional investments we apply to inanimate objects. Blecher’s gift of language is exceptional. In addition to this new translation, the slim volume contains two essays, which provide backstory and insight. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Tell

Frances Itani . Grove/Black Cat, $15 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2336-7

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This heartening novel from Itani (Deafening) concerns the different tribulations of two households forced to grapple with in the aftermath of World War I. A maimed infantryman having recuperated from his injuries, Kenan Oak returns to his rural hometown of Deseronto, Ontario. He still suffers probably from what is today diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and becomes a housebound recluse while his beleaguered wife, Tress, works in her parents’ hotel kitchen. Although he picks up side work as a bookkeeper, he laments their unhappy, childless marriage. However, all hope isn’t lost in this tale of recovery: Kenan renews his boyhood passion for ice skating and corresponds with his old army friend Hugh recuperating from tuberculosis in Britain. Kenan is only able to confide in Tress’s middle-aged uncle Am O’Neil, an ex-farmer and now apartment maintenance man, who copes with his own strained marriage to Maggie. She works at the library and leans on her friend Zel Jackson for her support. Blessed with a “wonderful soprano voice,” Maggie loves singing in the choral society directed by the charismatic Lukas Sebastian who, unlike Am, is able to communicate with her. Their romantic affair sets in motion the complications that impact the Oak and O’Neil families. Their lives soon take several life-changing turns in Itani’s sensitive, well-written novel, full of a cast of strong characters. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Sister to Honor

Lucy Ferriss. Berkley, $16 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-425-27640-2

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Afia Satar is just another college student, studying hard on a New England campus and dreaming big dreams about becoming a doctor to help the poor village women in her native Pakistan. When she falls in love, she forgets that she is not just any other college co-ed, but a Pashtun girl from a village where the family’s reputation is tightly linked to the daughter’s purity. An innocent picture of her clasping hands with a boy on her college’s website catalyzes her jihadi step-brother to insist Shahid, her older brother who’s also in New England, remove the stain on the family’s honor. Honor is the heartbeat of this novel as the Satar family grapples with their responsibilities and expectations. The Americans—especially Shahid’s squash coach Lissy Hayes—have different ideas of honor. Tribal ties clash with individualism, as Afia and Shahid struggle to find the right path. Both are aware this may not end well. Afia and Shahid’s painful struggle is intricately crafted, and the cultural nuances are evocatively depicted in this thought-proving novel. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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