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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro *****

Alice Munro has been heralded as a fabulous writer by many other authors.  Margaret Atwood says that she ‘is among the major writers of English fiction of our time’, and Jonathan Franzen believes that she ‘has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America’.  This high praise is incredibly well deserved.  Munro has been awarded many literary prizes during her writing career, and was given the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her contribution to world fiction.  Thus far, her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

9780804168915In this, her new collection, Munro has chosen, as in many of her collections, to focus her attention upon individuals living in Canada – in this case, in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron.  From the very first page, the tales draw you in.  They are filled with very shrewd perceptions on characters and how the situations they have experienced have made them who they are, or have altered them in some way.

Munro presents emotions, particularly sadness, so well.  In the first story in Dear Life, ‘To Reach Japan’, the protagonist Peter’s mother made the journey from Europe to British Columbia with him when he was tiny: ‘When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe.  There were other people of course.  Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure.  He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.’

Munro weaves many themes into her work.  These comments and musings contemplate such topics as politics, feminism, loneliness, relationships, social hierarchy, separation, friendship, religion, adultery, the consequences of certain actions, morality, age, illness and loss.  She builds her characters so deftly, and makes them incredibly believable as a result.  One gets the impression that she understands them so well.  A young child, for example, insists upon her mother reading her the same Christopher Robin story over and over again: ‘Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony.  In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.’

Each of the stories here has been perfectly crafted.  Never does it feel as though Munro is leaving out any details due to the constraint which the short story as a form can so easily bring with it.  She is certainly a master of her craft, and this is another wonderful collection to add to her oeuvre.  The writing throughout is beautiful and so polished, and not a word has been wasted.  In Dear Life, Munro presents many slices of imagined lives which could so easily be real.

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The Book Trail: From Anne Michaels to Anne Carson

This edition of the Book Trail kicks off with one of my most recent loves – Anne Michael’s Skin Divers – and takes us through a plethora of fantastic independent presses.

1. Skin Divers by Anne Michaels 479087
From the author of Fugitive Pieces, this work provides a collection of poems, meditations on how love changes in order to survive and how we move from obsolete science to new perceptions.

 

2. Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair by S. Jane Sloat
I can find no blurb for this, but very much love the idea of what the independent press who publish this chapbook are doing: ‘The dancing girl press chapbook series was founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets and artists through chapbooks, journals, book arts projects, and anthologies. Spawned by the online zine wicked alice, dgp seeks to publish work that bridges the gaps between schools and poetic techniques–work that’s fresh, innovative, and exciting. The press has published over 90 titles by emerging women poets in delectable handmade editions. Our books are available via our website, at select independent bookstores, Chicago area literary events, and through author readings. Also a purveyor of paper, ephemera, and vintage-inspired arts and crafts, dancing girl press & studio occasionally hosts readings, discussions, and workshops related to poetics, publishing, DIY, and book arts.

 

3. Snow by Maxence Fermine
107943An international bestseller, “Snow “is “a novel that reads like a poem. Limpid, delicate, and pure like its title.”* In nineteenth-century Japan, a young haiku poet named Yuko journeys through snow-covered mountains on a quest for art and finds love instead. Maxence Fermine’s prose is hypnotic, and his sensuous love story envelops you as if you¹re wrapped in one of his dreams with your eyes wide open.  Yuko has all the makings of greatness, but must learn to reach beyond the silent starkness of snow, his ultimate inspiration, to find the color pulsing through life. Color enhanced by love, without which he will remain invisible to the world. On his journey to enlightenment he learns how fragile the balance of life can be through the tragic story of his blind master, Soseki, and the love of his life, a French tightrope walker named Snow. Love and art finally converge in a most startling and exquisite way when a special young woman opens Yuko’s heart to the purest of color and light.’

 

4. The Weather Stations by Ryan Call
The debut collection of ten short stories from Ryan Call, including stories originally published in Keyhole, The Lifted Brow, Lo-Ball, The Collagist, The Los Angeles Review, Hobart and Web Conjunctions.

 

5. Howling at the Moon by Darshana Suresh 28822274
Tell me, Atlas. What is heavier: the world or its people’s hearts?  In her debut poetry collection, Darshana Suresh explores what it means to be alive, and how hurting and healing can often be overwhelmingly intertwined.  She does not write about recovery. Instead, she writes about carrying on until you are ready to recover.

 

6. Letters from Medea by Salma Deera
A collection of poems that reincarnates one of the most wicked women in classical literature into the modern day. It is a collection that celebrates and understands girlhood, loss, and love. These are Medea’s letters to the modern girl.

