Today's Top Picks

Monkey BoyClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Francisco Goldman


Our narrator, Francisco Goldberg, an American writer, has been living in Mexico when, because of a threat provoked by his journalism, he flees to New York City, hoping to start afresh. His last relationship ended devastatingly five years before, and he may now finally be on the cusp of a new love with a young Mexican woman he meets in Brooklyn. But Francisco is soon beckoned back to his childhood home outside Boston by a high school girlfriend who witnessed his youthful humiliations, and to visit his Guatemalan mother, Yolanda, whose intermittent lucidity unearths forgotten pockets of the past. On this five-day trip, the specter of Frank's recently deceased father, Bert, an immigrant from Ukraine – pathologically abusive, yet also at times infuriatingly endearing ― as well as the dramatic Guatemalan woman who helped raise him, and the high school bullies who called him "monkey boy," all loom.

Told in an intimate, irresistibly funny, and passionate voice, this extraordinary portrait of family and growing up "halfie," unearths the hidden cruelties in a predominantly white, working-class Boston suburb where Francisco came of age, and explores the pressures of living between worlds all his life. Monkey Boy is a new masterpiece of fiction from one of the most important American voices in the last forty years.

BookBrowse Review

Francisco Goldman's Monkey Boy exists in the liminal space between memoir and fiction. Like Goldman himself, son of a Jewish immigrant father from Ukraine and a Catholic immigrant mother from Guatemala, his writing defies easy categorization, landing in the zone of autobiographical fiction. "I made things up in order to be able to tell the truth," Goldman told the Paris Review's Lila Byok. "...Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction."

The book's semi-eponymous narrator is Francisco Goldberg — Frankie — a 49-year-old journalist-cum-novelist; its title comes from the name given to him by childhood bullies. Frankie has recently returned to New York City from Mexico City, where he was living, because of death threats he received following publication of his book about the murder of a Guatemalan bishop, a murder with links to the highest echelons of the country's government. On its face, Monkey Boy is the story of a five-day trip to Boston; inwardly, it is a far-ranging quest to come to terms with childhood, family history and the multifaceted inheritance of violence that shaped the narrator's life.

The story opens as Frankie prepares for a train trip to see his mother, whom he calls Mamita, in a nursing home in the suburbs of Boston, the landscape of his childhood. He is at a turning point in his life. His novel about José Martí, Cuban poet and revolutionary, is about to be published, and he is hoping that after several romantic failures, a tentative new relationship will provide the fulfillment that has so far eluded him.

Mamita has begun a gradual descent into dementia, and Frankie wants to connect with her while she is still lucid. She is reluctant because she's afraid her confidences will end up in a novel. When Frankie's first book was published, she framed the paragraph from the copyright page that says, "This is a work of fiction," and hung it on the wall in her front hall. He also plans to connect with some of the influential women in his life: a high school sweetheart, his Guatemalan au pair, and his sister, with whom he has a troubled relationship. He is looking for a way into a past that has left him feeling caught between worlds, unconnected and invisible. He hopes that by understanding his past, he will be able to look toward a new future.

Goldman weaves a complex braid of the present, memory and gritty political commentary. The prose drifts in short vignettes between stream of consciousness descriptions of the scenery beyond the train window — "a CasparDavidFriedrich graveyard with crooked gravestones, bare, black, twisted trees" — journeys through Goldberg's childhood — "I remember no part of my life more vividly than my fear of my father" — and back through the histories that shaped his parents' lives as immigrants in an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile country. With understated, razor-sharp language, Frankie recalls a morning walk with his father to a Jewish bakery:

Ricky Rossi from my sixth-grade class, sneering baby face in a bomber hat with hanging earflaps. Pitching arm cocked as if about to hurl another [snowball] as he lightly skipped backward on the snow-covered sidewalk, he shouted, Jew! … A Norman Rockwell painting, quaint New England town square in prettily falling snow, rascally boys being boys.

