Heartbreak Tango

My most recent review is of Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, which was republished by Dalkey earlier this year. Although I’ve read parts of Kiss of the Spider Woman (and seen the film with William Hurt), I didn’t know much about Puig before I read this novel. Honestly, this is still true, but from bits and pieces of translator Suzanne Jill Levine’s biography of him (Manuel Puig and the Kiss of the Spider Woman), he seems to not only have been a brilliant writer, but also a really fascinating person. Heartbreak Tango is delightful–immersed in pop culture and brilliantly scripted, it is, as Puig intended, much like a radio drama, only so much more nuanced. The book is a collage of letters, diary entries, news articles, police reports, monologues, scrap books, and scenes of dialog. No one viewpoint is ever truly privileged, and even characters who do repulsive things are vulnerable enough that one feels instinctively empathetic with them. At any rate, I look forward to reading more of Puig’s work in the future, especially now that Dalkey is republishing a number of his books.

My review can be read here on Three Percent, or the full text is below.


Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

These epigraphs offer a bittersweet and ironic counterpoint to the mundane realities of the characters’ lives—days spent laundering rich women’s linens, doing backbreaking construction work, or fending off the advances of would-be suitors. As the book progresses, however, they begin seem less and less farcical, and increasingly reflective of the bubbling tensions at play in these individuals’ world. A “Miss Spring” pageant ignites jealousy and gossip among debutants. Juan Carlos seduces several neighborhood daughters (all friends), while simultaneously conducting a very public affair with a much older widow. A family loses their fortune and social standing when an English investor is snubbed by their daughter. A poor maid murders the father of her illegitimate son after discovering his affair with her employer’s daughter. Life imitates art, with fewer happy endings.

Puig’s first love was the movies (he originally planned to become a film director), a fact is apparent in much of his work, not least Heartbreak Tango. This is more than just a fondness for referencing movie stars and Hollywood films throughout his novels, though—it’s a way of seeing. Puig is a master of montage, of cross-cutting intimate snapshots of multiple characters to show them in their greater context. For example, in one episode, he follows everyone through their daily routine, while also revealing their greatest fears and desires in that precise moment. It’s a day much like any other day, filled with work and worry, and yet Puig imbues it with such specificity that even the most trifling desires resonate with the reader.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most of their greatest fears are legitimate ones—weighty and insurmountable problems which threaten to overshadow whatever small happinesses they are able to steal for themselves in the form of an air conditioned movie, a cool siesta, or a freshly pressed and polished uniform. Juan Carlos cannot raise the money he needs to go to an expensive sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. After marrying a well-to-do public auctioneer and moving to Buenos Aires, a neighborhood girl is still can’t afford to send her family money to pay for her father’s medical treatments. An unwed mother struggles to find ways to support herself and still spend time with her infant son.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that these characters take refuge in the romantic dramas of radio plays, the fictional tragedies of their favorite tangos. That well into middle age, they still cherish remembrances of short-lived adolescent passion, even if over time, their memories have edited out fickle lovers and disappointed youthful hopes. Or as two childhood friends realize while sharing a cup of maté years later, “’[O]ne always thinks the past was better. And wasn’t it?’ . . . Both found an answer for that question,” Puig reveals. “The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love.”


Purge Review on Powell’s

Although I recently reviewed Purge for The L Magazine, I also had the opportunity to write an extended piece on the book (with a slightly different focus) for the website Three Percent (here). I am delighted to say that shortly after the review was posted, I was invited by The National Book Critics Circle (of which I am a member) to have the review featured as one of the Reviews-of-the-Day on the Powell’s Books website.

Even if you don’t live in the Northwest, you may be familiar with Powell’s–it’s a gigantic, used and new bookstore with an absolutely wonderful and extensive collection. I’ve reaped the benefits of the Powell’s bounty both when ordering hard-to-find children’s books for library classes, and when a friend scoured the store stacks on a recent trip and brought me back a copy of Sebastian Japrisot’s The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, a sadly out-of-print French crime novel that I had been searching high and low for all over New York.

Anyway, it’s a huge honor to be selected for this by the NBCC (a group with discriminating standards) and also to be featured on the Powell’s website–especially for a book which was really a very memorable and important reading experience for me. I’ve posted the full text of the review below, or you can read it on Three Percent (link above) or, hey–go to Powell’s and check it out. Buy a book while you’re there–they have free shipping!


Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes — the Finlandia and the Runeberg — as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991 — the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia — with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia — a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word — their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.

As the novel delves into Aliide’s past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident — a brutal “interrogation” that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged — even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. “She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them,” we’re told.

From every trembling hand, she could tell — there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye . . .

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s . . . And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.

Even as Aliide’s attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her — even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home — the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions — much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent “[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar.”

Stroke her hair and say that it wasn’t her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.

There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption — in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.

Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide’s experiences — as well as those of her grandmother and mother — will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward — in order to truly reconcile with the past — such stories must finally be heard and examined.

Maid of Murder

In one of his recent Booklist columns, Will Manley (who brought the world The Sex Lives of Librarians Survey along with all sorts of other interesting/quirky thoughts on librarians and librarianship from his blog, Will Unwound) noted that as far as qualifications for being a librarian go, being a mystery lover is right up there with fantasizing about heaven as a gigantic library and collecting book-themed neckties. Well. I’ve got two out of these three qualifications in the bag–I big time [heart] mysteries and do spend a lot of time ogling bookshelves and am kind of sort of hoping that when the world ends, I’ll find myself in Amsterdam’s Centraal Public Library. (Being a fan of ties, I should certainly consider starting a collection of Biblio neck-wear, too…)

Given this widespread love of murder and mayhem (Mr. Manley excluded), it seems only fitting that librarians would not only read mysteries, but write and star in them, too. For my most recent review, I wrote about academic librarian Amanda Flowers’ debut novel, Maid of Murder, which features a plucky college librarian named India Hayes as its heroine. Fear not–it’s not all about the Dewey Decimal System and reference services, although the parts that are about such things are truly delightful. You can read the review on Reviewing the Evidence, or see the full text below.


It’s a commonly held truth that librarians are avid mystery readers—lovers of capers, whodunits, and thrillers of every stripe. And while perhaps this enthusiasm may not jibe with some people’s image of the staid and stern ‘shush-er,’ it does make a lot of sense. Librarians are professional researchers, trained to suss out facts and information that might elude the average person. Clearly, the stakes are lower than in a police investigation, but the fact remains: librarians, though you may laugh, are a little like detectives. Who better then to write a mystery—and to solve one—than a than a reference librarian?

Enter debut author Amanda Flower, whose entertaining Maid of Murder is a fine addition to the ‘bibliomystery’ genre, as well as a charming cozy about the perils of friendship, unrequited love, and reference work in a small Ohio college town. Flower’s plucky heroine, India Hayes, works as an academic librarian at a small, middling college where most of her days are spent teaching research skills to apathetic undergrads, listening to her colleagues debate the (de)merits of the Dewey Decimal system, and trying to remain on the good side of the college bureaucracy. Not exactly a glamorous life, but a reasonably happy one, which India supplements with her love of painting, a close friendship with a fellow librarian named Bobby, and the daily dramas brought on by her eccentric family: her former flower children and outspoken activist parents, her domineering sister, and her younger brother Mark, whose emotional frailty is only superseded by an obsession with advanced mathematics.

When India reluctantly agrees to act as a bridesmaid for her childhood friend Olivia—the woman who sent her brother into a nervous breakdown from which he’s never really recovered—India knows that she’s in for a hectic summer. But when Olivia is murdered and Mark becomes the prime suspect, India finds herself much more deeply involved in the investigation than she could have ever expected.

India is a witty and resourceful character—self-deprecating without being passive, and clever without being too polished. Although her one-liners sometimes go awry (and there are a few notable clunkers), she delivers most with aplomb. Substituting a small college town for the traditional English village of cozies, Flower delivers plenty of colorful and quirky sub-characters (such as India’s enthusiastically faux-Irish landlord), as well as enough simmering suburban tension to keep the stakes high and reasonably unpredictable throughout the story.

Maid of Murder has something for readers of many tastes. Librarians will be amused by tangential discussions on reference desk placement, and chick lit enthusiasts will enjoy the trials of gold lamé bridesmaids gowns and the hints of romance between India and the more-than-professionally-interested detective assigned to the case. Here’s hoping that this formerly quiet Ohio suburb produces enough nefarious crime for a second appearance of India Hayes.

