Review: The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland
A few days ago Lena Respass had a strange encounter with Arlene Lebow on a New York City bus. They shared similarities and an uncertain connection with the blind woman. Today she reads that Arlene was found mauled by lions at the Bronx Zoo after climbing into the lions den to end her life. Lena cannot put Arlene out of her mind. Fearing that she may one day be devoured by the words of others just as Arlene was devoured by lions, Lena sets out to discover Arlene’s story.
She closes her eyes, and the blind woman’s face emerges with the immovable faces of the library lions, then the faces of the lions at their terrible task, ripping away the woman’s limbs, her fingers.
And then he appears. Her own devourer, the one who has followed her everywhere for years, elusive and yet ever close, he always comes.
Lena is an awkward person. The last transcriptionist on staff at The Record, a major newspaper, Lena lives in an isolated world. She works alone all day listening to other people’s stories. She lives by herself in a small apartment for women only. When talking with people she frequently quotes from works of literature at unexpected times. And she has begun to think that she is disappearing and her mind is being taken over by the words of others.
She awakens in the morning with someone else’s words, someone else’s thoughts, ribboning around her brain. … “I sit alone all day with the voices. I’m turning into a tape recorder,” she says. “Its’ frightening. I’m turning into a machine.”
A beautifully written, fast paced read, The Transcriptionist shows us how easily one can get lost in today's world. Rowland demonstrates how language connects us to humanity when you bring your own voice to the world. Lena lives in a state of detachment until she connects with Arlene. On Lena’s journey to uncover Arlene’s story she meets Kov, a kindred spirit at The Record who spends his days cataloging the paper obituary archives before they are lost. Kov understands Lena and appreciates the nobility of what she does as a transcriptionist. For Kov, cataloging the obituaries is about not letting those lives be lost. If Lena had not met Arlene she would not have ventured out into worlds unknown to her. If not for meeting Kov, and others along the way, she might not have had the courage to continue her quest.
“I’m sorry, Kov. I – I quote from things a lot. I sometimes forget how to talk to people. And quotes help me.”
He closes the window and brushes his hands together. “You don’t do it to help you talk to people. You do it to preserve your distance.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I’m sure you have your reasons.”
While some of the plot elements were a little predictable, the experience of the characters and the skillful writing made this an enjoyable read. Watching Lena’s character unfold as she goes through her journey to find her voice kept me interested. I appreciated Lena’s awkward quirkiness and could understand how difficult it was for her to open up. Her fear at the idea of being swallowed up by the words of others is palpable. Rowland has created an endearing character that you want to see overcome.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion in the industry about the need to bring diversity to books. Initially stemming from upset over the all-white panel line up at BookCon, the conversation has spread from the panel line up to why we need to bring greater diversity to the book world as a whole. There has been so much conversation it has sparked the We Need Diverse Books campaign on twitter #weneeddiversebooks.
Reading the various discussions on this topic made me realize why it’s so important that there be greater diversity in books. One of the benefits of reading is you can open up your world through story. By not having broader diversity available in books, we are closing off the opportunity to find new worlds. While I agree it’s important that we can see ourselves reflected back in the books we read, it is equally important to get windows into those who are different. When you open up that window you can truly appreciate the perspectives of those who are different from you in many ways.
With that in mind I have put together a list of novels that you can pick up today from indie publishers that offer perspectives of other cultures, while at the same time offering a wonderful story. (Note: These books are on my to-read list, but have not been read.)
Family Life by Akil Sharma from W.W. Norton & Company: We meet the Mishra family in Delhi in 1978, where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju play cricket in the streets, waiting for the day when their plane tickets will arrive and they and their mother can fly across the world and join their father in America.
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe from Soho Press: Foreign Gods, Inc., tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery.
Long Division by Kiese Laymon from Bolden Books: This dazzling debut novel is a Twain-esque exploration of celebrity, authorship, violence, religion, and coming of age in Post-Katrina Mississippi, written in a unique comic voice that's scabrous, lacerating, tender, and wise. The book's two interwoven stories span from the "Freedom Summer" early sixties through the mid-Eighties and up to the present day. In the first, 14-year-old Citoyen "City" Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity after an onstage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest. The next day, he's sent to his grandmother's small coastal community, where a young girl named has Baize Shephard recently disappeared.