Later, he recalls a moment of racial animosity between his mother and a traffic cop:

Oh yeah, Yolanda? So where's ya Chiquita Banana hat? … That was one historically literate cop, though, to make that connection between my mother's country and the originally Boston-based fruit company that gave birth to Chiquita and helped bring years of military dictatorship and slaughter to her country.

During his early life, Goldberg/Goldman bounced between Boston and Guatemala City. His experiences in Guatemala instilled in him a strong sense of social justice and led to a 10-year career covering the Guatemalan Civil War (see Beyond the Book) and later, the child abductions of Argentina's Dirty War.

In his writing, Goldman exposes the underbelly of a complex web of brutality, from intimate family violence to the racism and bullying of a working-class Boston suburb, to the global violence of colonial oppression. Yet, as searing and unflinching as the novel is, it is also a work of tenderness and compassion. We fall in love with the characters, as flawed as they are, because Goldman paints them with a shining and necessary humanity. At a time when xenophobia and racial and ethnic violence are on the rise, Monkey Boy offers both a glimmer of hope for the future and a stunning read.

Book reviewed by Naomi Benaron

Beyond the Book:
The Guatemalan Civil War

Crosses bearing the names of victims of the Guatemalan Civil WarThe narrator of Francisco Goldman's autobiographical novel Monkey Boy, like Goldman himself, was a journalist who reported on the Guatemalan Civil War. The brutal war began in 1960 and lasted a total of 36 years. Over 200,000 were killed or "disappeared," more than 600 villages were attacked or completely destroyed by the army and 150 million people were displaced. Approximately 83 percent of the victims were Indigenous Maya, and 93 percent of human rights violations were carried out by the army and its paramilitary groups. Repercussions from the war still reverberate through the country today, and reconciliation remains elusive.


The seeds of the civil war found fertile ground following the 1954 military coup that toppled President Jacobo Arbenz, a progressive, democratically elected leader, and installed a military dictator, Colonel Castillo Armas. The United Fruit Company, which extracted huge profits from Guatemala from banana exports, had become alarmed by Arbenz's reforms that expropriated idle land and gave it to poor rural farmers. President Eisenhower had deep connections to United Fruit. The director of the CIA had served on their board of trustees, and Eisenhower's personal secretary was married to the company's chief PR officer. In the midst of the Cold War, he was also concerned about the spread of communism. The US-backed coup was orchestrated by the CIA. Once in power, Armas canceled the agrarian reforms, took away voting rights from illiterate Guatemalans, and implemented a series of repressive policies that resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of people.

The Civil War

The civil war began when left-wing guerillas, supported by Indigenous Guatemalans demanding social and economic justice, clashed with the state's military. The government responded with brutal force. According to a PBS Frontline report, "By March 1971, there had been more than 700 political killings. The victims included labor leaders, students and politicians." Violence continued to escalate in the '70s and '80s. According to Frontline, during this time, "At least 50,000 people died in the violence, and 200,000 Guatemalans fled to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands more were internally displaced because of systematic repression by the military."

The worst atrocities occurred during the 1980s, particularly under General Efrain Rios Montt, who seized power in another military coup in 1982. During that time, the government initiated a policy "aimed at ending insurgent guerrilla warfare by destroying the civilian base in which they hid." The army and its state-sponsored death squads swept through the country with a "scorched earth" policy, razing Indigenous villages, poisoning crops and water supplies, and murdering the inhabitants, burying them in mass unmarked graves. Anyone suspected of collaboration with the rebels was arrested or kidnapped. Some ended up in secret prisons where they were raped, tortured and murdered.

Fearing the spread of communism from Cuba, the US provided monetary and tactical support throughout the war, including the training of the most feared and brutal special forces counter-insurgency unit, the Kaibiles. In 1978, President Carter barred all sales of military equipment to Guatemala due to humanitarian concerns, but in 1983, President Reagan lifted the embargo, helping fuel the bloodiest years of the conflict.