 

7. Blue Hour by Carolyn Forche
393726Blue Hour is an elusive book, because it is ever in pursuit of what the German poet Novalis called ‘the [lost] presence beyond appearance.’ The longest poem, ‘On Earth,’ is a transcription of mind passing from life into death, in the form of an abecedary, modeled on ancient gnostic hymns. Other poems in the book, especially ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Blue Hour,’ are lyric recoveries of the act of remembering, though the objects of memory seem to us vivid and irretrievable, the rage to summon and cling at once fierce and distracted.

 

8. Men In the Off Hours by Anne Carson
In Men in the Off Hours, Carson offers further proof of her tantalizing gifts. Reinventing figures as diverse as Oedipus, Emily Dickinson, and Audubon, Carson sets up startling juxtapositions: Lazarus among video paraphernalia, Virginia Woolf and Thucydides discussing war, Edward Hopper paintings illuminated by St. Augustine. And in a final prose poem, she meditates movingly on the recent death of her mother. With its quiet, acute spirituality and its fearless wit and sensuality, Men in the Off Hours shows us a fiercely individual poet at her best.

 

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Maybe This Time’ by Alois Hotschnig ****

Originally released in 2006, and rendered into English into 2011, Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time is one of Peirene Press’ earliest publications.  World Literature Today declares that ‘Hotschnig’s prose dramatizes the voice of conscience and the psychological mechanisms we use to face reality or, just as often, to avoid it’.  Hotschnig is one of Austria’s most critically acclaimed authors, and he has won major Austrian, and international, literary prizes over his career.  The collection has been translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis.

9780956284051Hotschnig’s short story collection has been described by many readers as ‘unsettling’, and this, I feel, is quite a fitting appraisal.  There is a creeping sense of unease which comes over one as soon as the stories are begun.  The initial tale, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, is about a pair of neighbours who sit side by side in the narrator’s eyeline for days on end: ‘… they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves’.  This has rather a distressing effect upon our unnamed observer: ‘Every day, every night, always the same.  Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear’.  His reaction is perhaps the most interesting one which Hotschnig could have come up with in this instance: ‘I drew closer to them because they rejected me.  Rejection, after all, is still a kind of contact’.  As one might expect as the midway point is reached in this tale, the narrator soon becomes obsessed: ‘I decided to observe them even more closely to calm my unease, as if I no longer had a life of my own but lived only through them’.

There are nine short stories included within Maybe This Time, all of which have rather intriguing titles.  These include the likes of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, and ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’.  Some rather thoughtful ideas have been woven in; they have a definite profundity at times: ‘We looked at the same views, heard the same noises.  We shared a common world and were separated by it’.  Each of the tales is sharp; every one relatively brief, but all of which have a wealth of emotions and scenes packed into them.  Hotschnig is shrewd, and in control at all times; he makes the reader fear impending danger with the most subtle of hints.

No particular time periods have been specified within the collection, and only small clues have been left as to when each story takes place.  They are, one and all, essentially suspended in time.  I did find a couple of the stories a little abrupt in terms of their endings, but this collection is certainly a memorable one.  There is a great fluency in Lewis’ translation, which helps to render Maybe This Time one of the creepiest reads on Peirene’s list thus far.

 

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Book Haul (February 2017)

This post is a little early, coming as it is before February has even finished, but I am going on holiday in a couple of days, and wanted to ensure that I remembered to post it.  Without further ado, here are the books which I purchased during February, a month in which I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy anything new.  I bought thirteen books in total; unlucky for some, but lucky for my bookshelf!

9781743215524We begin the month with two travel guides.  My boyfriend and I had originally planned to travel to Riga, and so I bought the Riga Rough Guide before trying to book our flights (which, it turns out, is nigh on impossible from Scotland if we don’t want to change plane twice and have a thirteen-hour long journey…).  After three hours of searching supposed ‘direct’ flights – which was rather trying, believe me! – we eventually decided to book a trip to easy-to-get-to Amsterdam, hence my subsequent purchase of a Lonely Planet Guide to The Netherlands.  The Lonely Planet guides are a little pricier than others, but I absolutely love them, and try to buy them for as many trips as I can.

I lucked out somewhat by finding an omnibus collection of two Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels.  I have wanted to read The Blank Wall for an absolute age, but have never found a physical copy of it, and those online were rather expensive.  I managed, somehow, to order a used copy with the aforementioned, as well as another of her novels, The Innocent Mrs. Duff.  Good old Internet!