The Girl Who’s Paving the Way for More Scandinavian (Crime) Translations

The New York Times ran an article (“A Scandinavian Hit Sets Publishers Seeking More“) yesterday about the increasing market demand for ‘the next Stieg Larsson,’ or a series which will sate the appetites of those who just can’t get enough of The Girl Who. I’m skeptical of this on many a level. For one, as the article points out, just because people loved this series, doesn’t mean they are gravitating towards the Scandinavian setting and will automatically find themselves enamored of other popular Scandinavian authors. Try convincing someone who loved this series that they’ll get the same sprawling, cynical, plot-addled scenarios from a Henning Mankell police procedural. It’s not going to go over well. There aren’t any vengeance demon hacker-types in Indriðason or Fossum novels, either. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little horizon-broadening.

There will actually be some interesting fall out from this trend, too. Henning Mankell has been widening the market for other Scandinavian (crime) authors for quite some time, but according to this piece, he’s only now making the New York Times bestseller list, which frankly, I find not a little shocking. Think of the exposure that Larsson is going to have, what with his books selling a kazillion copies from here to Bahrain. A number of authors have been given book deals in the US now, not least Camilla Lackberg. She’s written seven, highly praised novels, many of which have been translated into English and published in the UK and Canada. I’ve been waiting for The Ice Princess to make it stateside for years, and now (finally!) it will.

So thanks, Stieg.


My most recent review is of the new English translation of Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. I saw Ms. Oksanen speak at the recent PEN festival, and not only is she an eloquent speaker, she is also able–quite elegantly–to take topics and historical subject matter that is perhaps unfamiliar to her audience (such as the Soviet occupation of Estonia) and make them seem accessible and relevant in a broader context.

This is certainly a knack which she utilized in Purge, but also one which seems to have characterized her previous work. For example, she talked about one of her previous novels, Stalin’s Cows, which deals not only Soviet history, but also the topic of eating disorders. One of her goals, she said, was to create a book in which both of these topics could be brought to readers who might not ordinarily come across them. As she said, she wanted younger girls with an interest in eating disorders to gain an understanding of recent historical events, and older men with an interest in history to gain insight into eating disorders.

In regards to Purge, Oksanen discussed a number of interesting elements, not the least the fact that she drew inspiration for the story from events she heard her grandparents discussing while visiting them in Estonia during her childhood summers. Additionally, the story has gone through many iterations, and Oksanen not only experimented with telling it from different points of view, but also initially wrote it as a play, which was staged in Finland several years ago.

Purge is a difficult novel, but entirely compelling and beautifully, engagingly written. The translation, by Lola Rogers, is fluid and lyrical, and reads quite naturally. My review was published for The L and can be read on their website, or the full text is below.


In 2009, Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen was declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year”in recognition of her virtuosic novel Purge. The novel—whose Finnish title also connotes “cleansing—is a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia and a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual. Through her inscrutable protagonist Aliide Truu, Oksanen creates a perceptive portrait of the limitations of the healing process and the consequences that abuse can have not only on a victim, but on those around her.

Having always lived in rural Estonia, elderly Aliide has weathered multiple occupations—two under Soviet regimes, and one under Nazi Germany. After a brutal “interrogation”by Soviet soldiers in her youth, Aliide is determined to prevent a repeat assault. In an effort to protect herself, however, she becomes complicit in the victimization of other women—even her sister and niece. Like the anonymous diarist of A Woman in Berlin, Aliide seeks safety with her assailants, going so far as to marry a prominent soldier. “No one would believe that a woman could go through something like that and then marry a Communist,”she reasons.” And that was important—that no one would ever know.

It is this oppressive silence which comes to define Purge and strikes at the prolonged anguish felt by so many of its characters. In fluid and unadorned prose (beautifully translated by Lola Rogers), Oksanen gives poetic shape to unspeakable violence and illuminates the devastating process of remembering. It’s a compelling, difficult, and ultimately impossible resolution. Because as Oksanen herself has noted, it is only after one can speak about trauma that one can heal from it.

For Americans who are accustomed to exploring their most intimate sufferings in public, the burden of silence may not immediately resonate. But for Estonians, who only regained independence from Russia in 1991, surely the unabashed eloquence of Oksanen’s narrative marks an important step toward reconciliation with a past that has been silenced for too long.