THE TARTAR STEPPE by Dino Buzzati

This 1940 work by Italian novelist, short story writer, painter, poet, and journalist Dino Buzzati, and translated by Stuart Hood,  is an odd and compelling story of young Giovanni Drogo, a soldier posted to a remote fort overlooking the vast Tartar steppe.  It was built maybe a century ago to complete the string of forts along the border between the two unnamed countries,  and existed just in case the northerners invaded.  But it was a place where nothing ever happened.  Ever.   Most of those posted there wanted to transfer, but a few stayed, and had been there almost their entire military careers.

At first, Giovanni wants to leave, but is talked into staying for four months, after which he again decides to stay, and the rumors of an invading force begin to interest the inhabitants of the fort.  First, a light is seen in the vast distance, which intrigues them, and goes on for what seems like months, or years.  Everyone wants the glory of being at the fort when it is attacked, so they stay.  The lights move and appear to come closer and then, disappear for a while.

When the lights reappear again, they seem to be moving closer, and it is surmised the people to the north are building a road.  The road building goes on for years, decades, and Geiovanni grows into late middle age waiting for his chance to be a hero. The fort has been downsized twice, and Giovanni is eventually made the head guy, as the others die off, or retire and leave.

But Drogo himself falls ill, until he at last cannot leave his bed.  The enemy is seen to be traveling toward the fort on its newly completed road, mile after mile of solders, armored vehicles, and weapons, but before they can reach the fort, Giovanni is forced to leave, only to die on the way to medical help, never having the chance to prove his worth.

It is often likened to Kafka’s The Castle, and is a commentary on military life and the thirst for glory.

 

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones

A truly fun fantasy tale, set in England, sort of, about a village which has a couple of witches living nearby.  One is a woman, and gee is she nasty, the Witch of the Waste.  Her in-air castle is plunked in the middle of well, wasteland.  The other, with a fabu castle is the Wizard Howl, (Howell in his native home of Wales).  His castle in the air moves from place to place, and Howl, a young guy, has the reputation of snatching young women and  stealing their souls.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Howl’s castle is really only two rooms inside, and the rest is just magical appearance, but it DOES have a nifty door with four different settings which allows the residents to leave into different areas.  Kind of like an elevator, right?

Anyhoo, Sophie, our wonderful protagonist,  has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking the spell lies in the ever-moving Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

The above-mentioned fire demon lives in the fireplace in Howl’s Castle, having made a contract with the Wizard.  Said demon is a hoot, the whole story is a hoot, and will easily enchant readers from very young to very old, and I am not telling you which category I fit into.

As the waitress says when she brings you your meal, enjoy!

 

 

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles

“In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.”

What a wonderful book.  I absolutely loved this. Count Alexander, sentenced to life in a luxury hotel,  not the worst thing that could have happened to him, in reality, takes charge of his life, prospering even in his reduced circumstances, refusing to feel humiliated as he is escorted from his sumptuous suite of rooms furnished with his own family’s priceless antiques and items, to a 100 x 100 sf room with a postage stamp size window.   But, having taken to heart the advice of his grandfather, who said one must master one’s circumstances or one’s circumstances will master one, he begins by discovering at the back of his small closet a barely covered up door, which leads to the locked next room.  He takes off the door,  finds furnishings for the room as a study/living room, pushed his jackets back over the entrance and now has two rooms.

I am not sure of the financing arrangements, but he still takes his meals in the hotel’s two restaurants, has his hair cut at the hotel barber, and takes advantage of the other services of the hotel.  He makes further deeper friendships with the hotel’s concierge and desk man, the two bellmen, and the exclusive restaurant’s wonderful chef.

He meets a six year old girl, living in the hotel with her father, and who has nothing to do, and the two form a friendship of exploring all the far reaches of the huge establishment, down to its sub basements and back stairways.  She seems to have come in possession of a passkey, and they go everywhere.   As the years pass, and she and her dad move out of the hotel, she reappears from time to time.  The Count, having all the talents of the intelligent, educated, traveled, monied, upper aristocratic class, makes himself useful to the maitre d’ of the exclusive restaurant, and keeps himself busy with this and that.  He is visited from time to time by various friends.

After a number of years, he becomes the head waiter of the exclusive restaurant, an intimate with the maitre d’, the chef and the others.  One day, the little girl of his earlier friendship shows up with her own daughter of 6, and asks him to watch over the child for a week or two as she gets herself established in some remote place in Siberia where her dissident husband has been taken.  She says she will return to retrieve her daughter as soon as she can.  She never returns. Ever.