Following the awarding of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan human rights activist, international pressure against the war intensified. Negotiations began between the government and leftist insurgents in 1994, and in December 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, officially ending the civil war. A condition of the UN-sponsored agreement was the establishment of the Commission for Historical Clarification, or CEH, to, "clarify human rights violations related to the thirty-six-year internal conflict… and to foster tolerance and preserve memory of the victims."


The CEH identified over 600 massacres. They concluded that between 1981 and 1983, in four predominantly Mayan regions, the actions of the Guatemalan army rose to the level of genocide.

Justice remains elusive. Thousands of families have yet to discover the fate of their loved ones, and without closure, wounds do not heal. Convictions for atrocities have largely been for minor players, although in 2011, four Kaibiles were sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for participation in the Dos Erres massacre. In 2013, General Efrain Rios Montt was tried and convicted in Guatemalan court for crimes against humanity, but his conviction was quickly overturned. He died in 2018 while awaiting a retrial. With the 2019 election of right-wing politician Alejandro Giammattei, a former doctor and prison director, many fear that further accountability efforts will be stalled.

Shrine dedicated to Bishop Juan Gerardi and victims of the Guatemalan genocide, courtesy of Adam Jones/Flickr

The Girl in His ShadowClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Audrey Blake


Raised by the eccentric surgeon Dr. Horace Croft after losing her parents to a deadly pandemic, the orphan Nora Beady knows little about conventional life. While other young ladies were raised to busy themselves with needlework and watercolors, Nora was trained to perfect her suturing and anatomical illustrations of dissections.

Women face dire consequences if caught practicing medicine, but in Croft's private clinic Nora is his most trusted―and secret―assistant. That is until the new surgical resident Dr. Daniel Gibson arrives. Dr. Gibson has no idea that Horace's bright and quiet young ward is a surgeon more qualified and ingenuitive than even himself. In order to protect Dr. Croft and his practice from scandal and collapse Nora must learn to play a new and uncomfortable role―that of a proper young lady.

But pretense has its limits. Nora cannot turn away and ignore the suffering of patients even if it means giving Gibson the power to ruin everything she's worked for. And when she makes a discovery that could change the field forever, Nora faces an impossible choice. Remain invisible and let the men around her take credit for her work, or let the world see her for what she is―even if it means being destroyed by her own legacy.

Paperback Original

BookBrowse Review

The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake is a fast-paced historical novel set in Victorian-era England. With both romance and thriller-esque elements, Blake — a pseudonym for co-authors Jaima Fixsen and Regina Sirois — creates a convincing tale of legal and medical suspense, all in the midst of period-accurate gory descriptions of surgeries, home births and autopsies. Tying this background color together with the book's plot-driven qualities is an exploration of the medical advances and experimentation of the time.

The novel aims to follow these subjects from a feminist angle; the protagonist, Nora Beady, is a young woman practicing medicine without a license who must contend with the misogynistic society around her. Having been taken in by Dr. Horace Croft as a child after her family died of cholera, she has, under the doctor's tutelage, developed skills befitting a medical professional. However, as women are not allowed to openly use such skills, she assists Dr. Croft in secret. The doctor himself is one for bending or outright ignoring the rules: His thirst for scientific knowledge leads him to pay grave robbers for dead bodies to study, and his pragmatism leads him to respect Nora's intellect and not view her gender as any kind of impediment to her capabilities.

The harmony of the life and work Nora and the doctor share is disrupted when Croft decides to take on an additional assistant, a young physician named Daniel Gibson. This puts Nora in an uncomfortable position, as she is obligated to hide from Daniel the crucial role she plays in Croft's practice, at least initially. Romance between Daniel and Nora is hinted at early on, and as all three of the main characters endeavor to provide the highest possible level of care for their patients, they run into legal troubles that stretch beyond the scope of Nora's activities.

