The Snow Child.

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a grown-up fable, a fairy tale in the more traditional sense of the term (where endings were seldom happy), a very simple story in one of the most striking settings I’ve come across in contemporary literature. In a quick read with only a half-dozen characters of any import, the book manages to delve into questions of love, parenthood, loss, grief, and meaning, without becoming cloy or mawkish. The novel was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist in 2012, losing to Adam Johnson’s amazing novel of North Korea The Orphan Master’s Son.

The Snow Child takes place in Alaska in 1920, where we meet a childless couple, Mabel and Jack, scratching out a life as farmers in the forbidding landscape, where starvation is a threat each winter if you haven’t grown enough crops and killed enough game to get through the season. The pair lost one baby in childbirth many years ago, and it appears the death and subsequent inability to have another child has left them in a permanent state of barely-there depression, culminating in Mabel’s suicide attempt at the start of the novel. Shortly after, during an early snowfall, the two end up building a snowman – or snowgirl, giving her mittens and a scarf and talking about what this girl might be like (and yes, it’s like that sappy movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but only in setup). The next morning, the snowgirl is gone, but both Mabel and Jack spy a young girl running around in the woods with a fox, a girl who turns out to be very real, at least in the tangible sense, but only appears in the winters and says she lives by herself in the mountains in the summers. Mabel recognizes similarities between this child, named Faina, and an old Russian children’s book she had growing up in Pennsylvania, while Jack learns more about Faina’s life before they found her that seem to ground her firmly in reality.

Ivey never bothers to clear Faina’s backstory up for the reader, allowing the character’s reality to flicker before us so we can experience the uncertainty of Mabel and Jack. It reminded me of nothing so much as the saying that being a parent is like learning to live with your heart outside of your body; not only did the couple suddenly find a child years after such a thing seemed impossible, but her appearance defied reality and she would disappear for months at a time without explanation. Mabel in particular seems to vacillate from high highs to deep funks around the girl’s appearances, while Jack is trying to grapple with his rational side even as he comes to love the girl like a daughter.

Faina’s story arc is a bit predictable, and Ivey doesn’t even try to hide it, providing plenty of foreshadowing (and, I thought, winking and nodding at the reader all the way) through the Russian folktale, but despite the girl’s status as the title character and hinge for the story’s action, this book is far more about everybody else. Faina herself has no depth; she’s a wisp of a thing, in physical and emotional sense, but whatever her true identity might be, she’s ultimately the book’s primary plot device. Ivey crafts this forbidding setting that combines breathtaking natural beauty – her landscape descriptions are some of the most evocative I’ve come across – and dark, menacing conditions that seem unfit for human habitation, then drops two characters, already drenched in melancholy for the life they didn’t expect they’d live, into it. Finding moments of joy or even simply of humanity – the relationship the couple develops with the Bensons provides a second emotional center, not to mention lots of great talk of jams and preserves – without resorting to pure sap is a deft trick of both plot and character development. Ivey manages to celebrate life and all that is good within it even in the face of the certainty of sorrow and the realization we all face that we have less control over our lives than we’d like, right up to our endings.

Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, comes out on August 2nd. Given how much I enjoyed this book, including the detailed yet quick prose, I imagine I’ll read that one fairly soon.

Next up: I’m most of the way through Zia Haider Rahman’s Tait Prize-winning novel In the Light of What We Know, an expansive, erudite novel of ideas that seems to grow in scope with every page.

Honeydew.

I was totally unfamiliar with the American short story writer Edith Pearlman until earlier this year, when I saw her name and her latest collection, Honeydew, on a list of likely candidates for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (eventually won by Thanh Viet Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer). Honeydew didn’t end up on the short list, but I’d already bought it and I’m stubborn like that. Most of the stories in the book run around 10-12 pages yet manage to create totally believable, well-rounded little worlds, usually with at least one three-dimensional character, yet with a very light touch that keeps the prose moving.

Pearlman’s stories focus on some little detail of ordinary life and exploring its effects on one or more of the characters, but all seem to tie around the idea of finding enough happiness to get by. Several stories are set in or around an antique shop in the fictional Massachusetts town of Godolphin, owned by the slightly eccentric Rennie, who lives by a very specific code in dealing with her clients, but seems less able to apply similar rules and limits on her own life. We experience her shock, when, for example, the wife half of a couple who frequently shop with her falls ill and requires hospice care, and the husband refers to Rennie as one of her closest friends. But is this the sadness of a woman who was simply without friends, or is the problem Rennie’s for failing to recognize the meaning she held in someone else’s life?

In “Hat Trick,” four teenage girls are mooning over boys when one girl’s mother, a bit drunk and bitter, concocts a game where the girls put the names of various boys on slips of paper and place them in a hat, to be drawn at random but never revealed; each girl then must pursue the boy whose name she drew. It is a realistically-drawn fable; the girls take the pledges seriously, or at least three of them do, and the results, while hardly what the reader might expect, feel real. Each girl pursues happiness and finds some – the “happy enough” bit I mentioned above comes directly from the mother in this story – even though her fate was determined by a sort of rigged random draw.

“Castle 4,” one of the longest stories in the book, has a bit of a Hollywood ending, but the core character, the introverted anesthesiologist who rejects copious advances from women (dude, what are you doing), is so alienated from other people that you can feel cold just reading about him. He drifts through the job and social functions like a shade, making only the barest minimum of contact with others, yet his story resolves when he falls for a patient whose back pain turns out to be terminal, stage 4 cancer. The conclusion is forced, but his attraction to a woman who has been forced into an isolated state by circumstance fits with the way Pearlman has defined his impalpable character.

The title story ends the collection but was one of my least favorites in the book, as it’s less realistic and uncharacteristically overwrought. The headmistress at a girls’ prep school in New England is concerned about an anorexic student, yet is having an affair with the girl’s father, and is six weeks’ pregnant with his child. None of the characters gets the full development of those in other stories, although Pearlman does write brilliantly about the eating disorder itself, and there’s the whiff of the hackneyed in the setting itself.

There’s a bit of dry wit in many of her stories as well, which helps keep the stories moving even when the themes could be depressing, none more so than in “Blessed Harry,” in which a Latin teacher at that same prep school gets an out-of-the-blue invitation to speak at a conference in England on “the meaning of life and death.” The teacher’s kids, sporting varying degrees of cynicism, all immediately suspect it’s a hoax, while he at first allows himself to soak in the feeling that he’s wanted, that he’s been more of a success in his working life than he actually has. It’s a bit more respectable than a 419 scam, but Pearlman milks it for humor before the teacher begins to realize where the success and meaning in his own life lie. These little moments of grace or insight in an existentialist context, coupled with her ability to quickly define and fill out her characters, carried me through Honeydew as if I were reading a single, gripping narrative.

Next up: Connie Willis’ Bellwether.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

My friend Samantha has been touting the work of Nathan Englander for a while now, and I finally cracked open his first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, last week. Even though the subject matter couldn’t be more foreign to me – many of the stories revolve around Hasidim, adherents of an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism – Englander’s prose and his insight into human emotions are uncanny, especially given his age when he wrote many of these stories. He deftly blends humor into stories that get at serious questions like spirituality, gender equality, and finding hope in the hopeless.

The nine stories within the collection all encompass Jewish themes or characters, but range from World War II to a modern Hasidic community in New York and the aftermath of a bombing in Tel Aviv. The first story, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” evokes the Night of the Murdered Poets with a story of the roundup of 27 Jewish writers in the postwar Soviet Union, a number that should have been 26 but mistakenly includes a shut-in writer whose work has never seen the light of day. “The Tumblers” reads like a fable, telling of the Jewish residents of a European city’s ghetto who are deported to a concentration camp but manage, however briefly, to stave off their fates by pretending to be a traveling circus of acrobats, a tragicomic story because you know it can’t really end well, but the individual moments are light even in extreme darkness.

My personal favorite in the collection, “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” takes the concept of the gilgul, a belief of Jewish mysticism of the transmigration of a Jewish soul from one body to another, and turns it into a story that is by turns a slapstick comedy and a serious look at what happens in a marriage when the two partners have divergent spiritual beliefs. A nonbelieving Christian experiences an epiphany while riding in the back of a taxi in Manhattan: He realizes, or perhaps it just hits him, that he’s Jewish. And it’s not just a lark, as he rather quickly becomes orthodox, keeping kosher, adopting various rituals, seeking the advice of a sort of iconoclast rabbi who also believes in this doctrine of transmigration. The wife, however, is not having it, and tries to get her husband’s psychiatrist to talk sense into him, culminating in a painful, awkward dinner with the four of them (eating kosher) where Englander refuses to give us a true resolution, because there isn’t one: when two people disagree on such a fundamental issue, one that in this case would pervade most of their mundane lives as well as their spiritual ones, there’s no easy answer.

“Reb Kringle” is just what you’d expect – a Jewish man who bears a strong resemblance to Santa Claus reluctantly plays the part every December, until he meets the child who causes his hidden self to rebel against the subterfuge … and yet his overreaction doesn’t negate the truth of the injustice the child faces. The closing story, “In This Way We Are Wise,” goes in the other direction, ditching the comedy of the earlier stories to look at how ordinary people can survive living in an environment where terror is banal, ten brief pages that walk one survivor through the immediate aftermath of yet another cafe bombing in Israel.

Englander’s great gift is the intense realism of his dialogue – the spoken words, and the interior thoughts – of each of these characters, who seem so very normal because Englander can paint them quickly with broad strokes that hit the canvas with precise edges. The mentally ill Jewish father of “Reunion” could be a clown, or a nut, but in fact is a very regular guy with some sort of mania that is destroying his family. The central character in “Gilgul” is also run-of-the-mill, but even when what he says – like announcing to the taxi driver, “Jewish, right here in your cab” – is absurd, the voice, the scene, the specific words make it plausible. Englander’s fiction reads like fact because he writes people as people are.

Next up: More short stories, this time Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew.

The Crack Shack (San Diego).

I have a new top 25 pro prospects ranking up for Insiders.

When in San Diego briefly last week, I had the pleasure of visiting The Crack Shack, the new fried chicken-all-the-damn-time place from the same creative team (including Top Chef winner Richard Blais) behind its Little Italy neighbor, Juniper & Ivy, right before I popped in to see potential #1 overall pick Mickey Moniak. The Crack Shack’s executive chef, Jonathan Sloan, is also a huge baseball fan, so he had the kitchen send out a few extra items for me and a friend to sample while we were there, so (1) I tried a LOT of food and (2) bear in mind some of this was compliments of the chef.

The short version is that if you like fried chicken – and I love me some fried chicken – you are going to love the Crack Shack, because it’s fried chicken every which way and it’s all really good. Chef Sloan described their sourcing – they’re getting some of the best, freshest chickens available, locally raised Jidori chickens, a trademarked breed known for better flavor than your typical mass-market bird. The chickens are also raised cage-free and, most importantly in my view, without antibiotics. Just about everything else on the menu is sourced locally too, as at Juniper & Ivy, but the chicken is at the center of almost every dish.

My “main” lunch – the item I actually ordered – was the Señor Croque, a sandwich of fried chicken, bacon, a fried egg, miso-maple butter, cheddar (I left this off because I despise it), all served on a fresh brioche bun. I would fly across the country to eat this again. It has ruined nearly all other fried chicken sandwiches for me. (The exception would be the Fried Chicken Sando at Tempe’s nocawich, also found at the Phoenix airport.) The chicken is breaded, dipped in buttermilk, breaded again, and chilled so the breading really sets on the meat (and doesn’t fall off), and there’s something so decadent about the whole thing that makes it hard to believe you’re eating a $12 sandwich and not, say, a $30 steak.

Of everything else that came out, my favorite item was the chicken oysters – the oyster is a small piece of dark meat attached to the tip of the thigh that is the most tender meat on the entire bird – which are pickle-brined and fried, served with meyer lemon and mustard tartar sauce. The term oyster refers to its shape more than its texture; again I’d compare this to a good steak or any highly fatty meat in texture, because it’s almost melt-in-your-mouth soft, which gives a good contrast to the crispy crust. You absolutely need that acidity from the lemon too.

The chicken ‘lollipops’ are at the opposite end of the spectrum if you want something you can really dig your teeth into – drumsticks slightly reshaped into lollipops, and they’re subtly spicy, seasoned with togarashi, a Japanese spice mix of chili pepper, seaweed, sesame seeds, and sometimes orange peel and ginger too. We also tried some of their straight-up fried chicken, which had outstanding texture inside and out with a custom spice blend in the breading, but we ended up passing some of that over for the oysters and the lollipops.. We also sampled the Mexican poutine, a big mess of fries fried in chicken fat (schmaltz), topped with pollo asado and jalapeño cheese wiz. You can also get the fries plain, and they’re as crispy as you’d expect (frying in saturated fats makes a huge difference in flavor and texture).

The Crack Shack has a few non-fried items and a few non-chicken items, as well as a breakfast sandwich of chicken sausage, egg, and smoked cheddar on an English muffin. They offer six side sauces for any of your items, and you can order either of two slaws or two salad options (I got the baby kale Caesar, which was a necessary plant item in the middle of the sea of meat). They also have biscuits served with miso-maple butter, which I’m sure I’d adore but did not dare order because that might have ended my day then and there.

The Crack Shack has a full bar and its own cocktail menu, although since it was the middle of the day I did not partake. Without booze, you could get a substantial meal here for about $20 that is more than reasonable for ingredients of this quality, which are on par with what you’d get at very high-end restaurants but available in fried form. I drove back by the restaurant that evening, a Tuesday, and there was a line out the door around 7 pm, so plan your trip accordingly.

I’ve written about Juniper & Ivy at length and briefly here, so I won’t go overboard in writing about my light dinner there, which comprised a lot of plants and no meat other than the raw yellowtail in one item. But I do want to mention the BBQ carrots, which might be the best vegan dish I have ever eaten in my life. They’re grilled, even lightly charred, skin-on, and served over chimichurri with smoked peanuts and dollops of pickled apricot puree. I’ve never had anything like this – it was a giant bomb of sweet and sour – and it’s possible I’ve got some apricots pickling in my fridge right now to recreate this. J&I’s menu changes often but if you get there soon I can’t recommend this dish highly enough.

Phoenix and Sacramento eats.

I was treated to dinner at opening night for Chris Bianco’s newest restaurant in Phoenix, Tratto, a place with – gasp – no pizza, just house-made pastas and other dishes inspired largely by regional Italian cuisine, especially the peasant foods that are near and dear to Bianco’s heart. While he’s made his name as both one of the country’s most prominent pizzaiolo’s and the king of Phoenix’s under-the-radar food scene, Bianco’s passion extends to all foods, and Tratto’s menu allows him to pursue that further by working with more local vendors and incorporating ingredients you’d never see on his pizzerias’ menus.

The menu at Tratto, which is next door to the Pizzeria Bianco location in the Town & Country shopping center at 20th and Highland, is going to change frequently, but the format is simple – a couple of starters, a couple of pasta dishes, a couple of mains, and a couple of desserts, two of each on the day I was there. I took Chris’s recommendations and ordered the beets, the tonnarelli, and the “piccolo” chicken, after which there was no room for anything else.

Opening night at the new pasta place from @pizzeriabianco

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The tonnarelli was the star of the night, a dish of maybe five ingredients that showcased the pasta (also known as spaghetti alla chitarra, referring to the guitar-like device used to cut it) by coating it with a luxurious sauce without much else on the plate. Tonnarelli are thicker than most hand-cut pastas, like spaghetti but square in cross-section rather than round, so they have a substantial tooth to them and take longer to cook than flat shapes. Pasta alla gricia is cooked with guanciale, a type of cured meat like bacon but made from the pig’s jowls, that is rendered and tossed with the starchy pasta water to make a thick, salty sauce that’s finished with Pecorino Romano, itself a pungent, salty cheese of sheep’s milk. It’s like pasta alla carbonara without eggs. Tratto’s was perfect because the pasta was perfect, and the guanciale and cheese combine for a fatty, salty, umami-rich sauce that go particularly well with the various forms of alcohol available (Tratto has a well-stocked liquor bar, including an impressive collection of amaros).

Tonnarolli alla gricia – house made pasta with guanciale and pecorino Romano, also at Tratto

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The “piccolo” chicken is not your ordinary four-pound broiler-fryer, but a local, uncaged variety that’s closer to pasture-raised in texture, bigger than a Cornish game hen but small enough that you could have that and a starter or side vegetable and call it a meal. Tratto splits the bird, roasts it, and finishes it under the salamander, and the bird is seasoned only with salt, pepper, lemon, and bay leaves. I rarely order chicken in restaurants, especially not anything with the white meat (which has no taste if we’re talking about a normal bird), but Chris said to me it’s both the best and the most expensive chicken he’s ever had in one of his restaurants, and it showed through in how much flavor the chicken had with minimal seasoning. I would have used the amazing bread to sop up the liquid on the plate but I’d already done that with the pasta.

The whole wood-roasted "piccolo chicken" at Tratto

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The beets were the one dish I didn’t love – they were roasted perfectly, fork-tender, but as much as I love beets I think they need more acidity than the dish included, and the gorgonzola-based sauce didn’t quite get there. The breads, made over at Pane Bianco (which I’ve mentioned before, but has since been expanded and is now the central baking operation for the Bianco group, as well as an amazing sandwich shop with daily pizza al taglio specials), are spectacular, and the bar program at Tratto is also very impressive. I sat at the bar and got to admire the selection of high-end spirits and chat up the knowledgeable bartender as well, who fixed a “turmeric mule” for me with Ford’s Gin. They also have Amaro Montenegro, which is my favorite drinking bitters and I think a requirement for any real Italian place.

I had one meal in Sacramento, for which I solicited suggestions from my Twitter audience (including several dozen would-be comedians suggesting chains or fast-food places, which was rather unoriginal). Many of your best suggestions were closed on Monday night, my only evening there, but I did have a wonderful meal at Magpie, which one of you suggested with the hook that they have homemade ice cream sandwiches for dessert. The highest praise I can offer this place is that I still enjoyed the meal despite having a painful migraine for most of it.

Magpie’s menu also changes frequently, but the two dishes I had prior to the main event both appear to be regular items. The crispy pork belly starter included several large cubes of perfectly-cooked belly, crispy on the exterior but tender on the interior, served with slivers of apricot, coriander honey, pickled onions, and frisee. Pork belly pairs well with anything sweet, but needs some tartness to cut that sweetness and the fattiness of the meat itself, which here came from both the sweet-tart apricots and the pickled onions. The duck confit salad was really two dishes in one bowl: A confit duck leg, served hot over roasted potatoes, served in the center of a salad of spring vegetables, including snap peas and English peas, as well as Brooks cherries and a cherry vinaigrette. I think if I ate this again, I’d ask for a separate plate so I could cut or shred the duck and then toss the meat into the salad, as it was hard to get all of the flavors into one bite. Duck and tart fruits pair so well together but I rarely got that combination, although the duck itself was nicely cooked and the potatoes had soaked up some flavor from sitting under the leg.

The ice cream sandwich, though, man … that’s good stuff. I don’t even love star anise, but the soft graham-like wafers had just a hint of star anise flavor around the central block of smooth vanilla ice cream. Whatever, I’m not going to do this dessert justice. It was big enough for two people to share and I nearly ate the whole thing despite the fact that I could barely hold my head up at this point. I’d like to go back there some time when I’m feeling okay and perhaps try one of their house cocktails too.

The Sympathizer.

The Sympathizer was the surprise winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the debut novel of Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and if nothing else is a truly fascinating work of fiction for its new take on the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s unnamed narrator is a communist sympathizer and sleeper agent in the south of Vietnam, and recalls the conflict and its aftermath from the perspective of a Vietnamese national, as opposed to the countless looks back at the war from western perspectives (The Things They Carried, Tree of Smoke). The narrator himself is a walking dichotomy, born to a Vietnamese mother and French father (a priest, no less), living in the south and then in the U.S. while professing loyalty to the communists, with very bourgeois sentiments that compromise his work as a spy and an unwilling assassin.

The closest parallel I can think of for The Sympathizer is Graham Greene’s novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, written later in his career after he’d become disillusioned with his country and his faith, a bleak picture of the war that included more than just a cursory consideration of the conflict’s devastating effect on the people of Vietnam. Nguyen’s look at the war is similarly derisive, suffused with parody and gallows humor, but ultimately an indictment of everyone involved, not least the United States.

The narrator tells his story as a confession to an unseen commandant and “faceless” commissar, as he’s apparently in a postwar Vietnamese reeducation camp despite serving the People’s Liberation Front during the conflict as a mole and assassin both in South Vietnam and then in the United States, where he works with a disgraced General from the South’s army who seeks to stage a Bay of Pigs-style invasion force that goes roughly as well as that real-life attempt did. His story involves time as a student in California, where he writes his thesis on the works of Graham Greene (in case you missed that allusion), as well as his work as a “consultant” on a thinly-disguised version of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella into a Vietnamese setting. The director, known only as the Auteur, is a fatuous, racist pig who fancies himself an artist and tries to work from a script that doesn’t give a single line to a Vietnamese character. The narrator’s job is to try to undermine the pro-American tone in the film, but the entire story turns into an elaborate farce of the film, the movie industry, and subsequent American attempts to retell the story of the war in terms that the American public would buy.

The last quarter of the book takes a sharp turn toward the more serious territory of Darkness at Noon or 1984 as we switch to real time and the narrator’s ordeal in custody, where, we learn, he’s been telling and retelling his story to his jailers, but hasn’t given them the particular truth they demand of him. The climax is graphic and hard to read, worse than the two assassinations in which the narrator takes part, but works better as a metaphor for the damage the North Vietnamese inflicted on their own people and the psychic scars that endured long after the conflict.

Nguyen can be a bit heavy-handed with the allusions and metaphors. The narrator’s two best friends are Man (the blank canvas) and Bon (the good one of the three). He encounters a go-getter journalist named Sonny, and an ice-cold Japanese woman named Ms. Mori (think memento mori). The Auteur and the older lead actor in the film border on caricature, while the film is called The Hamlet presumably because the Auteur views his work as comparable to Shakespeare. And the prose can get a little purple, although I found myself flying through it anyway.

But Nguyen’s strength lies in the main character, both as the vehicle for retelling the war’s story in a new light, and for his own dichotomy. The narrator is not truly accepted by his fellow citizens because he’s half European; he’s not accepted at all in the United States, even though he speaks perfect English, because he looks “foreign.” He lives in the South and serves in their military, but his loyalties are with the North … only to find himself in a communist (which was the North) political prison after the war. These splits all parallel the way his self was broken by an incident he witnessed during the war but has buried in his subconscious, the nauseating passage I mentioned above; only by reliving and acknowledging it can he move on with his life.

Next up: I actually just read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the first time; I read a few chapters with my daughter, but she found it boring, so I finished it myself. At least now I know the true story behind Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Lingo.

I saw a woman reading Gaston Dorren’s Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages at the Philly airport in early March and, since she said it was worth reading, grabbed the audio version for my spring training drives around Florida (which has some seriously boring highways). I haven’t had time to devote to language-learning in years – something to do with having a kid – but my lifelong obsession with foreign languages hasn’t abated; I find everything about them fascinating, even the ‘boring’ stuff like grammar and syntax. Lingo could have been written just for me, as it skips a lot of the linguistics stuff and instead flits around sixty of Europe’s languages, with goofy anecdotes and brief histories on each to keep the book moving.

There is no central narrative at work in Lingo; this is a dilettante’s work and a book for the peripatetic mind. You don’t have to speak any of the languages Dorren covers to appreciate some of the stories of how languages morphed, or hidden similarities between languages, or the ways languages have defined peoples and borders in Europe. Dorren starts off with Lithuanian, a language that bears many clues to what the forerunner of most European languages, clumsily called Proto-Indo-European, may have looked like, before an immediate tangent on the main oddballs of Europe, the Finno-Ugric languages (Magyar/Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian), which bear no resemblance at all to their geographic neighbors. Portuguese owes much of its existence to Galician. Dorren describes the “linguistic orphanage” of the Balkans, where Serbian and Croatian are kind of the same language written in different alphabets while the people who speak Macedonian and live in Macedonia have to call their country something else because the Greeks might get mad. (Speaking of which, shouldn’t one of the conditions of the bailout of Greece been that they leave the Macedonians the hell alone?)

Tiny languages like Luxembourgish, Sorbian (from the NBC Saturday morning cartoon show The Sorbs), Sami, and Gagauz get their own chapters, illuminating the battles languages with small populations fight to survive. Some don’t make it; Dalmatian’s brief life and quick death gets a chapter, but the rebirths of Cornish and Manx, two Celtic languages that are two of the only success stories in that department. (The fact that both are spoken in the United Kingdom, a highly developed country, is probably not a coincidence.) Basque, the language isolate spoken in Spain, gets its own chapter, although I think Dorren gave it short shrift; its linguistic origins are unknown despite lengthy efforts to try to connect it to various language families, and its survival despite the lack of a state and its enclave status within Spain’s panoply of dialects make it one of the language world’s most fascinating stories.

Dorren had to face a huge challenge finding something interesting to say on all of these languages, but succeeds more than he fails by finding surprising angles. Turkish, the primary member of the Turkic language family, gets a chapter devoted to its alphabet; the official shift to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s carried enormous political and religious significance. He accurately dubs Esperanto “the no-hoper,” and the chapter on Albanian becomes a story of a few lonesome Albanologists. Hungarian’s chapter is presented as a conversation between the language and its therapist, shortly after the chapter on the variety of European sign languages; I profess my ignorance at just how many sign languages there are worldwide. And he ends with English, which he calls “the global headache,” the universal language that Esperanto (and Volapük and other pretenders) will never unseat, a language with maddening internal inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, and pronunciation that make our complaints about conjugating irregular Spanish verbs seem trivial in comparison.

The lack of any common thread through all the chapters makes Lingo a bit choppy to read, with no story beyond any one language, almost like reading a sort of half-serious reference work rather than the kind of narrative non-fiction I tend to favor. But Lingo also made me nostalgic for when I did have the time to learn bits of other languages, whether in school or on my own, and wonder when I might get another chance to do something like that – maybe spending a few weeks abroad at some point in my life so I can learn via immersion. The sheer diversity of languages in Europe and the aesthetic and literary beauty of many of those tongues comes through in Dorren’s book, even with all of his flitting from one to the next.

Next up: Angela Carter’s highly acclaimed novel Nights at the Circus, which won the Best of the James Tait Black honor in 2012 as the best of the 93 previous winners of the annual award, and was also on David Bowie’s personal top 100 books list.

The Unfinished Game.

I’m still playing a bit of catchup on stuff I read during March (and just finished Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War over lunch today), but one title I definitely want to bring to everyone’s attention is the delightful, short book by mathematician (and NPR’s “Math Guy”) Keith Devlin called The Unfinished Game, which explains how one specific letter in the correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat opened the door to the world of probability and everything that this branch of mathematics makes possible.

The unfinished game of the book’s title was based on a common, popular controversy of the time surrounding games of chance, which were largely seen as incalculable – our modern, simple way of calculating odds of things like throws of the dice just did not exist at the time. Pascal and Fermat discussed the question of how to divide winnings in a game of two or more players where the players choose to abandon the game before any one player has won the requisite number of matches. (So, for example, they’re playing a best-of-five, but the players quit after three rounds, with one player having won two times and the other one.) The controversy in question will seem silly to any modern reader who’s taken even a few weeks of probability theory in high school math, but Devlin is deft enough to explain the problem in 1600s terms, so that the logical confusion of the era is clear on the page.

The confusion stemmed from the misunderstanding about the frequencies of subsequent events, given that the game would not always be played to its conclusion: You may say up front you’re going to play a best of seven, but you do not always need to play seven matches to determine a winner. If you quit after three games, in the situation I outlined above, it is possible that you would have needed just one more match to determine a winner, and it is possible that you would have needed two more matches. Pascal’s letter to Fermat proposed a method of determining how to split the winnings in such an unfinished game; the letter was the start of modern probability theory, and the problem is now known as the problem of points. (You can read the entire surviving correspondence on the University of York’s website; it also includes their conversations on prime numbers, including Fermat’s surprising error in claiming that all numbers of the form 2(2n)+1, which is only true for 0 ≤ n ≤ 4. Those five numbers are now called Fermat primes; Euler later showed Fermat’s hypothesis was wrong, and 2(25)+1 = 4294967297, which is composite.)

Fermat realized you must count all of the potential solutions, even ones that would not occur because they involved playing the fifth game when it was made unnecessary by the first player winning the fourth match and taking the entire set, so to speak. (The problem they discussed was slightly more involved.) Pascal took Fermat’s tabular solution, a brute-force method of counting out all possible outcomes, and made it generalizable to all cases with a formula that works for any number of players and rounds. This also contributed to Pascal’s work on what we now call Pascal’s triangle, and created what statisticians and economists now refer to as “expectation value” – the amount of money you can expect to win on a specific bet given the odds and payout of each outcome.

Devlin goes about as far as you can when your subject is a single letter, with entertaining diversions into the lives of Pascal and Fermat (who corresponded yet never met) and tangents like Pascal’s wager. At heart, the 166-page book is about probability theory, and Devlin makes the subject accessible to any potential reader, even ones who haven’t gone beyond algebra in school. Given how much of our lives – things like insurance, financial markets, and sports betting, to say nothing of the probabilistic foundations of quantum theory – are possible because of probability theory, The Unfinished Game should probably be required reading for any high school student.

Next up: I just started Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Magician’s Land.

I loved Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, reading the entire book (a review copy from the publisher) on a single cross-country flight right when the book came out, for the deft blend of parody of the coming-of-age magic saga subgenre (Harry Potter, LotR, Narnia) with a fantastic, original story. Quentin Coldwater’s journey from alienated youth to magic school to fighting a save-the-world sort of magic battle followed familiar conventions in structure but always took unanticipated turns, and brought us a small group of well-developed, engaging characters to follow through the trilogy.

I disagreed with most of you on the second book, The Magician King, which felt transitional to me and took away some of the magic (the reading sort, not the kind in the books) for me that had me loving the first book. So I held off for a bit on book three, The Magician’s Land, to see if it would redeem the whole series for me or give me another downer note that detracted from the joy I experienced in book one. It gave me much more of the former, another rousing story that again walks away from cliched plot lines, moving the giant fight scene (masterfully written) to the middle of the book and concluding the series on a fitting note that manages to be a victory lap without giving the main character an improbably perfect ending.

When the book begins, Quentin is an outcast, having lost his crown and even his right to live in Fillory, and is recruited to join a mysterious magical heist. We jump back and forth for the first half of the novel, learning how Quentin returned to Brakebills briefly to teach, then lost that position while rescuing a student, also encountering a demon who appears to be after him personally. Meanwhile, in Fillory, the world is quite literally ending, and Eliot and Janet have to set out on a quest to try to save it – but, this being Quentin’s trilogy, really, he’s going to have to help them do it. Grossman turns several conventions of the genre on their heads with the complex resolution, and while he leaves a few strings poorly tied (such as Betsy’s adventure) and we get the unlikely conclusion where no major character dies, he settles the Fillory timeline in a way that makes internal sense while also giving Quentin and some of his friends a sensible ending.

Aside from the usual references to other classics of the genre – the Russian professor mocking “Dum-blee-dore” and the nod to seven-league boots (found in C.S. Lewis’ and Diana Wynne Jones’ books, among others) were my favorites – Grossman seems to have centered much of this final leg of the trilogy on the relationship between reader and story, and what stories can tell us about us. All three books have sought to undermine the sense of life as story, that our narratives are arranged for us and that life’s plot threads will all be neatly tied together for us. Grossman has to balance between the use of “destiny” in the constructed world of Fillory – constructed by whom, it is never revealed, although we do learn that it is indeed turtles all the way down – and the lack thereof here in the real world of the books; Quentin and friends have to piece together solutions without magical or divine guidance, don’t always get what they want, and face frequent disillusionment when their lives don’t unfurl like the stories they loved. (Grossman also gives us more of the story behind the stories, although nothing could match the revelation about Martin at the end of the first book.)

Where the magicians do benefit from their lives in two worlds is how Fillory specifically and magic in general gives them a second lens through which to see their secular lives. Most YA magic novels are coming-of-age stories where the characters come of age through defeating enemies in the magical realm. The Magicians novels have characters coming of age in both worlds at once, one supporting the other, not always in clean or planned ways. Where Grossman diverts from this path, keeping everyone intact for the end of the series, it makes for a satisfying conclusion because we like most of the characters, but it does shift a little from the thread of realism in the first two books. A few redshirts die this time around, but the core characters get their mostly happy ending. I’m okay with that, just like I didn’t want to see Harry, Ron, or Hermione die (and I’m still bitter about Fred), but it conflicts with the book’s theme about fiction failing to capture the the freedom and chaos of real life.

Next up: I’m way behind on reviews, but I did just begin Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War today.

SVIIB.

School of Seven Bells were working on their third album when member Ben Curtis, who was half of the group along with Alehandra Deheza, was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma; ten months after announcing the diagnosis, he died of the disease in December of 2013, leaving behind much of the music that has now appeared on the group’s final album, SVIIB (amazoniTunes). Deheza, who was both Curtis’ musical partner and his former romantic partner, has done a number of interviews about the difficulty of revisiting this material and completing the album, which she did with the help of Curtis’ brother Brandon (of The Secret Machines) and producer Justin Meldal-Johnson, after taking a break from music to grieve. The resulting record is a gorgeous elegy to her late partner and their life and work together, bringing the same ethereal post-new wave style of music but with a new lyrical direction and, of course, the subtext of Curtis’ death underpinning the entire album.

The opener, “Ablaze,” is probably the most recognizably SVIIB song, teetering on the edge of upbeat dream-pop and their more traditional soundscape musical style, but when Deheza appears with the opening line, “How could I have known/the god of my youth/would come crashing down on my heart?” it’s clear that we are no longer in typical lyrical territory for the duo. It is impossible to hear Deheza singing (or sing-talking, as she does on several tracks) without thinking everything is directed at Curtis or is merely about him, whether it’s the references on “Ablaze” to Curtis relighting the spark in her life when she “had sunk into the black,” or the dual meanings on “Open Your Eyes,” one of which is directed at the partner whose eyes will never open again.

School of Seven Bells’ best tracks from their first three albums combined strong pop hooks built on layers of synthesizers and drum machines, a huge shift from Curtis’ work with his brother in The Secret Machines or as drummer for Tripping Daisy, but better built to take advantage of Deheza’s lower registers and the smoky quality to her voice. They seemed like the spiritual descendants of early Lush, but with cleaner sounds than shoegaze acts from twenty years ago, so that you could easily distinguish between the layers of music and could understand the lyrics. The first seven tracks on SVIIB all follow a similar template, most of them very successful as alternative/pop songs; “A Thousand Times More” could be a HAERTS track, while “Signals” meanders more into Chairlift/Grimes territory, but with richer textures, with a deluge of sound in the intense chorus.

And then we get to the final two tracks, “Confusion” and “This is Our Time,” where the tempo slows to match the mood of the lyrics, from elegy to eulogy, songs drenched in loss and grief. What we lose in melody we gain in emotional power as Deheza sings to Curtis’ memory over the album’s sparsest musical arrangements. She opens the latter track’s chorus with “Our time is indestructible,” but with Curtis’ passing she can only be referring to her memories of their time together, and how those can carry her forward despite her grief. I felt that the transition from seven mostly uptempo tracks to what is essentially a two-part closer with a slower pace and more funereal feel was sudden, but there’s no smarter way to organize the nine songs on the album, and pairing these two at the end makes clear the album’s dual purpose and the finality of its subject.

There are still missteps, like the lyrics to “On My Heart,” a shimmering pop song where Deheza trips herself up by eschewing the more poetic, image-laden words on the rest of the album, and her sing-talking technique starts to slip off-key. I’d much rather hear Deheza sing, even though her style is more finesse than power, given her voice’s airy, sensual quality, but it also seems like she had so much to say on some of SVIIB‘s tracks that singing the lyrics might not have left her enough time to get it all on the record. The album was probably going to receive praise anyway, because who’s going to trash an album recorded by a deceased musician and his grieving partner, but it turns out that School of Seven Bells’ swansong is their finest work to date, deserving of all the accolades it’s receiving and likely to end 2016 as one of the year’s best albums.