Tag: Anthony Marra

Mercury Pictures Presents

Cover image for Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra 

ISBN 9780451495204 

“The money her mother raised bought the false assurances of charlatans. Annunziata knew the bribes were wasted, but when you’re desperate, every open pocket is a wishing well.” 

Once, the Laganas were a prosperous family in Rome, and Guiseppe Lagana was a sought-after lawyer who took his daughter to the cinema every Sunday when his wife thought they were at church. But the rise of Mussolini turned their fortunes, first to unemployment, and then eventually to prison. After her father’s arrest, Maria Lagana and her mother join the tide of refugees fleeing the rise of fascism in Italy. They move to California, where three of Annunziata’s aunts live, running an Italian diner well into their cantankerous old age. Maria finds her way into the film industry, determinedly clawing her way up to be the first female executive at her studio. She is just poised to claim her first producer’s credit when Pearl Harbor draws America into the war, and Maria finds herself and enemy alien in her new home.  

Anthony Marra’s fascinating second novel follows the emigres and outcasts who make up the war-time staff of Mercury Pictures, a second-rate studio always hovering on the verge of bankruptcy under the rivalrous management of twin brothers Ned and Artie Feldman. Since many of the crew are enemy aliens of German or Italian extraction, they are ineligible for the draft, even as many of their American-born colleagues disappear into the war machine. Together, they are charged with making the propaganda pictures that fuel support for America’s war effort, even as many of them left loved ones behind in Europe, often to unknown fates. 

Absent from this group are any Japanese characters, given the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. However, Maria’s boyfriend is Eddie Lu, a Chinese American actor who has been struggling for years to break out of stereotypical bit parts into roles where his talents can really shine. With the onset of war, Eddie is in more demand than ever before—to play simplistic Japanese villains in propaganda films. Eddie has long struggled with the bargain he has made to work in Hollywood as an Asian man, but these propaganda films force a reckoning with his own conscience. Eddie is loosely inspired by Korean American actor Philip Ahn, and his story arc is one of the most poignant aspects of Mercury Pictures Presents.  

While the story is set in Hollywood, it is more fundamentally about displacement, about losing one’s place in the world, and strugglingperhaps futilely—to rebuild it. Again and again, characters are asked to make impossible choices or compromises. One minor character in the story is Anna Weber, who makes a terrible sacrifice in order to be able to leave Nazi Germany and escape to America. Once an architect, she finds a job at Mercury Pictures as a miniaturist. When the military comes calling for her services despite her enemy alien status, I realized with dawning horror the real historical military project that Anna was going to be asked to participate in. Marra blends his fictional characters seamlessly with stranger-than-fiction truths, and the evidence of the research that went into this is detailed in his hefty acknowledgements. The result is a richly layered novel that abounds with interesting historical texture, and characters that feel true to life.  

Also by Anthony Marra:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

The Tsar of Love and Techno

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10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fiction

Today marks ten years since I launched this blog with a review of the YA novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Since then I’ve read and reviewed hundreds of books, but for the anniversary I wanted to round up some of my absolute favourites, beginning with fiction. All five books listed below are ones that I’ve read more than once. They stand up to rereading, and make reliable quick picks when someone has asked me to recommend a book as a gift or for their book group.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra

ISBN 9780770436407

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sonja escaped from war-torn Chechnya on a scholarship to study medicine in London. But she is pulled back home by the disappearance of her beautiful but troubled sister, Natasha, just in time to be trapped by the outbreak of the first Chechen war of independence. Against all odds, Sonja thrives, taking charge of a decrepit hospital and becoming a surgeon renowned by rebels and Feds alike. Miraculously, Natasha is returned to her, a shattered wreck rescued from a prostitution ring in Italy. They slowly begin to rebuild their lives, only to have them smashed again by a second war, and Natasha’s second disappearance. The story is an exercise in contrasts, filled with exquisite, lyrical prose counterpointed by brutal, senseless violence. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness. I discovered this novel after meeting the author at ALA Annual 2013, and it is a frequent recommendation for people who like books about sibling relationships.

Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St. John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

At a production of King Lear in Toronto, Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu that only days before seemed like a distant European epidemic. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that perform Shakespeare. When the Symphony arrives back in St. Deborah-by-the-Water after a two year absence, eagerly anticipating a reunion with two members of their group left behind there, they find the settlement irrevocably altered. A Prophet has taken over the town, driving many residents away, and bringing the rest under his sway. When the Prophet demands one of the Symphony’s young women to be his next wife, the Conductor and her people flee south into unknown territory. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines. I first read this book in 2016, when I discovered it on the Canada Reads longlist, but it has taken on a new resonance since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Canadian

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends? The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. This beautifully written short novel gripped me so thoroughly that I read it twice in a row, and listened to the audiobook as well.

