My parents sentenced me to a life of literature when they named me after an ancient Greek monkey in a Lawrence Durrell play and then had the nerve to tack on the middle name Esmé. “Love and Squalor” is not only a nod to my namesake short story (R.I.P. Salinger) but a reminder of two ingredients that too often go missing from contemporary fiction. In this column, I’ll try to include the kinds of prose that give publishing houses migraines: story collections, translations, fiction set abroad, and works that defy genres. Basically, books that like to travel as much as I do.

 

The Same River Twice

I’ve always been obsessed with miniaturists: scrimshaw makers, dollhouse architects, those gentlemen in Central Park who offer to write your name on a grain of rice. (Well, maybe not that last one.) Which leads me to British-born Helen Humphreys, the Canadian poet and novelist who has tossed flash fiction, prose poem, and Encyclopaedia Britannica into her magic word-processor and cooked up The Frozen Thames, a collection of appetizer-size vignettes that read like main courses. This elegant chain of tales is based on a piece of trivia that in lesser hands would come off as a writing exercise: “In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.”

In a season when the UK saw its coldest winter in 30 years, The Frozen Thames may seem like overkill. (Just reading this book may make you fire up the space heater.) Then again, after the recent appearance of snow in every state but Hawaii, it may be just the reminder we need. In these 40 stories, weather is everything—birds fall dead from the sky, 17th-century ships freeze where they float, and inkwells might as well contain stone. “Frost fairs,” temporary theme parks, were set up on the Thames, where revelers dined, drank, and skated on sheep bones. In these glimpses of lives affected by the frozen river, we watch as starving watermen lose their livelihood, as a queen under siege makes a break for freedom across the ice, as a man who lives in a house atop London Bridge describes its collapse.

Full disclosure: I will read or watch anything with Henry VIII in it; I am a sucker for half-timbered houses; I once drank mead. Yet I draw the line at the literary equivalent of Medieval Times. Too often, historical writing is heavy on the exposition, drawing so much attention to how many hours its creator spent in the stacks that we can only tap the author on the shoulder and whisper that his research is showing. With grace and precision, Humphreys keeps her petticoat under wraps. The vignettes, titled by the year, are the perfect vessel for doses of history that span an almost impossible seven centuries. (Curiously, the author’s Web site lists the book as creative nonfiction, though the publisher categorizes it otherwise.) No matter the pigeonhole, Humphreys quickly makes us care about the plight of men and women whose lives may open to us for only three pages.

The frozen river as metaphor never comes off as contrived; instead, it’s a natural way for Humphreys to examine her characters’ need to be delivered—from taxes imposed on the number of hearths, from the laws that restrict the wearing of colors to members of the nobility, from disease and persecution: Quarantined in their house after their father shows symptoms of the Black Death, a brother and sister will do anything to escape; a Jew living as a Spaniard says, “I can feel the tight grip of the ice around me, around my life, and what I want, this evening by the edge of the river, is to be cast back upon the water, to be set free.”

Humphreys’ prose has been described as “spare,” an adjective I’ve never considered a compliment. At its worst, minimalism is like removing all the furniture from the room and then urging one to admire the baseboard. Despite her restraint, Humphreys never writes as if she is being charged by the word; miraculously, she takes on the challenge of crafting at least 40 original ways to describe the cold and comes back with crystalline phrases: “Puddles are small icy windows laid upon the earth.” “His breath snaps back at him, the only warmth there is in the room.” As if all this poetry weren’t enough, the book is illustrated—yes illustrated—with period maps, paintings, and portraits. It’s a cool rebuke to the Kindle, a coffee-table book that fits in your palm.

 

Mediterranean Vice

Moving on to a warmer clime touched by crime: Italian author Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received, the first of her books to be translated into English (by Antony Shugaar), is composed of four novellas that take place in Naples. Whether they’re actually novellas or long stories is irrelevant: In an interview with WNYC, Parrella said, “I don’t believe in categories about literature.”

Yes, there’s a “mamma,” and young men who live at home, and even a mention of an escarole pizza, but if you long to be under the Tuscan sun, you’re in the wrong solar system. The southern city of Naples, with one of the highest murder rates in Europe, is beset with problems familiar to American city-dwellers: class differences, lousy schools, gangs. For many of Parrella’s characters, organized crime is the best option. As a drug dealer muses in jail, “But prison isn’t a punishment of the soul for a soul that has erred, as the parish priest tried to tell us at Mass. It is the punishment of the body for a body that didn’t know how to do things any other way.”