In The Girl in His Shadow, historical detail blends artfully with a compelling plot. Rather than leaning too heavily on any one aesthetic or device, it maintains a light, shifting balance: There is a romance but it doesn't unfold or tie up as neatly as might be expected; there is a somber focus on matters of life and death but also humor, including an incident with a faulty door connecting Daniel's room with Dr. Croft's; the action of the novel is meticulously constructed but so are the descriptions.

While the authors successfully mix different aspects of story and genre, the novel falls short in its feminist ambitions. Nora is an embodiment of the fairly simplistic modern fantasy of a "strong woman" type overcoming obstacles, and not particularly interesting. This is all the more disappointing because, as an orphan raised by a man who keeps body parts in jars, she is set up to be a fantastically specific and captivating character, but she doesn't have much of a personality outside of the predicaments she encounters and her determination to persevere. This has the effect of muddying the waters of feminism and romance; rather than presenting a story with real elements of both, the novel ends up romanticizing feminism through a rather surface-level idea of female independence.

Of course, this should not be a problem for those looking for lighter reading combined with substantial historical fact, and The Girl in His Shadow still has much to recommend it. The real star of the book is the burgeoning scientific knowledge of the day, which is woven seamlessly into the plot, such that the reader feels caught up in the excitement of the possibilities that surround the characters as they experiment with emerging treatments and battle limitations imposed by the traditional medical establishment, all against a drearily romantic background that those drawn to Victorian-era suspense will surely appreciate.

Book reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Beyond the Book:
Early Anesthetics

Oil painting of dentist W.T.G. Morton using an ether-soaked rag to anesthetize a patient by Ernest BoardIn The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake, Nora and Daniel use diethyl ether, referred to simply as "ether," to render a patient unconscious in order to perform a surgical procedure on him. While the procedure is ultimately successful, the characters are still unsure of the exact effects of the drug. Nora and Daniel's study of and experimentation with ether is reflective of the murky medical knowledge of the substance available to physicians at the time. Ether ultimately became the first general anesthetic to see wide recorded use in surgery.

Before general anesthetics, or drugs that allow for the controlled induction of total unconsciousness, those performing invasive medical procedures such as surgery relied on sedatives (substances that promote relaxation) and analgesics (pain relievers) — including alcohol, opium and various herbal medicines — to reduce pain and discomfort in patients. The first known use of a general anesthesic during surgery took place in Japan in 1804. The anesthetic was an herbal mixture containing the plants monkshood and thorn apple that physician Seishu Hanaoka gave to a patient undergoing a partial mastectomy. However, this form of anesthesia never came into use outside of Japan.

Diethyl ether was first prepared as a chemical compound by the Prussian botanist Valerius Cordus in 1540. Its potential as an analgesic and sedative was explored in a report by English scientist Michael Faraday in 1818, but during the first half of the 19th century it was mainly used as a recreational drug. It was sold as an alternative to alcohol, and people attended "ether frolics," parties where the substance was inhaled. Inhalation could eventually lead to unconsciousness, but it produced a feeling of euphoria before that point was reached.

Crawford Williamson Long, a physician practicing in Georgia in the United States, was the first to employ ether as a general anesthetic for the purpose of performing surgery in 1842, when he used the substance to anesthetize a patient, James M. Venable, before removing a tumor from his neck. Long and Venable were both familiar with the recreational use of ether, which may have been why they agreed to try it for this purpose. However, Long delayed publishing the results of the procedure until 1848, by which time a Boston dentist named William T.G. Morton had already demonstrated the use of ether as an anesthetic in public in 1846. For this reason, Morton is commonly (though inaccurately) credited with being the first to use ether to anesthetize a patient.

Ether subsequently began to see wide use in medical procedures, including on wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. It remained a standard form of general anesthesia until it was replaced in the 1960s by fluorinated hydrocarbons, which are safer for use in a medical setting and less likely to produce certain side effects, such as nausea and vomiting.

While ether is no longer typically used as an anesthetic in the United States, Britain and many other countries that have reliable access to modern medicine, it is still sometimes employed for this purpose in poorer regions because it is relatively cheap to produce. The main drawback to its use is that it is highly flammable and explosive, and can therefore be dangerous.