The Count sets up the little girl in his room in the attic, creating a bunk bed of sorts.  When after a number of weeks, turning into months it is now clear to everyone that there is this child living with him, the government comes to take her.  Because of his help to various government functionaries, he is able to prevent that, and the child grows up in the hotel, and after a while  he begins to refer to her as his daughter.

Funny, poignant, and at the end, something of a thriller, this book has it all.  Read it.  I beg of you. Read it for yourself.

THE MURMUR OF BEES by Sofía Segovia

I have been reading a number of translated works, lately, to the benefit of my horizons, expansion-wise.  Sofía Segovia is a Mexican writer, with several other acclaimed words, but I believe this is the first in translation.  The translator is Simon Bruni, and as in all great translations, if you haven’t a clue it is a translation, then it is a good one.  A good translation doesn’t just exchange original language word for an English word, sometimes it must actually rephrase something so that it has the same connotation and feel in English as it does in the original language.

In The Murmur of Bees, as I seem to find in most Latin American writing, there is that ever-present soupçon of fantasy, or magical realism, that small touch of the surreal that distinguishes the Latin American soul from the prosaic core of the American canon.

Written in 2010, the time setting spans the turn of the twentieth century through the remainder of that century, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, whose capital is Monterrey.  At this time, Monterrey is very small, and the state rural and remote.

An elderly nanny sits rocking, day after day for decades, in the shade of a shed on the grounds of the Morales family ranch, when she suddenly disappears, to be found the next morning sitting in the shade of a bridge, kilometers from the ranch, holding two bundles wrapped in her aprons.  One was a beehive and its residents, and the other was a day-old infant covered in bees.

And thus begins the story of Simonopío, born with a badly disfiguring cleft lip and palate, who was taken in by the Morales family.  Reviled and mocked by most because of his deformity, but loved unconditionally by his foster family, he proves to be a strange child, devoted to his bees and his Nana Reja.  He has an inborn ability to sense things afar, to sense danger, and even, to know a little about the future.  It would seem his ever-present bees tell him things, things they have learned in their travels and on the wind.

When late-life Francisco Morales Jr. is born after his two older sisters have grown and married and started their own families, his middle-aged mother finds him so different from his sedate sisters, this boisterous boy.  Simonopío has completely taken him under his wing, from before he was even born, and is his companion and protector.

What makes this such a wonderful story is the background of Mexico during those years, years of the internal civil war, years when the Catholic Church was banned, the churches closed or burned, the priests in hiding. holding secret services and secret schools.  It was the years that the plague, brought back to the U.S. by returning WWI soldiers made it way southward, no respecter of borders, and took its terrible toll on the citizens of the small town that was the center for life in the area of these ranches, where no one escaped losing family members.  Franciso Sr.  seeing what was happening, gathered up his family and his workers and took everyone to a far distant ranch he owned, where everyone crowded together in isolation to wait out the disease.

It was a time when land reform was beginning to come to the fore, when the government was seizing lands from the big landowners to distribute among the non-land owning, and Franciso Sr.  was hard put to hangon to his extensive holdings.  The bees led
Simonopío year after year, farther and farther from the area, where he discovered growing healthy, productive orange trees, planted long ago by someone.   He brought back the oranges to his foster father, trying to make him understand that this was the future.  The laws at this time were that the government would seize without notice any non-working land, so farmers and rangers were struggling to keep all their fields active, although they needed to lie fallow from time to time to recover.  But Franciso could see that by planting orchards, instead of grains, etc, the fields would always be in use, and in three years or so, newly planted trees would start producing fruit.  So he converted almost all of his extensive holdings to orchards, where they prospered.

Most workers on these ranches at this time worked for small wages, but were given a small house and a parcel of land of their own to work on a sharecrop basis, and eventually could pay it off and own it outright.  The bulk of the story revolves around one disgruntled man from the southern part of the country, who wanted it all now, then lost his wife and all but two of his children to the plague, and lived for revenge on Franciso, Sr.,  his son, and the foster boy, whom he considered the devil incarnate because of his deformity, and whom he was convinced had come to destroy them all.

It is told primarily in first person by Francisco, Jr. as an old man,  with a few disconcerting changing narration voices to third person, and to first person of other characters, but all it all, it was a compelling page turner, just wonderful in its execution and pacing.

This is her only translated work, I believe, and I loved it.

To the lower left of the green colored state of Nuevo Leon you will see the outline of the state of Zacataces, which is where I live.

 

 

AN AMERICAN PRINCESS by Annejet van der Zijl

A biography of a rags to riches American woman written by a Dutch woman,  in what I consider to be a wonderful translation by Michele Hutchison.

The official description:

The true story of a girl from the wilderness settlements of a burgeoning new America who became one of the most privileged figures of the Gilded Age.

