The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. by Jordan Stump

A shadow of tragedy hangs over this lovely, lyric memoir of Tutsi childhood in Rwanda, but the author’s love for her strong mother remains central.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga (Our Lady of the Nile; Cockroaches) is a loving tribute to a strong mother and a striking work of memoir.

Mukasonga and her family lived as exiles in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide of the Tutsi. This time in her life, when they were all together and alive, was short, but Mukasonga has vivid memories, especially of her mother, Stefania, a leader in the makeshift village where they were regularly terrorized by Hutu soldiers. In an earlier memoir, Cockroaches, Mukasonga depicted the horrific end of her family. Here, she focuses on her mother: Stefania is a hard worker, always with her hoe in hand; a healer with a medicinal garden of grasses, tubers, roots and tree leaves; a “highly respected matchmaker”; and a dedicated, ever-vigilant protector of her children. Saving them was her “one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving.” She is not a hero with a single dimension, though. In Mukasonga’s warm telling, Stefania has personality, a sense of humor and a deep love for her family.

The book opens and closes with dreamlike sequences. At the beginning, in the narrator’s memory, Stefania reminds her children of their duty to their mother upon her death. At the end, Mukasonga describes a dream about her mother’s uncared-for dead body and those of so many Tutsi. This sets the tone for the rest of the memoir, which often feels dreamy as it turns to childhood memories. Extraordinarily, this story is at times horrifying in its content and at other times playful; lyric in its style and tender in its handling of the central character. While the reader’s knowledge of the genocide to come hangs over the narrative, the everyday events often retain a quotidian feeling; Stefania and her neighbors worry over their children but also laugh and celebrate and arrange marriages. As a literary work, this establishes a rare balance. Jordan Stump’s translation from the French beautifully conveys this sense of both tragedy and day-to-day joy.

The Barefoot Woman is also an essential record of traditions and a way of life that are in danger of disappearing. It describes the inzu Stefania builds, with great effort, in exile: a traditional straw-dome house “that was as vital to her as water to a fish.” The importance of keeping a fire going, and why a mother would borrow fire from a neighbor rather than use a match. The significance of sorghum, “a true Rwandan” crop, and why Stefania insisted on a cow, the traditional gift for her son’s marriage pact, even in the inhospitable new place where cows were no longer a part of their everyday lives.

This is an adoring, gorgeously rendered memorial to a mother and testimony to a people.


This review originally ran in the November 19, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 little loaves of bread.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands ed. by Huw Lewis-Jones

This delightful, engrossing exploration is for every reader who’s ever admired a book or a map, let alone both.

In The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, historian Huw Lewis-Jones offers a collection of essays by authors, illustrators and designers as they ruminate on processes of reading, writing and creating, as well as the link between map and story. They consider maps in two and three dimensions, sketches, stories and outlines that live only in the writer’s mind, and argue that creating maps, like creating stories, is essentially an act of compression, a set of choices about what to leave out.

Contributors include Robert Macfarlane, David Mitchell, Lev Grossman, Joanne Harris, Philip Pullman and the graphic artists for the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies. Literary references in this gorgeously designed, detailed coffee-table book begin with Kerouac, Tolkien, Twain and Thoreau, and visit Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows and so many more.


This review originally ran in the November 6, 2018 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 archipelagos.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This surreal, riverine, gender-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex will fascinate and fire the imagination.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Everything Under is a dreamy, twisty-turning tale set in modern Oxford but calling on mythology and upturning societal norms. Daisy Johnson’s first novel (following the story collection Fen) requires its readers to wonder and follow along for a while before its connections begin to form, but the payoff for that patience is well rewarded.

“The places we are born come back.” At the novel’s opening, Gretel is a lexicographer who mostly keeps to herself, caught up in her mysterious past: “I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to.” She lives in a remote cottage with her mother, Sarah, whom she has recently found and brought home. Then time shifts, and for much of the book the reader sees Gretel’s unusual childhood, and the long stretch of adulthood during which she searched for her missing mother.

Gretel grows up living with Sarah on a river, in a houseboat that never moves. They forage for food and remain apart from society: “River people aren’t like other people. You won’t see the police down here.” They make up their own language, words that make sense only to them. It is a watery world of shifting gender identities and slippery, changing rules. Gretel is shaped by self-sufficiency, words, fluidity and a fear: something under the water called the Bonak. When she is 16, her mother disappears, leaving Gretel to take care of herself.

In the flashback chapters, an enigmatic third character appears. “What happened to Marcus?” Gretel asks her mother, in the later timeline when they live together again, the older woman having lost her memory and the words that mattered so much. But it takes many more pages to reveal who Marcus is.