The first use of ether in dental surgery, painting by Ernest Board, 1846

WhereaboutsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jhumpa Lahiri


Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father's untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and "him," a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun's vital heat, her perspective will change.

This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.

BookBrowse Review

Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts has seen numerous comparisons to Second Place by Rachel Cusk. These two short novels, with American release dates a week apart, are both narrated from the point of view of an unnamed middle-aged woman reflecting on her life circumstances. But while Cusk's story is a fraught, frenzied work about a character bemoaning her lack of freedom, Lahiri's book is lower-key in presentation: It follows a melancholic professor living in a (presumably Italian) city, a solitary person looking in on the lives of others, wandering on the fringes of family and relationships.

As the title suggests, a sense of place is a major theme; Whereabouts unfolds in vignette-style chapters labeled by where they occur — ranging from the straightforward "On the Street" and "At the Trattoria" to the more conceptual "In My Head" and "In August." Each chapter appears as a closed system in which the narrator's emotions and inclinations seem to be controlled by the physical and conceptual properties of her situation. In one, she recollects an affair with a married man, remarking, "It was an incendiary time, a momentary surge that has nothing to do with me anymore." In another, she attends a dinner where she is drawn into discussion with another guest about a film but becomes irritated when the woman doesn't share her opinion, snapping, "Do you realize you have no idea what the fuck you're talking about?" In a different chapter, the potential calm of a country getaway is ruined when she makes an insignificant but stomach-turning discovery.

While the narrator often comes across as irritable and morose, her intense accounts are captivating. The novel's vignettes remind me of the autobiographical work of Soviet writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, who created vivid, snapshot-style depictions of his experiences in an attempt to understand the source of his unhappiness. Like Zoshchenko as narrator, Lahiri's protagonist is a moody storyteller, but it is the bitterness of her emotions that shocks her surroundings to life, and even her more anxious and disturbing thoughts contain a certain strange beauty. The overall effect can be summed up in one of the narrator's own musings as she strolls along a beach to the remains of an abandoned villa, among which several children are playing: "Outside, there's a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring."

The book's use of physical limitation as a device aligns with how it was written: Lahiri composed it in Italian, an acquired language for her, and later translated it into English. Likely as a result of this, the novel's language is sparse, which makes it feel timeless and lacking in specific location even as time and place in general play such a significant part. Buried in this sparseness is a deceptively alive story that builds in momentum even as it offers little in the way of actual plot.

While the narrator frequently seems like more of an oddity than an everywoman, her story is populated with small and large burdens of daily existence that will to an extent be familiar to any reader. Whereabouts reminds us that there is no escape from the confines and consequences of physical place and time, but its portrayal of these elements is cathartic, stimulating and satisfying.

Book reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Beyond the Book:
Exophonic Authors

Jhumpa Lahiri wrote her novel Whereabouts in Italian, a language she learned in adulthood, and later translated it into English. Many authors have at some time made the decision to become exophonic (to write in a language other than one's native tongue), whether for personal, artistic, practical or political reasons.

The author who is possibly best known for doing this is Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who famously adopted French in order to write "sans style" (without style). While he eventually returned to English, some of his most famous works were originally composed in French, including the play En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) and the trilogy of novels beginning with Molloy.

Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf's short novel Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook) is sometimes recommended as an easy read for French learners, as Kristóf wrote it while still attempting to master the language herself after having fled her native country for Switzerland. Mieke Chew contrasts Kristóf with Beckett as a French language learner turned writer, remarking, "Unlike Beckett, who kept language itself at arm's length for the sake of form, she did not experiment with French out of artistic ambition, but in order to live and be understood, not playfully, but with rigor and dedication to correctness—and she did so to devastating effect."

Another exiled writer, Vladimir Nabokov, is best known for the work he produced in English after moving to the United States, including Lolita and Pale Fire. His earlier novels were written in his native Russian, and he once noted, "My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English."