Curse The Names by Robert Arellano from Akashic Books: High on a Mesa in the Mountains of New Mexico, a small town hides a dreadful secret. On a morning very soon there will be an accident that triggers a terrible chain reaction, and the world we know will be wiped out. James Oberhelm, a reporter at Los Alamos National Laboratory, already sees the devastation, like the skin torn off a moment that is yet to be. He believes he can prevent an apocalypse, but first James must escape the devices of a sensuous young blood tech, a lecherous old hippie, a predator in a waking nightmare, and a forsaken adobe house high away in the Sangre de Cristo mountains whose dark history entwines them all.
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin from Dzanc Books: Sasha “Sankya” Tishin, and his friends are part of a generation stuck between eras. They don’t remember the Soviet Union, but they also don’t believe in the promise of opportunity for all in the corrupt, capitalistic new Russia. They belong to an extremist group that wants to build a better Russia by tearing down the existing one. Sasha, alternately thoughtful and naïve, violent and tender, dispassionate and romantic, hopeful and hopeless, is torn between the dying village of his youth and the soulless capital, where he and his friends stage rowdy protests and do battle with the police. When they go too far, Sasha finds himself testing the elemental force of the protest movement in Russia and in himself.
Have any suggestions for diverse reads? I'd love to hear about them.
Review: The Cold Song by Linn Ullman
With The Cold Song, author Linn Ullman delivers an intriguing story filled with deeply complex characters struggling to manage their strained relationships. During the summer of 2008 the Dreyer-Brodal family are spending their summer at Mailund, the Brodal family home on the coast of Norway. Husband Jon Dreyer is struggling to finish the third novel of his blockbuster trilogy. Wife Siri Brodal is busy running the family restaurant. They hire Milla Browne as a nanny to help take care of the children over the summer. One July night Milla disappears and her body is found two years later stirring up a wealth of questions and reactions from everyone.
Do you think about Milla’s mother? About Amanda? I do all the time. I think about her father too, he was such a quiet man, just standing there, broken, besides his wife when she was shouting at us.I want us to write that letter.
What do you think about when you think about Milla? I keep thinking about Amanda, can’t get her out of my mind, all alone, night after night, wandering from room to room, screaming out her grief.
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This was a good read. Beautifully written, this novel draws you into Masha’s life effortlessly. As you share in Masha’s struggle to find her identity you are introduced to a multicultural cast of characters who have their own challenges with their national and cultural identity. Dipping at times into the conflict between Palestine and Israel, what I loved most about this book is the way you gain these differing perspectives without feeling like you are being preached to or that the author is taking a side. This lack of political posturing is done by author’s focus on relationships and on the true individuality of the characters. While yes, some of them do have their own political perspectives, but these politics come out solely as a part of who they are as people and the lines are not always drawn as clearly as one might think. As I read the story I found myself giving thought to my own cultural and national identity and how it has formed my experiences and perspective on the world. I also came to appreciate how narrow that perspective can be as I found myself surprised by some of the characters’ point of view. I highly recommend All Russians Love Birch Trees to any reader who wants to spend time with a well written story that will give them pause to think about the value of greater cultural perspective in today’s world.
While the book description gives the impression of a desperate husband braving all odds to find his wife, The Facades is really the story of Sven Norberg as he deals with his wife's disappearance. Told from Sven's perspective it is clear that he is deeply enamored with his talented wife. So much so that it may have blinded him to her possible unhappiness and made him detached from his son.
Overall the writing is enjoyable. The reader is truly able to feel how disjointed Sven has become without his wife. We are able to get a close up understanding of life in this crumbling city. Throughout the story we are introduced to a cast of quirky characters who we only experience a cursory relationship with because of Sven's disconnect. In the end, however, I found myself undecided on The Facades. As the story started drawing to a close I kept expecting it to come together and make sense, but felt like it never did. And maybe that's the point. Sometimes events and situations in life, are in fact, disjointed and trying to make sense of it all can be a fruitless endeavor.