Categories: Science Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662569

Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods, but immortals exact a terrible price. When I received a free ARC of this debut novel from the publisher in 2018, I was more struck by the cover art by Jun Shan Chang than anything else. I had no idea I was discovering one of my new favourite writers, who has since completed the Poppy War trilogy and gone on to write Babel.

Categories: Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 9780525521426

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. However it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that earns this novel a place on this list.

Categories: Historical Fiction, Canadian

Because this could easily have been a list composed entirely of fantasy novels, I’ll be back later this week with a genre-specific list!

The Tsar of Love and Techno

the-tsar-of-love-and-technoby Anthony Marra

ISBN 978-0-77043643-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“That morning, the last images of Vaska’s face had been scratched into oblivion with a one ruble coin. That afternoon, I began to paint him into everything.”

From Grozny in the south, through St. Petersburg, and on to Kirovsk in the high Arctic, a painting of a field—a minor work by a Chechen master—connects a Soviet-era censor to a blind art historian, and a Russian oligarch to the granddaughter of a disgraced prima ballerina. A Russian soldier is killed in the field the painting depicts, and his former lover sets out for war-torn Grozny, determined to purchase the piece. In a series of nine interlinked short stories, three of which have been previously published, Anthony Marra depicts the many compromises and disappointments of ordinary Russians as they struggle under Communism, and then continue to struggle once they have thrown it off.

Beginning in Leningrad in 1937, a censor who once dreamed of being an artist is charged with expunging enemies of the state from official photographs and paintings. He is even required to insert the image of a party boss into a painting, defacing the work of a Chechen master. Unbeknownst to his superiors, for every person he disappears, he paints the brother he betrayed somewhere into the background of the photo. It seems as if he will get away with this small act of defiance indefinitely, until he becomes fascinated by the photo of a disgraced ballerina. Decades later and a thousand kilometres away, Kolya returns home from the war in Chechnya to the Siberian mining town of Kirovsk, only to discover that his high school girlfriend has married the thirteenth richest man in Russia, and become a beauty queen and movie star. In Grozny, an art historian blinded by the explosion that destroyed the museum where she worked despairs of ever finishing her dissertation on the censor who painted a mysterious man into all of his works because she cannot afford the surgery necessary to restore her sight.

Anthony Marra takes these many disparate events, and weaves them together into a portrait of the hushed acts of complicity and rebellion that are necessary to negotiate life in Russia. In addition to the pleasure of Marra’s beautifully rendered prose, there is the anticipation of finding the connection between the assorted tales. Just when it seems like there is no link to the previous stories, Marra sweeps in and ties it all together. He even manages to slip in the occasional, passing reference to familiar figures from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, his striking 2013 debut novel, which won numerous fiction awards. The Tsar of Love and Techno has the same heart-breaking melancholy and absurd dark humour here that was present in his phenomenal novel, and his powers of description are strongly in evidence. Particularly exceptional is the second story, “Granddaughters,” which uses the collective voice to share the disappointments of six women who live ordinary lives in Kirovsk while they watch one of their classmates rise to fame and fortune.

As a novel, these events would be loose, somewhat shapeless, and stylistically uneven. As short stories, they are deeply interconnected, and reflect the variety of experience in a country with a turbulent history. The connections feel natural rather than forced, and the collective result is greater than the sum of its parts.

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Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews. My top 5 non-fiction titles for 2013 will go up Thursday.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7)

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraAnthony Marra’s debut novel is set in Chechnya around five days in 2004. From the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to a nearby hospital, and into the reluctant care of Sonja, a British-trained physician trapped in Chechnya by the war. Marra’s lyrical prose contrasts with the brutal reality of the war torn country in which his story takes place. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

Categories: Contemporary

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0)

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanA man returns home to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the wake, he finds himself revisting the ancient Hempstock Farm, home of his childhood friend, Lettie. As he sits next to the pond that Lettie called her Ocean, he recalls seemingly impossible events from his childhood. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. A relatively short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Neil Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story that highlights his skill as a story teller for all ages.  This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.”

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

The Golem and the Jinni (ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerDebut novelist Helene Wecker combines mythology from the Jewish and Arabic traditions to tell the stories of two magical creatures who arrive in the diverse  immigrant community of New York in the late 1800s. Chava is a masterless golem, brought to life from clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalistic magic . The jinni emerges from an ancient flask taken to a Syrian metal smith for repair. Strangers in an unfamiliar land, both the golem and the jinni struggle to find a place in their new home, while trying to conceal their true natures from the people around them. Wecker brings the immigrant communities to life as the two beings forge an unlikely friendship despite their opposing natures. Their relationship between them and their two communities will be key to defeating the evil forces that are converging around them. This novel is rich in both mythology and historical detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsEarthbound angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is a heavenly advocate, charged with defending the souls of the recently departed at their final judgement. He goes head-to-head with the demonic advocates who want to claim those same souls for the ranks of hell. Closer to humans than angels, Bobby has never met God, isn’t much of one for prayer, and doesn’t really trust the angels and principalities higher up the heavenly food chain. There’s no love lost on their side either, so when a soul Bobby is supposed to be representing disappears before judgement, he worries that he will be held responsible if he can’t track it down. But of course, this case runs deeper than one missing soul.  Tad Williams masterfully blends urban fantasy with noir detective fiction in a fast-paced adventure that engages with Christian lore and puts a new spin on angels and demons. Book two, Happy Hour in Hell, also deserves an honourable mention as one of the best books I read in 2013. 