Exophonic Book Covers

Edwidge Danticat, Haitian American author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, Everything Inside and other works, is a contemporary exophonic writer. Though Danticat grew up with Haitian Creole as her primary language and was taught in French at school as a child, she began to compose stories in English soon after coming to the US at a young age. In an interview, Danticat explained, "I came to English at a time when I was not adept enough at French to write creatively in French and did not know how to write in Creole because it had not been taught to me in school, so my writing in English was as much an act of personal translation as it was an act of creative collaboration with the new place I was in."

In her 2017 essay "To Speak Is to Blunder," Yiyun Li — author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; Where Reasons End; and other novels and story collections — recounts how for her the act of choosing to write in English, along with the rejection of her mother tongue, Chinese, has come with harsh and complicated implications but feels necessary. Reflecting on Nabokov's comment about giving up writing in Russian, she forms her own sentiment around his words: "If I allow myself to be honest, my private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody's concern, is that I disowned my native language."

Lahiri's 2015 essay "Teach Yourself Italian" (itself translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein), on her journey to writing in the language, introduces some interesting parallels and contrasts to Li's experience. Lahiri's relationship to language is informed by her parents' Bengali, in which she has always lacked some degree of fluency despite it being her mother tongue, as well as English, in which she initially wrote fiction. Regarding her fledgling attempts to write in Italian, she states, "I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. ... I'm bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn't torment or grieve me."

Swimming Back to Trout RiverClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Linda Rui Feng


How many times in life can we start over without losing ourselves?

In the summer of 1986 in a small Chinese village, ten-year-old Junie receives a momentous letter from her parents, who had left for America years ago: her father promises to return home and collect her by her twelfth birthday. But Junie's growing determination to stay put in the idyllic countryside with her beloved grandparents threatens to derail her family's shared future.

What Junie doesn't know is that her parents, Momo and Cassia, are newly estranged from one another in their adopted country, each holding close private tragedies and histories from the tumultuous years of their youth during China's Cultural Revolution. While Momo grapples anew with his deferred musical ambitions and dreams for Junie's future in America, Cassia finally begins to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from years ago. In order for Momo to fulfill his promise, he must make one last desperate attempt to reunite all three members of the family before Junie's birthday—even if it means bringing painful family secrets to light.

"A beautifully written, poignant exploration of family, art, culture, immigration, and most of all, love," (Jean Kwok, New York Times bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee) Swimming Back to Trout River weaves together the stories of Junie, Momo, Cassia, and Dawn—a talented violinist from Momo's past—while depicting their heartbreak and resilience, tenderly revealing the hope, compromises, and abiding ingenuity that make up the lives of immigrants.

BookBrowse Review

Linda Rui Feng's first novel, Swimming Back to Trout River, is a powerful meditation on the ties that bind us within history, geography and community, told through the lens of four primary characters: Cassia, Momo, Junie and Dawn. The strength of the novel doesn't lie in the dramatic events that underpin the characters' lives — the Cultural Revolution, immigration, heartbreaking tragedies and individual struggles — but rather, in the simple presentation of their existences unfolding naturally through interactions with each other and the world.

Feng provides a guide to an "untranslatable" word that encompasses the overall philosophy, theme and effect of this book: yuanfen, which acknowledges an "unknowability in the workings of the universe," implying that there is an "invisible mesh" that loosely binds people and circumstances. It is precisely this unknowable quality that infuses the novel — while events occur and characters interact with one another, it is impossible for the reader to predict what will happen, or what has happened in the past. Cassia and Momo may be husband and wife, Junie may be their daughter, and Dawn may be Momo's old college friend, but the importance of these labels is eroded into the larger "mesh" that ties them all together, even when they are apart. The rifts are not just across countries, but also in the expectations that they have, as husband and wife, as first loves, as parents wishing for a physically ideal child. Their interactions unfold and fall into place naturally to culminate in a surprisingly violent, yet gently presented conclusion.

