History mutes women; it also depends on them. This paradox is at the heart of a A Ghost in the Throat, an extraordinary literary memoir that finds life in buried spaces.
In her childhood, Doireann Ní Ghríofa got in a tiff over her imaginative expansion of “Caoineadh Airt UíLaoghaire,” a eighteenth century Gaelic lament, when her teacher claimed that the poem did not support the images that Ní Ghríofa named. The moment stuck. As Ní Ghríofa grew up, she learned that there’s value in giving form to the blank spaces between canon lines, because “in every page there are undrawn women, each waiting in her own particular silence.”
Eibhlín, the authoress of the poem, waited in silence, too. Most often spoken of in terms of the men in her life, despite her poem’s treasured place in Irish literature, she haunted Ní Ghríofa as an unknown. And so, between births, feedings, and moves, Ní Ghríofa undertook a passion project: an apophatic resurrection of the poetess whose lines echoed in her bloodstream.
Feminist and feminine, A Ghost in the Throat gives defiant voice to hushed womanhood, in all of its pain and glory. Her images incandescent and brutal, Ní Ghríofa writes about the omens represented by starlings and about unearthed fragments of teacups, but also about caesarean scars, bleeding hangnails, and the consuming fire of her husband’s touch. She seeks Eibhlín in old letters, aging spaces, and changed landscapes, and finds voids where women’s lives once were. Dead ends gather, but a slow picture forms nonetheless. Ní Ghríofa hesitates to let go: “I grip her nothing hand so hard that I wake to find four red moons imprinted in my palm.”
A Ghost in the Throat is an achingly gorgeous literary exploration that establishes a sisterhood across generations.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (April 27, 2021)
Part memoir, part history, and part travelogue, Migratory Birds explores the vicissitudes of language.
Mariana Oliver touches down in various times and places, showing how people described their difficulties there and then, and revealing what changes in language arose from these events. From Normandy to Neverland, the through line of this excellent collection is movement, and the essays meander around history in an appealing way.
The book starts with a short biography of inventor Bill Lishman; most subsequent essays focus on Germany after World War II. Two of the essays focus more on Oliver’s life and travels, with insights into why she focuses on travel and language elsewhere. Her work about Germany rebuilding after the war, and dealing with the Cold War, emphasizes the fringe effects of global conflicts, especially in how people talk to each other every day.
The most moving essays in this book deal with the aftermath of crises and the task of using words to describe, with accuracy, the tragic events taking place. In a piece about Cuba’s Operation Peter Pan, Oliver follows the lost children of Cuba and addresses them as namesakes of the Lost Boys. Without insisting on the parallels, the text acknowledges that the best way to connect with the children is through common stories. Alternatively, the essay “Trümmerfrauen” focuses on the microchanges that occurred in the German language after the war, and how the German people rebuilt cities, brick by brick.
Evincing reverence for language, the essays of Migratory Birds take a fascinating tour around the world, showing how historical events affect the way we learn words.
JULIA RITTENBERG (April 27, 2021)
Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow
Karl Schlögel’s cultural history The Scent of Empires tells the story of two perfumes that permeated portions of the twentieth century.
In 1913, French perfumers were commissioned to create a scent to celebrate 300 years of Romanov rule. But within months, the Russian dynasty fell, and the world was at war.
Notes for making the scent survived in altered forms. One debuted in Russia in 1925, rechristened Red Moscow. Another version of the formula made it to Paris, where Coco Chanel asked perfumers to match her new, sleek clothing style. One of ten numbered bottles was chosen and introduced to the world as Chanel No. 5.
The process of imagining and composing scents is detailed; both Chanel and Russian perfumers sought to capture the experiences of a particular time and place via their perfumes. Schlögel is a knowledgeable guide through the eras covered, showing how the bottles for both perfumes were redesigned to resemble spare, square glass bricks, and Chanel’s “little black dress” was likened to a Model T because it came in basic black, embodied sophistication, and could be worn by all. Red Moscow’s notes evoke northern forests, while Chanel No. 5 incorporates the freshness and excitement of champagne. Both scents survived world wars, economic depressions, political upheavals, and cultural earthquakes; both remain on the market today.
