The Monday Book: ASTRAY by Emma Donoghue

Astray is a collection of short stories themed around old newspaper clippings. In each, someone is adrift, out of sync with life, expecting one thing but getting another. They are really powerful stories in some cases.

The opener is about an elephant keeper whose charge is sold off to America, and his running conversation with his charge. It’s adorable. Less adorable but quite hard-hitting is the woman traveling with two small children, expecting to meet her husband in America, having been lucky enough to get passage out of famine Ireland.

Then there’s the Revolutionary War story, “The Hunt,” which covers a side of troop behavior that doesn’t make it into patriotic celebrations. Many of these stories have that undercurrent theme, the “alternate reality” feeling that makes them good fiction. So when you find out each is based on actual events, with just some ideas and feelings and motivations colored in between the lines sketched in by history, it’s a powerful thing. This is history with a small h, and therefore more accurate.

And of course it’s no small feat to pack an equal wallop of caring about a fully developed character in less than 10,000 words. Donoghue’s words are each carrying their own weight. She’s one of those rare gestalt writers, whose sum exceeds the parts. She makes you feel as though you know someone well, even though you’ve read two sentences about her.

An enthusiastic shout out for this book; you don’t have to be interested in history to enjoy the many dramas unfolding in this compact volume’s pages. Big things come in little packages.

The Monday Book: THE GENDARME by Mark Mustian

gendarmeThis book came into our shop, and its cover reminded me of the famous 1980s Afghanistan girl cover, so I picked it up.

I normally don’t recommend books unless I can do so wholeheartedly, and so must admit here that I found this book hard to finish. It’s slow going at first, and it switches its plot points about halfway along. Emmet Cohen, who used to be Ahmet Khan, is in his nineties, dying of a brain tumor, and having memories. Except they’re the wrong memories. He thinks he was a solider, but he’s remembering escorting Armenians on the death march to Syria now known as part of the Armenian Genocide.

And of course there’s a girl, Araxie, who has two different colored eyes, which is just one of the points that might make readers roll theirs. The light colored eye seeks to understand, the dark eye condemns.

Yeah. Right.

On the one hand, this is an entirely predictable story of the horrors of non-war violence covered by war. On the other, there are good moments of storytelling. But not for Araxie. She’s just a plot piece, which may be why I didn’t like the story overall and had a hard time getting into it. Emmett, well-described, is a despicable character and an unsafe narrator. I tend not to like books where you don’t feel some sympathy for the protagonist, which always made me feel a bit guilty and unsophisticated. But hey, Cohen is a creep, and he’s not doing anything particularly redemptive in hunting down his lost love-rape victim. (Except he doesn’t rape her, because he loves her. Un-hunh. A field full of people being walked to death, and he’s got his girl.)

So no, I didn’t like the book very much, although it is good historic fiction in how it describes the ways in which Turks viewed Armenians and the Brits viewed the Turks, etc. The writing is evocative, and one of the reasons I didn’t like Cohen/Khan is because of how well Mustian described the relationships he’d denigrated with those around him. Hoisted by his own rope?

It’s worth a look, particularly if you like historic fiction or don’t know much about that time. But overall it seems like the story was bigger than the book.