Review: The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky

It turns out that a TBR shelf was the best idea I ever had. I’ve made the top section of my little bookshelf into a priority-reads shelf. Now when I am wondering what to read, and I think longingly of library books, my TBR shelf is like a stern little taskmaster going “Oh no you don’t, missy. You have all these books right here in your own very room.” And then I read those books instead, and honestly? I bought or asked for most of those books myself. There is no reason to suppose that I will like them any less than the books I would have gotten at the library.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the first of a number of books I received for review at various points in the year, and now am going to review over the next week or two. I have this TBR shelf and it has made me into a responsible book blogger who reads the books she receives for review. (Not promptly, I can’t say I always do it promptly, but from now on, I’m going to bring it with the promptness.)

Anyway, this is Alina Bronsky’s second novel published with Europa. It is about Rosalinda Achmetowna, a Tartar woman of exceptional beauty, intelligence, and organizational skills (or so she says), whose ugly daughter Sulfia finds herself pregnant. Though Rosa tries several times to induce an abortion, Sulfia has the baby, a beautiful little girl whom Rosa names Aminat and on whom she utterly dotes. She knows what is best for Aminat. For Sulfia as well. And for her husband. And for everyone, ever.

I was getting a hell of a kick out of Rosa for about the first half of this book. She’s so utterly convinced of her rightness in every situation, what’s best for her husband, what restrictions will make Aminat into a poised, well-behaved little girl, what sneaky little manipulations will obtain a husband for Sulfia. It is funny. I have a soft spot for characters who think they know best. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that this is attributable to a character trait in me by which I always think I know best.

But then Rosa did something — and it wasn’t the something you might think — that made me stop liking her permanently. I am often surprised by the things that turn out to be moral event horizons for me, like that time I gave up on Snape forever for making fun of Hermione’s teeth (look, I don’t know why that was the thing for me), and I was surprised about this. I won’t spoil the book for you by telling you what Rosa did that put me off her. It’s really very funny, if you are a fan of exceptionally black humor, and it’s also quite sad. I would have liked to see a few more cracks in the facade of Rosa’s virtue, but mostly I was contented with the unreliableness of this narrator.

Here’s the warning on the label: If you are like my Mumsy and you are unduly bothered by mistreatment of children, this book maybe isn’t for you. Just for your information.

Other reviews:

Fizzy Thoughts
Leafing Through Life
The Boston Bibliophile
Largehearted Boy
JenandthePen
Indie Reader Houston
Conversational Reading

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

FTC darling, I am constantly getting you mixed up with the FCC.  I am always saying, Grrr, that FTC, cranky censorship snarl can’t even say swear words on the television grumble grumble grumble, and then remembering twenty minutes later that I’ve been ranting about the wrong acronym.   Sorry, FTC!  It was unkind of me to call you an ugly poophead and a fascist bastard, even if it was just to my sister!  Also, I thought you’d want to know that I received Broken Glass Park for review from the lovely people at Regal Literary Agency.

What I liked about Broken Glass Park:

  • The protagonist, Sascha, is an orphan.  I love a book about an orphan.  Indeed, the sentence that made me decide to like Love Walked In was “All of Clare’s favorite characters were orphans.”  For I, too, love orphans.  I dote upon orphans.  Especially plucky orphans.
  • Sascha is a fantastic protagonist with a clear, honest voice that drew me into the story straight away.  She’s tough, and she goes after what she wants, but not in an unrealistically sensible and fearless way.  Which is to say: She plans to murder her stepfather when he gets out of prison, lovingly reviewing her options for poison, breaking bottles over his head, and so forth, but when a local newspaper writes a sympathetic article about her stepfather, and she goes to confront the author of the article, she is madly intimidated by the newspaper office.  So right.  Teenagers find it easy to make murder plans and hellishly difficult to navigate adult spaces.  (At least I did.  And so does Polly Whittaker in Fire and Hemlock.)  (Er, I didn’t make murder plans as a teenager.  The other half.  Easily intimidated by having to interact as an adult with adults.)
  • I liked the way Sascha’s backstory unfolds gradually, so that you have mostly figured out what happened by the time the story confirms it.  Rather than trying to build up to a reveal, and BAM, explain everything at once, the book lets you see bits of the picture at a time until the whole thing becomes apparent.  It made the situation sad, rather than sensationalizing it.
  • Sascha’s relationships with her family rang absolutely true: her frustration with her mother’s romantic entanglements, her fierce devotion to her younger half-siblings, and her half-tolerant, half-nasty frustration with her guardian, a relation of her stepfather.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.
  • The end.  It was one of those endings that is emotionally satisfying endings and not too pat.
  • The translation!  Ah, yes, it is not often I have nice things to say about translated works.  I find them a trial.  Unless, of course, I have translated them myself, like The Aeneid and bits of The Metamorphoses, in which case I find them to be the best thing ever because I have conquered them WITH MY WITS (and sometimes a dictionary and nearly always the invaluable input of a commentary or two).  In the case of Broken Glass Park, however, I never felt I was reading in translation.  Props to translator Tim Mohr.
  • Getting this book in the post.  I do not often get new books at all, let alone as delightful treats through the post.  If I can get them used I do it, as I am an impoverished receptionist trying to decide on a Life Plan.  Still, there’s nothing like new books, with their shiny covers and sharp corners.  I was surprised at how excited I was when this one arrived.

What I did not like:

  • You saw this coming: Violence against women. It upsets me.  After finishing this book, I had a nightmare that a guy broke into my apartment and was just engaged in bashing up the mirrors in my bathroom when I woke up and confronted him.  I noticed I was dreaming, tested it by flicking the light switches to see if it changed the light levels in the room (it didn’t), and then went right on having the nightmare.  This was my second unsatisfactory experience of lucid dreaming in two nights.  I was led to believe that if I learned to dream lucidly, I would be able to have whatever sort of a dream I wanted.  I feel like instead of having a scary dream where I tried to figure out ways to get to my car and push the intruder down the stairs, I should have been able to start having a delightful dream where I traveled back in time and met Oscar Wilde and went to Greece and Rome with him and gossiped about the Theban Band.  So, not good.  The violence against women (Sascha herself as well as her mother) was not excessive, nor extensively described, but it upset me anyway.
  • Along the same lines: Sascha’s predictably self-destructive behavior.  It didn’t ring false or anything.  It just made me sad.
  • This one thing that happened with Volker.  Volker is a kind newspaperman who takes Sascha under his wing and takes care of her.  She becomes fast friends with his son Felix, and then THIS THING HAPPENS.  This thing happens that I can’t stand!  It felt out of character for Volker.  I wanted him to be lovely, but I couldn’t actually like him, because there was this thing.  I could not work out what Sascha’s feelings on the matter were, and the whole episode was jarring.

The Volker thing threw the whole rest of the book (until the end) off-kilter for me.  Still, I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I am with the writing and then translating of Sascha’s voice.  I love it when authors (and translators) can make first-person narrations work this well.  (Muriel Barbery, take note.) (Monsters of Men, wish you were here.)

Have you reviewed this too?  Let me know and I will add a link!