A Post-Exotic Novel
Antoine Volodine’s superb post-exotic novel Solo Viola imagines a society that’s one step removed from reality. With a narrative spiced up by absurdity and a dead serious message, this is a brisk, engrossing, and phantasmagorical take on tyranny and curbed freedoms.
Taking place over a single day, this timely, universal novel is split into two parts. Its first half plows forward in amusing fits and starts, introducing a host of characters: a trio of paroled prisoners who have good reason to loathe the government; a mercurial viola player, Tchaki; an anthropomorphic bird fleeing the authorities; a rebellious clown; and a horse thief who gets brainwashed by political rhetoric. Looming over them all are the Frondists, the all-seeing and all-knowing ruling party that governs the land with a cruel fist, subjugating minority groups like the negs. When Tchaki’s string quartet schedules a recital featuring pieces by neg composers, it sets off a devastating chain of events. These are chronicled in the story’s second half, which is told from the point of view of Iakoub, a writer who himself specializes in the post-exotic.
Volodine’s arch, knowing prose chronicles a world that’s a fun house mirror image of our own, where hygiene patrols stamp out dissents, chance encounters between characters lead to comedy and calamity, and the political powers-that-be ally themselves with a local carnival for a rally that’s fitting in its buffoonishness. By its second half, the novel moves beyond satire into tragedy: Tchaki’s concert is interrupted by Frondist sympathizers, and all the narrative threads converge in a violent climax that ups the narrative intensity to a fever pitch.
Haunting and elegiac, Solo Viola has its share of whimsy, but it’s all in service of an earnest meditation on the dangers of fascism that lingers long after the story is concluded.
HO LIN (April 27, 2021)
Polly Samson’s escapist novel A Theater for Dreamers is set in 1960 on the quaint Greek island of Hydra—a haven detached from the rest of Europe, where artists roam free and unencumbered.
After eighteen-year-old Erica loses her mother, she finds an unopened package, sent to her mother, holding a copy of an old friend’s new book. The book is set on a Greek island, and comes with an open invitation to come visit. Desperate to get away from her abusive father, Erica, her brother, and her boyfriend travel to Hydra for the summer.
On Hydra, Erica meets an elusive circle of talented artists and writers. She’s an aspiring novelist herself, but shy. She becomes infatuated with the island and its eccentric denizens. Slipping into a fascinating clique, she observes unabashed drinking, drug-taking, and sex. But Hydra is perhaps too small to house so many stubborn creatives without conflict. Over time, the illusion of this utopian bohemia crumbles, and Erica’s struggle to rise above midcentury gender roles does not end once she’s out of her father’s grasp.
As it turns out, the book’s free-spirited artists are not figments of Samson’s imagination. Rather, the book captures real people whose lives intertwined while they lived on Hydra, a young Leonard Cohen, an irreverent Axel Jensen, and the married collaborators Charmian Clift and George Johnston among them. The text is a glimpse at what the day-to-day lives of these luminaries might have been like.
The novel’s meandering, dreamlike writing style is delightful, comparing a sunburnt woman to “strawberry ice cream, a morning calamine ghost,” though some descriptions are belabored, dragging out the already slow-moving plot. Still, A Theater for Dreamers embodies a summer vacation, capturing the essence of Hydra in vibrant, saltwater-scented impressions.
AMANDA SILBERLING (April 27, 2021)
Featuring More than 50 Vintage Shops, Markets and Stalls
Designer Michelle Mason, the cofounder of the East London vintage shop Mason & Painter, delivers Vintage Shops London, a thorough introduction to where savvy shoppers can find “pre-loved” bargains.
Secondhand shopping is a win-win: not only is it “an antidote to throwaway culture,” as Mason asserts, it’s also a way of supporting independent businesses. Plus, it allows customers to furnish their homes and wardrobes with unique and inexpensive goods. The book details the locations, opening hours, and range of products of each of the stores it covers. Vintage markets sell a little of everything, while different shops might focus on records, porcelain dolls, or chandeliers.