Many chapters are named for settings: repeatedly, “The River,” where Gretel grew up; “The Cottage,” where she lives as an adult; and “The Hunt,” when she was actively searching for Sarah. In those chapters on “The Hunt,” Gretel explores the countryside near the river, visiting a couple who lost their teenaged daughter years ago. She meets a failed prophetess, collects a stray dog and excavates her memories. This action is every bit as wandering, confused, seeking and amnesiac as Gretel herself.

This is a complex plot with profound themes: a monster under the water, the shape of fear itself; the importance of language; the death grip of the past; fate versus free will; flexible gender identities; unanswered questions. Everything Under remakes the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, with its prophecy that will be fulfilled, no matter how strangely it must twist. Johnson’s singular, hallucinatory storytelling is well up to her book’s ambitious form. The result is spellbinding.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rolls of cling wrap.

Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land by Helen Thompson and Casey Dunn

A gorgeous display of modernist architecture and interior design that’s particularly Texan.

Author Helen Thompson and photographer Casey Dunn, the team that created Marfa Modern, offer another stunning display of Texas architecture and design with Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land. Multipage spreads of beautiful photographs depict 19 houses, inside and out, along with Thompson’s discussion of their individual histories. A foreword by architect Lawrence W. Speck and Thompson’s introduction put this project in perspective. Older and newer structures alike fit into a tradition that is particularly Texan, where modernism–as defined by glass, steel, load-bearing columns and open floor plans–intersects with what is special about the Lone Star State. Texas’s climate, topography, local materials and culture all play a role in the design of these homes, which are as attuned to their natural settings as anything by Frank Lloyd Wright. A house in Wimberley highlights sliding doors at both ends which, opened, transform the house into “a big, happy breezeway.” Another in Mill Spring showcases glass walls that open to the air, allowing residents to rely solely on natural ventilation “except in extreme conditions.”

Sites range geographically across the state (with a focus on Austin, Dallas and the scenic hill country of central Texas), and there is a definite emphasis on interior design alongside architecture: at least half the photographs display indoor spaces, and captions are devoted to the designers of rugs, furniture and knick-knacks. Fans of architecture, design and Texas will appreciate this beautifully presented art book, and its insight into a singular modernist tradition.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 loggias.

Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent

A reclusive young widow in the wintry mountains of Pennsylvania and a mysterious stranger from Uzbekistan guard the secrets of their pasts in a present that is still filled with danger.

Kathleen works in a small store at the edge of a state park in Pennsylvania’s Blue Ridge Mountains, frying burgers and onion rings for hikers and hunters, keeping to herself. She was widowed at 22 by a car wreck that left her badly injured, but she insists that she does not have a limp. She wants only to be left alone. But then a stranger appears out of the harsh snow of mountain winter, wearing dress shoes and a disarming expression; his native country is Uzbekistan, and he gives no good reason why he should be lurking out-of-season at the hostel next to Kathleen’s store. Despite her instincts, she indulges him with conversation and, eventually, a cautious friendship.

Sarah St. Vincent’s first novel, Ways to Hide in Winter, tells the story of these two people, each skittish in their own way, as they avert their eyes from the past. Kathleen keeps her world small: she cares for her grandmother, occasionally visits with an old school friend, warily guards a bad habit or two. The stranger–who has a name, but it’s rarely used; Kathleen calls him simply “the stranger”–speaks haltingly of a family and career back home, but there is clearly more that he’s not telling.

This is a story of secrets. Ways to Hide in Winter is told in Kathleen’s first-person perspective, so that the reader discovers the stranger’s secrets as Kathleen does herself; her own are as carefully doled out. It gradually becomes clear that Kathleen is protecting even herself from a past trauma. The stranger confesses to a crime committed back home, but this confession may not be what it seems. As the action of this gripping novel unfolds, then, the mystery of two personal histories races against the present: What will be revealed, and will it be in time to save the protagonists?

This novel of suspense has many strengths. Kathleen offers depths of emotional truth and texture. Other characters are portrayed at a certain remove, according to the narrator’s personality, but they open up by turns as she experiences them. Kathleen is thoughtful, as when she considers the morality of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wonders about Uzbekistan. The setting in rural Pennsylvania mountains is harshly beautiful and handsomely evoked. And, warning: this is a book to keep one up late into the night, its considerable momentum pulling the reader toward its finale. Ways to Hide in Winter is an impressive, compelling first novel, with characters that will be missed after its conclusion.


This review originally ran in the October 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chess pieces.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai

These stories about Chinese immigrant families range widely in their specifics, but offer a universal attention to love, hope and striving.

In Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai (Hapa Girl; Tiger Girl) illuminates a range of characters with experiences in common. This story collection is aptly titled: these are tales of Chinese immigrants to North America and, sometimes, within China. They are stories of family and community dynamics.

They encompass an adventure with a dying mother, an ice cream cake that potently stands in for a critical memory of childhood tragedy and the distinctive trials of a Chinese-American traveling to Beijing. A young boy new to the big city quickly learns to play rougher games there. While not linked by specific characters, these stories share certain things: the names and numbers of siblings vary, but details, like a treasured cloisonné bowl, reappear. Such commonalities, rather than contributing to a feeling of homogeneity, lend a feeling of continuity. In other words, families may diverge in their particulars, but face similar challenges concerning culture and relationships.

Literary form varies: one story examines an unfortunate event in public view–a body discovered at a construction site–from the perspectives of five characters, none of whom knew the deceased. Their somewhat clinical approaches leave room for the reader’s compassion to move in. The titular story begins with a simple shopping excursion and gets complicated by the protagonist’s English, which she is still learning. She relies on those useful phrases: “I would like to speak to your manager,” “I know my rights,” “rain check.” The shopping problem turns out to be a stand-in for a larger issue of filial relationships. In the final story, poignantly titled “Shouting Means I Love You,” an aging father makes a pilgrimage to honor his family’s hero; his daughter grumbles before realizing a profound truth.

Chai’s stories carry themes about borders–national, cultural and psychic–and traditions old, new and invented. As the world becomes increasingly global, this material proves ever-relevant. Chai’s prose is often unadorned, but occasionally startlingly lovely: “summer days stretched taffy slow from one Good Humor truck to the next.” Even unnamed characters prove memorable long after their brief appearances.

These evocative stories are variously funny, surprising, gloomy and heartening, ultimately about a universal human experience, of immigration and beyond.


This review originally ran in the September 25, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 training bras.

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet by Kim Adrian

A remarkable memoir, organized as a glossary of terms, that is part detective story, investigating a mother’s mental illness.


The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a memoir with an unusual structure to match its ever-shifting reality. “I’ve wanted to tell this story for as long as I can remember wanting anything at all,” writes Kim Adrian (Sock): the story of her mentally ill mother, how she got this way and what Adrian can or should do about it.

Linda, Adrian’s mother, has been diagnosed with a long list of ailments: borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, bipolar, psychosis, paranoia and more. Adrian’s father is an alcoholic; his memories, his assertions that Linda wasn’t always this crazy, “not like she is now,” can’t be trusted, because “he’d been drunk the whole time.” Adrian’s sister has few memories from their childhood. In constructing this narrative, then, she relies entirely on her own memory. But the trouble with remembering the truth of what happened is that Linda’s lies, manipulations and her own troubles with reality created a wildly shifting experience for her oldest daughter. If Linda retold a story, the very truth of it changed for Adrian. Reconstructing the past now is therefore a fraught undertaking.

This troubled and troubling attempt to reorganize a life is organized alphabetically, beginning with an anecdote titled “Abecedarian” about an unexplained event in grade school, and ending not with “Zigzag” (Linda weaving down a city sidewalk), but with the entries under “&.” “Until the mid-nineteenth century, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet,” and for Adrian it offers inclusivity, “a verbal umbrella” under which she is both mother and daughter, both happy and sad.

This structure, the glossary, would feel contrived or awkward in less capable hands. The narrative of Adrian’s childhood through her own motherhood and healthy, loving family life is told more-or-less chronologically, but in fragments, whose alphabetized titles emphasize the narrator’s reliance on words, on the power of storytelling to restructure her experiences, perhaps to fix something. The glossary’s entries are anecdotes, descriptions of family photographs or simple definitions. “Domesticity: A kind of faith, in my experience.” Deceptively simple fragments add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Adrian’s story is often horrifying. Both of her parents were violent; her mother’s emotional and verbal abuse is ongoing and perhaps more shocking still. The older woman’s circumstances, bouts of homelessness and hospitalization, and the younger woman’s inability to extricate herself from the cycle of abuse, can be difficult to read. But, see “Hope: The ‘only way of knowing a person,’ said Walter Benjamin, is to love them without it.”

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a feat on many levels. Adrian tells a harrowing story, surprisingly redeemed by her own sweet family, but in many ways also continuing. She gives it meaning without having answers to all the questions she still asks herself. Her work as glossator is astonishing and inventive. Her glossary is strangely gripping, with a momentum pulling the reader in and through. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. Memoir readers should not miss this singular offering.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nutcrackers.
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