Lena works as the sole remaining transcriptionist of taped interviews and called-in stories at the city’s largest newspaper. One day, while taking the bus to work, a blind fellow commuter strikes up a conversation with her about books, reads her palm, and manages to utter the auspicious, poetic prognostication, “I’m looking inside your cage . . . I see words,” before Lena gets off the bus. After the woman shows up in a particularly gruesome news story (suicide by lion mauling in Central Park), Lena, who is haunted by memories of a mountain lion from her youth, becomes obsessed with the woman’s life, even violating journalistic ethics to get information. In this book, the journey to find information is more significant than the information itself. Summary Boston Globe
Debut novel THE TRANSCRIPTIONIST is not a straightforward read. It’s short enough to be read in a sitting but I wouldn’t suggest doing that. Ms Rowland has pared description and dialogue to the bone, relying on telling details (the colour of the walls in the transcription room says it all) to set the scene for her fable. Lena practically lives at work in her office on the top floor of the Record building. Living her life second hand through the news stories phoned in from around the world, Lena even thinks in other people’s words: esoteric quotations from prose and poetry come faster to her than her own thoughts. Like Rapunzel in her tower, Lena experiences life through another; the phone cord instead of long hair her only true connection to the outside world..
Tragedy touches Lena personally when a woman she met on the bus is found mauled in Central Park’s lion enclosure. Obsessively identifying with her, Lena has to know why this woman committed suicide. She leaves her tower to get the answer and in so doing, comes to terms with her own “lion”.
The lion motif—which I read as the wildness or chaos that seethes just below the veneer of civilization—surfaces just enough to intrigue the reader. The New York Central Library’s lions symbolize humanity’s hubris: words tame the wildness, we think. But do they? Do we think that, like Adam, we exercise dominion over creation by “naming” it? Are we fooling ourselves that borrowed sayings can substitute for lived experience? THE TRANSCRIPTIONIST makes you dig deep.
8 out of 10 Highly recommended to readers who want to stop and reflect on life’s big questions.
It is 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a mental institution known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospitals most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses the cascading events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. Summary BPL
The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to his daughter, Scottie c. December 15, 1940
With this sweeping statement Fitzgerald sought to—what? Comfort his daughter over the institutionalization of her mother? Dismiss his wife? Author Lee Smith, whose own father and son were at different times inmates of Highland Hospital, asks the question: Aren’t we all guests on earth? My question is: Don’t we all carry within us some conditioning or burdensome moral imperatives we can no longer carry out?
I was happy that Ms Smith depicts everyday life in a hospital for people with “nervous disorders” just like everyday life outside a hospital for people with “nervous disorders”. Both realities feature friendships, love affairs, jealousies, rivalries, work and play, sickness and death.
Narrator Evalina Toussaint, like THE GREAT GATSBY’S Nick Carraway, is a resident and observer of a highly stylized world. At first I was dissatisfied with the “parade” of characters: people who arrive, spend some time at Highland Hospital and then leave; people I felt I never given the opportunity to know. It was like reading a string of short stories connected by one cast. I was looking for an underlying pattern or motif to make the novel feel more—well more novelish. Now I think Ms Smith intends the characters to appear, and the title seems to support this, as “guests”, as “eternal strangers” who have been sent by families/guardians to the hospital where they will be insulin shocked or ice-pick lobotomized into normalcy. Why these “guests” need therapy or what happens to them afterwards, Evalina doesn’t always know. Nor does the reader. That’s life.
Although a fictionalized chronicle of a real institution, GUESTS ON EARTH conveys real attitudes towards mental illness and actual procedures considered ground-breaking during the 30s and 40s. These are sure to make you shudder, at the very least.
The novel could have been much longer. Ms Smith crams lots of Highland Hospital lore into 327 pages; sometimes I felt her research deserved more space. Sometimes I felt the reader deserved more time in the stories.
I received an ARC of GUESTS ON EARTH from Librarything.
7.5 out of 10 Highly recommended to all.
Hanging over the porch of the tiny New England bookstore called Island Books is a faded sign with the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means. A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. Summary BPL
A novel about books is to readers as catnip is to cats. We want to see if OUR favourite stories are there, and if not, to discover new ones. It’s like putting the word God in the title: your book is automatically assured an increased level of interest. THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY pleasantly pushes readers to add to our literary shelves and to imagine what titles we would assign to characterize the various chapters of our lives. Brilliant cue for any book group discussion! I haven’t composed a complete list but thus far, it doesn’t share any of FIKRY’s titles. That’s not meant to be negative—after all, I am not a widower who owns a bookstore on a New England island.
A scrim of magical realism hazes over the novel’s three—wait, four— deaths, and a Frank Capraesque plot creates a charming 21st century fairy tale. I think of THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY as the gender-reversed Disney version of Fosca from Sondheim’s PASSION. The homely, obsessed protagonist sings:
I read to live in other peoples’ lives…
I wonder how many readers would identify more with Fosca than with A.J. Fikry? Or am I projecting…..
7.5 out of 10 Recommended to summer readers.
Witch and Yale historian Diana Bishop discovers an enchanted manuscript, attracting the attention of 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont. The orphaned daughter of two powerful witches, Bishop prefers intellect, but relies on magic when her discovery of a palimpsest documenting the origin of supernatural species releases an assortment of undead who threaten, stalk, and harass her. Summary BPL
Filled with historical and literary allusions, A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES succeeds in raising the bar for supernatural and paranormal fiction. After reading this, you will want to research her characters to find out which ones really lived and, were some of them as awful as Ms Harkness seems to think. I enjoyed the Old French and Latin bits, also the information on alchemy. Haven’t checked whether Ms Harkness’ supernaturology (my word) jibes with anyone else’s, novelized or not, but it seems cohesive. Of particular note is that—to me anyway—the author implies a connection between the rules forbidding intermarriage among witches, vampires and daemons and current societal regulations on who may marry whom.
Although at times Ms Harkness strayed into Stephanie Meyer territory via a heroine that needs protecting/saving, I tip my hat to the author for shaping her tale in the style of historical rather than supernatural fiction.
7.5 out of 10 HIghly recommended to readers of supernatural fiction. Historical fiction fans will also enjoy the many references to events and people of the past.
ONE BOOK, ONE NIGHT
From an article in Saturday’s NY Times….
In communist times [1960s], we had this system where you would receive a book for one day, so you had to read it overnight…Now I can buy my books and put them around me.
Rev. Tomas Halik
This blew me away! Access to books is something I’ve always taken for granted, a sort of legal right. But to governments and religious institutions, reading is a privilege, a privilege that can be granted or denied. This gives new meaning to the title THE BOOK THIEF!