Born to a pioneering family in Upstate New York in the late 1800s, Allene Tew was beautiful, impetuous, and frustrated by the confines of her small hometown. At eighteen, she met Tod Hostetter at a local dance, having no idea that the mercurial charmer she would impulsively wed was heir to one of the wealthiest families in America. But when he died twelve years later, Allene packed her bags for New York City. Never once did she look back.

From the vantage point of the American upper class, Allene embodied the tumultuous Gilded Age. Over the course of four more marriages, she weathered personal tragedies during World War I and the catastrophic financial reversals of the crash of 1929. From the castles and châteaus of Europe, she witnessed the Russian Revolution and became a princess. And from the hopes of a young girl from Jamestown, New York, Allene Tew would become the epitome of both a pursuer and survivor of the American Dream.

This was really fascinating (and envy-making) reading.  It kind of reminded me of that Shirley MacLaine movie, What a Way To Go, where with every marriage, the average joe guy somehow becomes rich, and then dies, leaving her a rich widow, with every marriage she gets richer.

Allene Tew started off as the daughter of a not very prosperous family in a remote upstate New York town, and inadvertently married her way up to be one of the wealthiest women of the world.  What was fascinating for me was the life styles of this wealthy class, the truly astounding amount of money they had.   She ended up with two titles, one a Princess (Dutch) and the other a Countess (Russian).  This was the era of Henry James’ The Ambassadors.   I often find biographies bland and dry, but somehow I was really caught up in this one.  It was meticulously researched and documented, and frankly, I loved it.

 

THE EDGE OF WINTER by C. E. Nelson

A nifty police procedural, right up my little mystery-loving alley.

OK, here’s the nitty, not to mention the gritty.  “A powerful man is found dead in his fish house on a frozen Minnesota lake, murdered, stabbed to death. His employees, family, and the local sheriff, all seem happy to have him gone – all except his personal assistant. With his death she is now forced to do something she thought she would never have to do, reveal secrets that will destroy the careers and lives of many – including a man set on being the next governor of the state.

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Agent Danny Carlisle has been given the assignment, her first as a lead agent, and she and her partner soon find they have too many suspects and too little evidence. But someone is doing them a favor, narrowing down their list of suspects by killing them off. The snow and bodies in Duluth accumulate, and Carlisle’s boss is pushing her to find who is doing the killing, someone who seems to know her every move.”

This is set in the Duluth area in mid winter, with lots of snow and ice and cold weather.  I don’t know what it is, but I love plots set in cold and snowy weather.  Maybe because I live in Sunny Mexico and don’t have to shovel snow.  But anyhoo…

A fine mystery, with likable law enforcement characters.  Our protagonist, Danny Carlisle, hard working, smart, driven, is a nice change from  the alcoholic divorced semi-sleezebag cop/P.I./investigative lawyer with which current mysteries seem to abound these days.

It is a little bit of Orient Express meets Fargo, without the tree chipper, but it definitely has enough bodies to satisfy the most demanding of ghoulish readers (like me).

This is the first of a series (aren’t they all?), but not sure if there is a second, yet.  Have to say, I enjoyed it tremendously.

THE MILL ON THE FLOSS by George Eliot

Let’s get this out of the way right now.  You all know that George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, and she was one of the leading writers of the Victorian era.  She also wrote, among others, Middlemarch, Silas Marner, and Adam Bede.

The Mill on the Floss was written in 1860, and is the story of the cranky and stubborn miller. Mr. Tulliver, his long-suffering wife and her three snotty sisters, and their two children, Tom and Maggie.  We watch them grow up, Tom bossy and authoritarian, and Maggie, headstrong, impetuous, and not always making the best decisions.

Mr. Tulliver gets involved in a lawsuit which he loses, the result of which is he loses everything, including the mill.  He falls ill, takes to his bed, and the family moves out of the mill to small sad premises.  The children grow up in penury, and Tom gets a job with his uncle’s firm where he does well and rises in his employment.  Maggie takes up sewing to make ends meet and then begins to teach school.

While visiting her beloved cousin between stints teaching, Maggie falls in love with her cousin’s suitor, and the suitor feeling the same, they take off on a boat trip and make plans to run away together, but eventually Maggie’s conscience gets the better of her, and they return.  The rich beau leaves for abroad, and Maggie stubbornly stays in town, to face the snubbing by the townspeople.

Eventually, a fearful storm lashes the area, and Maggie and brother Tom are lost together in the torrential waters.

Unfortunately, by 2019, this story is dated, old-fashioned, and anyone under twenty-five will be going “Whaaaa?”   But it is a story of ethics, morals, community standards, personal integrity, and the life of a small town in England in the 1820s and ’30s.

It has been made into a movie, a TV movie, a play, and a radio drama.