While Humphreys uses setting as a point of entry, Parrella’s work is character-driven. Her people—a photoengraver who works at a not-so-legitimate printing press, a single mom whose lover was killed in a Mafia hit, a woman who got out of a rough neighborhood only to feel a kind of spiritual homelessness—are fighters all the way, moving with an eye toward their future; even the most bourgeois protagonist, the gallery worker/mother in “Imaginary Friends,” is in battle mode, fighting with the idea of an extramarital relationship that has yet to bloom. Not that there isn’t time for gentle humor: in one scene, the book forger admits, “We have lots of books about Naples: The Proverbs, The Neapolitan-Italian Dictionary, and even Neapolitan Cooking by Caròla-Francesconi, which Mamma uses as a trivet for her pots and pans since she always cooks the same things.”

Parrella is adept at first-person narration, dialogue, and nailing the one quirk that will define an individual: In “Run,” the single mom never wears shoes that have less than two-and-a-half-inch heels. In “Siddhartha,” the photoengraver who gave up the guitar years ago refuses to cut his nails. These decisions, like the book itself, feel crucial and authentic.

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DIKA LAM was born in Canada and lives in Chicago. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Story, One Story, Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, This Is Not Chick Lit (Random House, 2006), and A Stranger Among Us (OV Books, 2008). She was a New York Times Fellow at New York University, a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. A nominee for Canada's Journey Prize, she is also a winner of the Bronx Writers' Center Chapter One contest.

10 responses to “Love and Squalor: 40 Vignettes 
and 4 Novellas”

  1. Allison says:

    Astute analysis. Unlike some reviewers, who shall remain nameless, I don’t feel like you’ve given away the plot, yet you’ve piqued my interest enough to seek these books out. Anxiously awaiting your next entry to make me feel bad that I don’t read more.

  2. Judy Prince says:

    Blast, Dika! Now I MUST buy these books; have you no pity for me? Honestly, I think you’re one of the best book reviewers I’ve ever read. You dip us into the books straightaway, just as galloping and inviting as the books you so obviously value.

    You keenly see a main problem with historical writers that some critics think is a consummate skill. You say: “Too often, historical writing is heavy on the exposition, drawing so much attention to how many hours its creator spent in the stacks that we can only tap the author on the shoulder and whisper that his research is showing. With grace and precision, Humphreys keeps her petticoat under wraps.”

    You made me giggle several times, too, as I delighted in your info-packed prose and easy tone. Here’s one of your many passages that does all of those things: “At its worst, minimalism is like removing all the furniture from the room and then urging one to admire the baseboard. Despite her restraint, Humphreys never writes as if she is being charged by the word; miraculously, she takes on the challenge of crafting at least 40 original ways to describe the cold and comes back with crystalline phrases: “Puddles are small icy windows laid upon the earth.” “His breath snaps back at him, the only warmth there is in the room.” As if all this poetry weren’t enough, the book is illustrated—yes illustrated—with period maps, paintings, and portraits. It’s a cool rebuke to the Kindle, a coffee-table book that fits in your palm.”

    I’m adding your two novels, THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT and A STRANGER AMONG US, to my bookbuying list, Dika. May even write up reviews for them. heh heh

  3. […] column “Love and Squalor” is both a nod to Salinger’s story and a reminder of two crucial ingredients that often go […]

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    I second Judy’s frustrations with the number of books I have to buy. It’s ever-increasing. I should really start another list.

    How was the mead, by the way?

    Welcome aboard, Dika! Nice to have you with us.

    • Judy Prince says:

      OMG, Simon—mead, the best! Just imagine a full white after-dinner wine exquisitely drunk with honey. I once ate biccies and drank mead w a B&B manager in Salisbury England. Later found out she lived in a nearby village called “Swallow Upon Mead”. I ain’t lyin’—-you can’t make this stuff up!

  5. Sue says:

    I love this new column–these are the best book reviews I’ve read in a long time. I’m going to pick up both these books right away. Looking forward to more from this columnist.

  6. Lee says:

    Well this was a wonderfully written review that actually made me want to buy The Frozen Thames. It’s not often you read a review that’s infused with voice and style.

  7. Sarah Bird says:

    Hello Dika, I’m so pleased that Margo Rabb turned me on to you via FB. I adored Frozen Thames and your review is just as exquisite as that jewel of a book was.

  8. Dika Lam says:

    Thanks for the kind words. Glad to be part of this! As for the mead, I didn’t love it. I kept abandoning it in strategic places around the castle, but one of the waitstaff kept returning it to me.

    • Judy Prince says:

      If you kept abandoning your mead, Dika—-please let me know when you’ll be at the castle again; I’d be happy to drink it!

      I’m ordering your THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT and your A STRANGER AMONG US. Can you give a very brief account of each? Thanks!

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