Beyond fashions, glassware, and bric-a-brac, there are unexpected specialties. Straw London’s baskets, hats, and bags are all made of straw, while Town House in Spitalfields trades in hand-decorated pottery from France. Bibliophiles are well catered to with secondhand book vendors on the famous Charing Cross Road and Word on the Water, a bookstore barge.
Divided by geographical district, the book is an ideal resource for planning a day trip. Some businesses have a tea or coffee shop attached, so it’s easy to schedule breaks. Mason sprinkles in insider knowledge and tips. For instance, Tin Tin (part of Alfies Antique Market) supplies the cast of Downton Abbey. “Be warned, this shop doesn’t do minimal,” she notes about Past Caring.
The book features inviting photographs of a mixture of memorable facades (secondhand furniture warehouse Vintique London is set in an old railway arch), interior scenes, and close-ups of stock. There is a balance between overview shots and details, like a rack of tied-up rugs or a display of butterfly brooches. The book closes with ideas for creating displays, grouping similar things together, and using vintage linens as backdrops.
Vintage Shops London is an eye-catching tour through the capital’s secondhand emporia.
REBECCA FOSTER (April 27, 2021)
In Kevin Holowack’s novel Light on a Part of the Field, members of a flawed, dysfunctional family pursue their separate destinies, even though they cannot break their bonds with each other.
Ruth and Al’s marriage was unusual, marked by long separations, unfinished creative projects, and uncelebrated holidays. Now, a year after Al disappeared without warning, their daughter Gayle runs away with a boy she barely knows. As all three cope with their new lives, they find their own voices for the very first time.
Each member of the family struggles to make themselves understood by the others. All hold a part of themselves in reserve, always looking for something they can’t name and can never find, no matter how far they go. Al writes books of poems dedicated to his wife, but he never lets her read them. Distant Ruth always has more time for her paintings than for Gayle, who struggles with self-destructive tendencies. Gayle didn’t make friends until she met Lewis, the boy she runs away with.
After spending so long on their isolated British Columbian farm, neither Ruth nor Gayle is prepared for how the world greets them. As Gayle and Lewis, who is sickly, eke out a living with the help of a generous new friend, Ruth stumbles into artistic fulfillment and human connections for the first time. Even as Al slips further from them, his wife and daughter learn how to cope with the shadows in their lives. They remain unconventional to the last moment, when, for the first time, they learn to be comfortable with who they are.
Light on a Part of the Field is a quiet novel about traveling one’s own path, no matter how winding or bitter it may be.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (April 27, 2021)
A Memoir of Food and Love in Thirteen Courses
Josephine Caminos Oría’s memoir Sobremesa is warm and nourishing, covering family, food, love, and heritage. It is also a romantic, bicultural coming-of-age story with a touch of magical realism.
When Oría, a first-generation Argentine American from Pittsburgh who felt torn between two countries and cultures, traveled to her family’s homeland, she expected to unearth some family secrets. What she did not expect was to find her true home in the arms of Gastón, the young man charged with managing the family’s estancia. Surprised by love, she learned that the world can tilt on its axis from one moment to the next, demanding choices and commitments that shape the course of the future. Also unexpected, but welcome, were the visits of the ghost of an elderly man who appeared to be watching over her.
Here, Argentina is presented as a passionate and exuberant place—a country of tango, full-bodied Andean Malbecs, asado (Argentine barbecue), vast open plains, and hard-muscled gauchos who can eat, drink, and play hard after a day of wrangling livestock. And the Argentine sobremesa is presented as much more than a meal. It’s a gathering of family and friends that lasts for hours, and that meets two essential human needs: to be fed, and to belong. Engaging it requires being fully present with others, and lingering at the table long after the food is gone. Central to Oría’s personal discoveries were her family’s culinary secrets—an alchemy of love, passed down through generations of women. The dishes shared in her book beg to be tried.
The memoir Sobremesa is a reminder of a slower time, an exuberant, passionate place, and love as vast as the Argentine pampas.
KRISTINE MORRIS (April 27, 2021)