February was, I suppose, a month of classics for me – or modern ones, at least!  I 18176595purchased my final outstanding William Maxwell novel, Time Will Darken It, which I am both ecstatic and rather sad about reading.  I also chose two books by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the Virago edition of her Diaries, and the also gorgeous green spined Selected Stories.  I love Warner’s work so much, and am just as excited to get to her non-fiction as I am to read more of her short fiction.  Carrying on with the green spines, I also bought one of my last outstanding Nina Bawden novels for some well-needed escapism away from my research work.  I chose A Little Love, A Little Learning almost at random, but have later found that it has been well reviewed by several of my friends, and bloggers whom I very much admire.

Two French classics have also made their way onto my shelves.  Whilst neither was 716381actually upon my original Reading France Project list, one of my esteemed reading friends on Goodreads gave both five star reviews, and I just couldn’t resist them.  Thus, I am very much looking forward to Andre Gide‘s Strait is the Gate, and Therese by Francois Mauriac, both of which I endeavour to read whilst in France over Easter.

Two further short story collections and two contemporary novels finish my haul for this 9780307957795month.  With regard to the short fiction, I chose to finally get my hands on a copy of Karen Russell‘s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I have wanted for such a long time.  As Mother’s Day is also coming up, I plumped for a gorgeous Everyman’s Library hardback edition of Stories of Motherhood, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell.  With regard to my contemporary picks, I chose One by Sarah Crossan, in which my interest was piqued after watching a BBC2 documentary encouraging teenagers in one particular school to read, and Liz Jensen‘s The Uninvited.  I’ve not read anything by Jensen in a long time, and the storyline intrigued me rather.

So ends this month’s book haul!  Which books have you bought and received this month?  Have you read any of these?  Which should I begin with?

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‘Tales of the German Imagination: from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann’, edited by Peter Wortsman ***

Tales of the German Imagination, from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, is a ‘collection of fantastical, strange and compelling stories from 200 years of German literature’. It ‘includes such literary giants as the Brothers Grimm, Kafka, Musil and Rilke, as well as many surprising and unexpected voices’.

9780141198804The introduction has been written by translator Peter Wortsman, who has also edited the collection. In it, he states that ‘fear has indeed proven rich fodder for fantasy in the German storytelling tradition’, and that ‘the darkest German literary confections are such a pleasure to read because they are also spiked with humour – therein lies their enduring appeal’. Wortsman goes on to say that in editing the anthology, he has aimed to include stories and extracts ‘from a span of several centuries and from various literary movements born of crisis and doubt’.

Tales of the German Imagination is split into three separate parts, and includes predominantly male authors. In fact, Ingeborg Bachmann, mentioned in the title, is one of only two females featured in the collection. There are some other famous names amongst the authors – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine and Rainer Maria Rilke, for example. The anthology begins with three stories by the Brothers Grimm – ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘The Children of Hameln’, which is their telling of a tale more commonly known as ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Whilst these stories are relatively well known in the English speaking world, others from the less popular authors feel fresh and add a nice twist to such a collection.

The stories themselves provide a varied mixture of themes and styles. Some are told from the first person perspective and others from the third, and we are immersed into a variety of historical settings where we meet a whole host of diverse protagonists and bystanders. The settings too are diverse, from Germany to Italy and from the Netherlands to the United States. Several of the tales of much longer than others – ‘The Sandman’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘Rune Mountain’ by Ludwig Tieck and ‘Peter Schlemiel’ by Adelbert von Chamisso, for example, read more like novellas than short stories. The majority are standalone pieces, but several of the tales have been taken from longer works of fiction. Throughout, many different themes and literary elements have been made use of, from magic, the unexplained and the macabre to poverty, war and peace and the concept of madness.

The stories themselves have been nicely varied for the most part, and there is sure to be something to suit the tastes of even the most particular short story connoisseur. All relate to the human psyche in some way, and the most stunning and unsettling are provided by the Brothers Grimm, Georg Heym and Kurt Schwitters. Some of the tales are rather disturbed and the subject matter is not easy to read about at times, but the starkness of their telling and events certainly pack a punch. In Georg Heym’s ‘The Lunatic’, his protagonist ‘pranced about with two skulls stuck to his feet, like eggshells he’d just stepped out of and hadn’t yet shaken off… and then he stamped down, splotch, so the brains splattered nicely like a little golden fountain’. In Kurt Schwitters’ ‘The Onion’, the protagonist tells us: ‘It was a very momentous day, the day on which I was to be slaughtered… I had never yet in all my life been slaughtered’.