We are drawn into the characters' lives, but they don't follow traditional dramatic arcs or narratives. There is no exposition, climax, denouement, primary struggle or key character development. Instead, the story reflects the natural ebbs and flows, the minor entanglements and ripple-effect impacts that each person has upon each other as the moments of life unfold. In this sense, it is surprising that Feng manages to keep the reader's attention throughout, but this is accomplished through the care and thoughtfulness in her writing, and the subtle love and respect that we come to feel for the characters. These elements draw us back to keep reading Feng's beautiful phrases and to keep wondering with interest what will happen next.

Swimming Back to Trout River is also a rare immigration story that forgoes traditional tropes and does not romanticize or sensationalize one part of the journey at the expense of presenting the complex whole of each individual character. The journeys that Cassia, Momo and Dawn take from China to the United States almost end up becoming minor details, serving as a backdrop to the more important and interesting quiet development of their lives. This is also the case with Junie — her congenital defects and life in a rural Chinese village are neither overdramatized nor exoticized. Rather, she is just a young girl growing up and coming into her own sense of independence and free will. While there are a number of dramatic events that occur throughout — after all, they are living through the Cultural Revolution — the focus is on Cassia, Momo, Junie and Dawn — their simple existences, presented without justification.

Book reviewed by Jennifer Hon Khalaf

Beyond the Book:
Classical Music and the Cultural Revolution

Painting of Ludwig van BeethovenIn Swimming Back to Trout River, Dawn and Momo are united by their love of music during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, particularly Western classical music. There is a special significance attached to a bust of Beethoven within the novel. Beethoven was seen as a revolutionary symbol throughout 20th century China, since his personal hardships resonated with Chinese cultural ideals about struggle and triumph. Yet, Beethoven, along with all other Western music, was banned during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Prior to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, there was much cultural interchange between China and the West, with Shanghai dubbed "the Paris of the East" as early as 1869, and the introduction of Western-style orchestras in 1879. The growing interest and fusion of Western and traditional Eastern styles of music was brought to a sudden halt with the advent of the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a sociopolitical purge that sought to establish a radical proletariat by stamping out any signs of intellectualism, bourgeoisie tendencies, or "old" ways of thinking. It was brought about by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party, in an attempt to preserve Chinese communism by eliminating any other belief systems or cultures, including not just Western influences, but also traditional Eastern beliefs that predated Maoism.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when it was at its most radical, both Western and Classical Chinese music were attacked for being anti-proletarian. These attacks were instigated by the Red Guards, a group of youths that were mobilized and militarized by Mao Zedong in the early years. Music in general, even traditional Chinese music, was believed to be characteristic of the bourgeoisie — and if it was Western music, that was an even more insidious form of anti-Communist sentiment. Listening to Western music was seen as a form of rebellion, and in the most extreme instances, Western music lovers faced the risk of execution. The only acceptable form was pre-approved music that conformed to Maoist revolutionary ideology. People who strayed from pre-approved cultural artworks and belief systems were dubbed "class enemies" and were socially ostracized or even physically harmed. Lu Hongen, conductor and timpanist for the Shanghai Symphony, was arrested for espousing pro-Western, anti-Communist views, and he is said to have asked his cellmate to "go to Beethoven's grave ... and tell him that his Chinese disciple was humming the Missa solemnis as he went to his execution."

The revolutionary fervor that sparked the Cultural Revolution began to ebb in 1968 with the dissolution of the Red Guards, and by 1969, there was some space for cultural performance. Chinese traditional music was permitted if it could be given a revolutionary sheen, but the prohibition on Western music was still staunchly maintained. It was only upon the death of Mao Zedong on September 9, 1976, that the Cultural Revolution came to an end. In March 1977, the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra performed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the concert was played over the radio. The event is remembered for breaking a silence that had lasted for over a decade.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis, 1820 by Joseph Karl Stieler

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BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.