Schlögel’s work places each perfume in its cultural context. While Chanel is synonymous with No. 5, Red Moscow has no such lineage; its many creators fled communism, drifted into anonymity, or vanished in successive purges. But their skill and artistry is a focal point here, including that of Polina Zhemchuzhina, who headed the Soviet perfume and cosmetics industry and, despite her achievements, ended up in a labor camp.
The Scent of Empires views the twentieth century through the tantalizing lens of an iconic perfume and its Russian rival.
SUSAN WAGGONER (April 27, 2021)
A Mortimer Angel Series Book 5
Rob Leininger’s Gumshoe in the Dark is a twisty mystery that benefits from dark humor and unforgettable characters.
Mort is an ex-IRS agent and a current PI who has a knack for finding high-profile dead bodies. He’s on his way to a small Nevada town to find a hustler who stands to inherit over half a million dollars when he encounters a half-naked girl with a gun on a lonely desert highway. Before he knows it, he and the girl, Harper, are on the run from some very bad men. They get wrapped up in the disappearance of Harper’s mother, the Nevada attorney general.
Mort and Harper are attracted to each other, but he’s devoted to his wife, Lucy. With Lucy’s help, Mort vows to keep Harper safe. He continues to chase down his quarry and uncover clues about what happened to Harper’s mother. But as the dead bodies start to multiply, Mort knows that his and Harper’s days might be numbered.
This hard-boiled mystery is appealing because of the humble lead at its center. The outrageous banter and flirtation between Mort and Harper give the book a satisfying air of nostalgic unreality. Paired with Mort’s clear love for his wife, his new relationship has a playful, nonthreatening feel.
With several mysteries occurring at once, the book reveals clues to each in almost every chapter. The ties between events start to combine in the last quarter of the novel. When Harper and Mort run afoul of the bad guys, they’ve become such distinct characters that concern for their well-being is almost palpable. Gumshoe in the Dark is a wild, funny joyride of a mystery novel.
ANGELA MCQUAY (April 27, 2021)
Linked by incisive narrators and chance encounters, Rupert Thomson’s alluring novel Barcelona Dreaming braids three stories into a lush exploration of love and unmet longings.
In “The Giant of Sarriá,” Amy, a British expat, becomes entranced by a Moroccan immigrant who is half her age after she hears him crying in the street. Amy invites him inside. From this kindness, passion blooms, until a prejudiced neighbor threatens the couple. In “The King of Castelldefels,” Nacho, the alcoholic ex-husband of Amy’s friend, recalls his failed loves, and expresses newfound pride over a connection to a Brazilian footballer; signs of domestic discord hint at Nacho’s part in eroding his current relationship.
“The Carpenter of Montjuïc” takes a fable-like turn. Jordi, a translator who works with Nacho’s ex-wife, hears a neighbor’s tall tales about a chest; these overlap with stories of unrequited love. Throughout, nocturnal enclaves are moody backdrops for characters whose involvement with strangers are both distractions and subtle awakenings. Minute details tie the stories together, as do the characters’ siftings of time and the presence of mysterious bystanders, including a tall witness and a craftsman with an angelic name. Together, these elements result in a 2000s version of a city that exists between hard social divides and dreamlike observations.
The book’s dense, multistrand accounts encompass characters’ self-regard, as well as their unwillingness, at times, to see their situations from afar. Jordi’s tale, in particular, stands out. He’s a young man who’s too absorbed with the lives of others, but who alters his own course in time. His story line includes a fascinating story-within-a-story about psychological intimidation.
Barcelona Dreaming is an astute novel in which adults risk being vulnerable, all while dangerous secrets lead to spontaneous actions.
KAREN RIGBY (April 27, 2021)