In some cases, the year in which the story was published is included below its title, but in others the life span of the author is included. This inconsistency is a little confusing at times, as is the way in which none of the stories have been included in a chronological order. Ordering the stories in such a way would have made it easy for the reader to see how the darker elements of German fiction have progressed as the years have passed. The biographical information pertaining to each of the authors has been tucked away in an appendix at the back of the volume, and it is a shame that these short yet informative paragraphs have not been paired with the stories themselves.

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‘Russian Magic Tales: From Pushkin to Platonov’, edited by Robert Chandler ****

9780141442235Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, which presents ‘a unique collection of Russian folktales from the last 200 years’, is edited by Robert Chandler. Chandler informs us that in Russia, ‘where the oral tradition remained much stronger for a longer period, these magic tales retained their cultural importance’.

The informative introduction embraces not just Russian fairytales, but those from around the world. Chandler sets out the cultural differences between them and marvels at how the stories differ from one country to the next, as well as spanning the history and progress of such tales. A useful appendix has been included which gives explanations of all of the Russian words which find themselves within the text, and in this way the cultural understanding of the reader is broadened. An essay by Sibelan Forrester regarding the Baba Yaga interpretations in Russian folklore and literature has also been included, and this provides a lovely addition to the volume.

The volume’s blurb alone is inviting and intriguing in equal measure: ‘young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds’. Half of the stories presented here have been collected by folklorists over the past two centuries, whilst the others are reworkings of oral tales by famous Russian authors, who include Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov.

The collection has been split into seven different sections, all of which pertain to tales written by a single author, or which come under the categories of ‘The First Folktale Collections’, ‘Early Twentieth-Century Collections’ and ‘Folktale Collections from the Soviet Period’. A biography has been included for each separate author before the story or stories of theirs which are featured in Russian Magic Tales, and the majority of these talk, in some detail, about the fascinations with folklore and fairytales which have been present since many of the authors’ childhoods.

The tales themselves range from the well-known – ‘Jack Frost’ and the portrayal of the witch ‘Baba Yaga’ – to those which are firmly set within the realms of Russian culture and geography and are not so well known outside it – ‘The Tsarevna Who Would Not Laugh’, ‘The Pike’s Command’ and ‘The Stone Flower’. In this way, the sense of place created is strong from the start. Each provides a variety of different styles, from the narrative and prose techniques used to the information which they include. Pushkin’s stories are told in verse, Onchukov’s in a traditional ‘once upon a time’ format, Ozarovskaya’s in rather a matter-of-fact style and Zelenin’s sole story in the collection takes the format of a numerical list.

Magical elements of many different kinds are woven throughout the collection. From the first page we meet talking fish and birds, witches and wizards, and magical spells. All of the classic fairytale elements can be found within the book’s pages – poverty and wealth, unfairness, cruelty, death, orphans, royalty and commonfolk, the discrepancies between the young and the elderly, incest, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. There are retellings of ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘Cinderella’, and although we in the English-speaking world know some of the tales relatively well, the stories are incredibly clever and provide many unexpected twists and turns.

In a story entitled ‘Vasilisa the Fair’, the darker elements of magical tales are ever present: ‘Late in the evening she came to baba yaga’s hut. Round the hut was a fence made of bones. Skulls with empty eyeholes looked down from the stakes. The gate was made from the bones of people’s legs, the bolts were thumbs and fingers, and the lock was a mouth with sharp teeth’.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov is a wonderful read for anyone interested in fairytales and folklore, or who merely wants to broaden their horizons with regard to Russian authors. A great introduction to a wealth of Russian authors is provided here, and there is sure to be a tale which will delight everyone in this collection. The stories have been ordered incredibly well, and the collection is easy to dip in and out of. Reading the volume feels both nostalgic and fresh at the same time, and Chandler has achieved just the right balance of both.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The fifth and final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books series is here.  These are so fun to create, particularly as I seek out underrated books myself to read and review.  Have you found any hidden gems this year?  Which were the most recent underrated books which you read?

97818702068081. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis
First published in 1934 to great acclaim, this enchanting autobiographical novel set in the Welsh borders vividly evokes the essence of childhood and a vanished way of life through the eyes of nine-year-old Lucy. She describes the great events—haymaking, harvest, a seaside holiday—set against the tapestry of the everyday  routines of summer and winter, with the constant background of the garden outside. There is the world of the imagination too, which includes the invested heroes and heroines of childhood whose deeds are as important as those of any real person. Recapturing this world in a deceptively simple style, this novel brings to life the whims, terrors, and intense feelings of childhood.