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

Eleanor & Park (ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9)

eleanor-and-parkEleanor and Park couldn’t be more different from one another. Park has had a normal middle class upbringing, even if he was occasionally teased because his mother is Korean. Eleanor, on the other hand, was kicked out of her home by an abusive step father, and spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Eventually Richie lets her come home, but the abuse has only gotten worse in her absence. Eleanor sticks out like a sore thumb at her new school making her a target for bullying, but sitting next to Park on the bus offers her some measure of protection. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure. Rainbow Rowell has written a YA novel that is at once hard and brutally truthful, but also beautiful and touching. Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, details. Rowell’s second novel of 2013, Fangirl, also deserves an honourable mention.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance 

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Looking for more excellent reading? Check out my top fiction reads from 2012.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marraby Anthony Marra

ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

What parts had she discarded for the sake of her sanity? What had she cut from herself? Had he stared into her pupils he would have emerged, bewildered and blinking, on the far side of the earth. Was he awed by her? Absolutely. Did he respect her? Unequivocally. Want to be anything like her? No, never, not at all.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sonja Andreyevna Rabina escaped from war-torn Chechnya on a scholarship to study medicine in London. But she is pulled back home by the disappearance of her beautiful but troubled sister, Natasha, just in time to be trapped by the outbreak of the first Chechen war of independence. Against all odds, Sonja thrives, taking charge of a decrepit hospital and becoming a surgeon renowned by rebels and Feds alike. Miraculously, Natasha is returned to her, a shattered wreck rescued from a prostitution ring in Italy. They slowly begin to rebuild their lives, only to have them smashed again by a second war, and Natasha’s second disappearance. With her sister gone, and the hospital in more dire straits than ever, Sonja sacrifices herself bit by bit to continue saving lives. Meanwhile, from the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to the hospital, and into Sonja’s reluctant care. Dokka’s abduction is the culmination of a series of events which will reveal the strange relationships and connections between disparate people struggling for survival in the midst of a brutal war in which everyone loses.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena centres around the five days in 2004 after Dokka’s abduction, while also spanning the previous decade, and occasionally stretching up to a hundred years into the future. We gain brief glimpses of the past and future outside the timeline of the story proper as Marra skilfully uses third person narration to deliver stunning detail and depth we wouldn’t get from a first person narrative. The omniscient narrator sees connections and events of which the characters remain, for better or worse, totally unaware. Although there is a great deal of flashing backward and forward in time, the timeline at the head of each chapter helps keep events in order, and enforces the currency of the events; far from being set in the distant past, this story takes place between 1996 and 2004, well within the lifetime of most readers.

The story is an exercise in contrasts, filled with exquisite, lyrical prose counterpointed by brutal, senseless violence. In the depths of a government facility known as the Landfill, a prisoner is tortured for information, but asked no questions by his interrogators. Indeed, only the power and the beauty of Marra’s writing can carry the reader through the ceaseless stream of horrible, tragic events, allowing us at once to experience them, and contemplate them at philosophic remove, such as Ahkmed’s description of helping build Dokka’s house, which the Feds burnt to the ground:

Carrying the lumber the forty meters from the forest had left his knuckles blistered, his underarms sopping, but now a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken him months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky. And too were carried the small treasures that had made Dokka’s house his own.

The grim picture is painted with beautiful words for a reason; the characters find the silver linings where they can, searching for life and hope and forgiveness in the ruins. Though many of the characters despair of saving themselves, they hope that by saving Havaa, they will have done something worthwhile.

Although the conflict and the setting are obscure—indeed largely unknown to Westerners before three weeks ago—Marra has created a cast of characters that will be relatable for everyone, and he weaves just enough history into his narrative to orient us, cleverly using Khassan’s unpublishable 3000 page history of Chechnya to educate and inform. Readers needn’t be familiar with the Chechen struggle for independence before reading this novel, though the events may leave readers interested in knowing more than can possibly be explained in a novel. For those readers, Marra provides a brief bibliography at the end of the book.

Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

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Already read and enjoyed A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaI recommend The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein.