On the Hunt

This Week’s Hot Reads: July 29, 2013

This week, a stunning debut of historically set stories, Edward Said’s daughter hunts for her roots, and a journey told in noodles.

Byzantium by Ben Stroud A debut collection of stories that spans countries and eras with delightful ease.

Ben Stroud may be known to the readers of Harper’s and Boston Review, where some of his short fiction has appeared, but to most he is a newcomer. His debut collection of short stories, Byzantium, takes place across thousands of years of history all over the globe. Fans of David Mitchell’s The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet will delight in Stroud’s sensitive approach to historical fiction. The characters of Stroud’s imagination could just as easily appear in contemporary life—one man, sent on a mission to destroy a potential usurper in ancient Greece, does it to win the approval of his dead father. A convert to a fledging religious community in Michigan searches for love and acceptance and instead finds corruption and hypocrisy. But the most interesting character to Stroud and to us as readers is a biracial Sherlock Holmes named Jackson Hieronymus Burke who appears in two stories in this collection. Burke has all the mystery and Aspergerian charm of Holmes with the added complication that he is a biracial man living in the late 1800s. Without a doubt, Byzantium signals the arrival of an incredible talent. One can only hope a novel featuring the mysterious Burke is under way.

—Jessica Ferri

A Marker to Measure Driftby Alexander MaksikA woman on the run from war finally faces her past.

Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, chronicles a young Liberian woman’s search for safety after she escapes the first Liberian war and flees to Greece. Like the people Jacqueline meets on her journey, the reader is ignorant of what she has endured. Through an impressionistic stream of consciousness, Maksik slowly reveals Jacqueline’s ordeal. Exhausted and starving, Jacqueline engages in imaginary conversations with her dead mother. Interactions on the beach ignite memories of her former lover. In stark contrast to her pain and suffering, the description of Jacqueline’s surroundings and small meals is beautifully written. “The immediate pleasure. The feeling of warm food in her mouth, the flavor of eggs, the overwhelming taste of salt, the faint burn of pepper.” It’s not until Jacqueline is treated kindly by a Macedonian waitress that she feels safe enough to reveal what happened to her family. A Marker to Measure Drift is a novel that measures the ripple effect of trauma and violence. “Nostalgia, her father said, is from the Greek. Nostos, to return home again. Algos, pain.”

—Jessica Ferri

Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family by Najla Said Edward Said’s daughter goes in search of her complicated roots.

Najla Said’s memoir, about growing up Arab-American in New York City, promises to take us to interesting places. To war-torn Beirut. To elite social circles on the Upper East Side. To the study of Edward Said, her father, whose book Orientalism remains the treatise for Western misconceptions about the East. Najla Said means to take us to these places, yet we never quite arrive. From the opening line, “I am a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman,” Said makes the mistake of assuming that the material of her life trumps the mechanics of crafting a story. We never feel the terror she surely felt as a girl vacationing in Beirut when artillery shells began to fall, or empathy for her identity struggles, waged mostly at a private school for girls. The closest Said gets to finding the Palestine she seeks is a guided tour of a refugee camp. There are some striking moments. She captures the heat of Beirut (“I would maneuver my little body around army tanks, trying not to touch them because they were so hot from the sun they burned my skin”) and her longing to please her father (“I would take his beer glass off its coaster and take a little sip, making sure he saw me and smiled”) Still, Looking for Palestine stays stuck inside her heady realm. It’s hard not to be disappointed, when there are so many places to see.

—Damaris Colhoun

On the Noodle Roadby Jen Lin-LiuWhere does the noodle come from? A food writer sets off to discover.

It seems to have a built-in narrative arc. Jen Lin-Liu’s On the Noodle Road begins with the remains of a 4,000-year-old noodle and the controversial claim, made by Chinese archaeologists, that it is the oldest in the world. Her curiosity piqued, Lin-Liu, founder of Black Sesame Kitchen in Beijing and author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, sets out to solve the mystery for herself. Traveling west along the Silk Road and joined by her husband for part of the trip, she eats her way through various permutations of the noodle, looking for answers in local kitchens from Beijing to Rome. Her route is well planned, yet somewhere—on the streets of Tehran, in a yurt in Turkmenistan—Lin-Liu loses her way. The question surrounding the noodle recedes, replaced by new ones: What makes a marriage? What makes a wife? Lin-Liu writes gorgeous descriptions—“Split pomegranates hung on wooden posts, their pink pearls spilling out of the peel”—and intimate, penetrating portraits of the people she encounters. But with the lingering question of the noodle only halfway attended to, the story drifts—and Lin-Liu, a smart writer, with obvious talents, knows it. In the final pages, she wonders aloud, “What exactly was I pursuing? Was I still trying to discover where noodles came from, or was I just asserting my own independence?” By now, approaching 400 pages, she is in Italy and has grown tired of eating and travel. Her belly is full, but the case of the noodle remains unsatisfyingly open.

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von SchirachThe longer finger of history haunts this German thriller.

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In this modern-day, court-case thriller, Berlin seems a sterile place. A city of somnambulists, under the spell of the past. It awakens when the body of a high-profile industrialist is found with four bullets in his brain, his face kicked in by the heel of a boot. Suddenly, for defense lawyer Caspar Leinen—his client, the suspect, is a quiet-seeming man who readily confesses his crime, but will not reveal his motive—life appears “fragile, simultaneous, final.” Mundane things begin to arrest him: the sight of cardboard orange boxes tumbling into snow; his lover’s naked shoulders. History itself begins to stir, and faced with his client’s stony silence, Leinan turns to it for clues. A bestseller in Germany, written by prominent defense lawyer, Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case is written with lean economy. Every sentence, every scene, works in service of the plot, which moves with addicting pace. Because it lacks the stylish voice of a hard-boiled detective noir, it sometimes feels coldly industrious. Perhaps that is the point; what shadows this murder, and all its players, is too nefarious for pulp. Von Schirach illuminates his prose with bits of poetry instead: “Outside, the gravediggers stood in their suits beside the timber struts ... They were smoking and talking, and they were alive.” In this book, a crime and its city, haunted by the long finger of history, are too.