 

2. Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure by Joseph Wechsberg
After World War II, the author revisited some of Europe’s most famous restaurants. But every chapter in this book goes far beyond food critiques: each is a delightful essay on the art of graceful living.

 

3. The Alone to the Alone by Gwyn Thomas 6393369
Uniting the author’s lyrical and philosophical flights of narrative in a satire whose savagery is only relieved by irrepressible laughter, this work explores the underlying meaning of South Wales’ history, which is not so much documented as laid bare for universal dissection and dissemination. The novel, with its distinctive plural narration, is a choric commentary on human illusion and knowledge, on power and its attendant deprivation, on dreams and their destruction.

 

4. Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.  Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

 

184063185. Written in the Stars by Lois Duncan
An extraordinary look at the genesis of a great writer’s career, Written in the Stars is a collection of Lois Duncan’s earliest stories. composed from the ages of 13 through 22. From family relationships, to the joy and angst of first love, to the struggles of a young soldier returning from war with PTSD, this unique book, whose stories originally appeared in magazines such as Seventeen and American Girl, is a marvelous portrait of the depth and breadth of Duncan’s youthful work. As a special bonus, Lois has followed each story with a brief essay describing her work and life at the time the story was written. Written in the Stars is a must-have addition to the library of work from this spectacular and groundbreaking young adult author.

 

6. A Dog’s Head by Jean Dutourd
Jean Dutourd’s A Dog’s Head is a wonderful piece of magical realism, reminiscent of Voltaire, Borges and Kafka. With biting wit, Dutourd presents the story of Edmund Du Chaillu, a boy born, to his bourgeois parents’s horror, with the head of a spaniel. Edmund must endure his school-mate’s teasing as well as an urge to carry a newspaper in his mouth. This is the story of his life, trials, and joys as he searches for a normal life of worth and love.

 

7. Mario and the Magician: and Other Stories by Thomas Mann 1573375
In this extraordinary collection of short stories, Thomas Mann uses settings as diverse as Germany, Italy, the Holy Land and the Far East to explore a theme which always preoccupied him: the two faces of things. Thus, in A Man and His Dog and Disorder and Early Sorrow, small domestic tempests become symbolic of the discordant muddle of humanity. In The Transposed Heads and The Tables of Law the demands of the intellect clash with the desires of physiology, an idea developed more fully in The Black Swan, where body and spirit are tragically out of harmony. Written between 1918 and 1953, these stories offer us both an insight into Mann’s development of thought and also some impressive literature from these interesting times.

 

8. A Seventh Man by John Berger
Why does the Western world look to migrant laborers to perform the most menial tasks? What compels people to leave their homes and accept this humiliating situation? In A Seventh Man, John Berger and Jean Mohr come to grips with what it is to be a migrant worker—the material circumstances and the inner experience—and, in doing so, reveal how the migrant is not so much on the margins of modern life, but absolutely central to it. First published in 1975, this finely wrought exploration remains as urgent as ever, presenting a mode of living that pervades the countries of the West and yet is excluded from much of its culture.

 

48862679. The City of Yes by Peter Oliva
Alive with history, myth, and wonder, The City of Yes is a luminous novel of parallel journeys through old and present-day Japan. In Saitama to teach English, the narrator is confronted by unlikely visions of home as he gradually enters the world of contemporary Japan, with its floating stories, enigmas, and contradictions. His own story is deftly interwoven with that of a real-life nineteenth-century Canadian adventurer, whose strange confinement in a Japanese prison, beginning in 1848, is so vividly imagined by the narrator. Full of delightful tales and eccentric characters, and written with the delicacy of a brushstroke artist, The City of Yes is suffused with warm humour, and with the intelligence and curiosity of a keen observer of life’s riches and eccentricities.

 

10. The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans by Courtney Angela Brkic
When she was twenty-three years old, Courtney Angela Brkic joined a UN-contracted forensic team in eastern Bosnia. Unlike many aid workers, Brkic was drawn there by her family history, and although fluent in the language, she was advised to avoid letting local workers discover her ethnicity. Her passionate narrative of establishing a morgue in a small town and excavating graves at Srebenica is braided with her family’s remarkable history in what was once Yugoslavia. The Stone Fields, deeply personal and wise, asks what it takes to prevent the violent loss of life, and what we are willing to risk in the process.

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