Category Archives: Armenian American

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

Double BindThe title here is your first warning: Oxford Dictionaries describes ‘double bind’ as “[a] situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.” Think on that, then brace yourself as you open the cover (or hit ‘play’ to allow narrator Susan Denaker to lull you into false complacency): between these pages, you’ll lose all control of what’s real and what’s not.

To tell you too much would be such an injustice, so if you’re already a Chris Bohjalian groupie (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer and general go-to-when-I-need-a-good-story-stuck-in-the-ears), just read it without any further preamble, because that’s always the best way to discover new stories. If this is your first Bohjalian from his 16-thus-far (#17 coming in July), congratulations for picking a mind-blowing powerhouse, so go start already.

If you’re still with me, let’s start with Bohjalian’s opening “Author’s Note” in which he carefully lays out what’s true: the executive director of a Vermont homeless shelter shared with Bohjalian a box of “remarkable” black-and-white photographs taken by a once homeless man, Bob “Soupy” Campbell; both were “mystified” how such an obviously accomplished artist could go from capturing images of celebrities and newsmakers of the 1950s and 1960s to becoming homeless in Vermont. “We tend to stigmatize the homeless and blame them for their plight,” Bohjalian writes. “We are oblivious to the fact that most had lives as serious as our own before everything fell apart.” In deference to Campbell, Bohjalian includes some of his luminous photos throughout this book. He adds, “Obviously, Bobbie Crocker, the homeless photographer in this novel, is fictitious.”

The “Prologue” then begins with grave violence: “Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year in college.” She was 19, biking on a dirt road not too far from school when two men in a van attacked her. In the midst of this description – unrelenting in careful details – of the most pivotal moment of Laurel’s young life, Bohjalian slips in two unexpected phrases you should not miss on page 3: “George Wilson (shot Jay Gatsby as he floated aimlessly in his swimming pool)” and “…even if she hadn’t grown up in West Egg …” Hold on to those clues …

By prologue’s end, the narrative intentions are set: At 26, Laurel works at a Vermont homeless shelter and is in possession of a box of photographs belonging to 82-year-old Bobbie Crocker, a former shelter resident who has just passed away. The photos fall into three categories: instantly recognizable famous people and places; a girl on a bike on an all-too-familiar dirt road; and scenes from the country club of Laurel’s childhood “once owned by a bootlegger named Gatsby” that include photos of society doyenne Pamela Buchanan Marshfield as a girl with an anonymous young boy about whose identity Laurel instantly “has a hunch.” Laurel must decipher the multi-layered story literally laid out before her, realizing she is somehow implicated.

Puzzled yet? [And no, you don’t need to be a Gatsby aficionado, just know the basic story of invented identities and unattainability. Literary heresy aside, Gatsby bores me, except when Elevator Repair Service performs it as their phenomenal eight-hour stage spectacle renamed Gatz.] Just beware: Don’t get too presumptuous too quickly – even as Bohjalian reveals clues in plain sight, full understanding probably won’t come until you go back and reread. Reality has rarely been so clearly, cleverly camouflaged.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Secrets to EdenThe day after Alice Hayward is baptized, she’s found strangled in her own home; her husband George is on the couch with a bullet through his head. The apparent murder/suicide understandably has the couple’s tight-knit small Vermont town in shock, especially causing a crisis of faith for Reverend Stephen Drew.

Into Haverhill swoops an angel of sorts – at least a renowned celestial expert with two inspirational bestsellers to buoy her lofty (some might say loopy) status. Eerily enough, Heather Laurent is one of two surviving daughters who lost their parents to a gruesome murder/suicide decades back when they were teenagers. Which gives Heather much to talk about with the 15-year-old Hayward daughter, Katie. Meanwhile, deputy state attorney Catherine Benincasa is certain the Hayward tragedy needs further investigation, and at the top of her must-be-questioned list is the good Reverend Stephen.

The prolific Chris Bohjalian (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer, whose 17th title – Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands – hits shelves July 8) has become my latest go-to aural author, encouraged as I am with his repeat cast of dependable narrators, especially the versatile Mark Bramhall who is part of this title’s marvelously convincing quartet. Stephen, Catherine, Heather, and Katie, each get their unique say – although I can’t help wishing that Alice, too, might have had the chance to voice herself beyond snippets from her journal. Indeed, even after the whodunnit-reveal, only the two corpses will know the whole truth of that fateful evening … and their ‘secrets of Eden’ will remain forever buried in separate graves.

That sort of ponderous ambiguity is what keeps me going back for more books Bohjalian: what’s on the page (or stuck in the ears) is a many-layered story that always demands deeper engagement.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Light in the RuinsThis, Chris Bohjalian‘s latest, is one to stick in the ears … it opens with Mark Bramhall (a personal favorite, and clearly one of Bohjalian’s as well, as he voices five of Bohjalian’s 14 aurally available titles) sounding surreally sinister and somehow detached: “It was so I could cut out her heart.” Bramhall initially, immediately haunts the novel, and intermittently returns through the 300-plus goosebumpy pages (or 11.5 eyeball-popping hours) to commit the next methodical murders. In between the heart-stopping interruptions, Bohjalian unhurriedly divulges identity and motive while Cassandra Campbell crisply narrates the parallel stories of two women who survived World War II as best as they could.

In 1955 Florence, Serafina arrives on the crime scene to investigate the brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, the widowed former daughter-in-law of a once powerful, privileged noble family before the war. Serafina is the only woman in her homicide unit, and as such, “the men still treated her with either ham-handed attempts or outright condescension.” Serafina’s police career, however – even including Francesca’s horrific death – is not nearly as terrifying or dangerous as her teenage past when she fought with the partisan resistors against the German army. Her resulting scars she wears inside and out.

Serafina soon learns that the late Francesca’s only remaining relative with whom she maintained regular contact was her sister-in-law Cristina Rosati. Through most of the war, the idyllic Rosati estate managed to stay peacefully insulated, even in spite of the fact that the Rosati sons – one of whom was married to Francesca – served in the Italian Army. Then in 1943, war literally arrives on the doorsteps of the insulated villa – first as curious visitors to a small but notable Etruscan burial site on the family’s property, and then as occupiers who invade the expansive home. Mistaking soft gentility for love, Cristina, then just 18, falls in first-love with a Nazi officer, further endangering the family’s safety.

As teenagers, as adults, as enemies, as allies, death unknowingly brings Cristina and Serafina together multiple times. And each time, both are resurrected again and again – Cristina with her Christ-derived appellation and her returning affinity for the Etruscan graves, Serafina whose name means “burning one,” who is repeatedly reborn from the ashes.

Focused on the desperate ending of World War II, Ruins is a companion-title-or-sorts to Bohjalian’s 2008 Skeletons at the Feast; both, in essence, feature American ‘enemies’ – the Italians in Ruins, the Germans in Skeletons. And yet, once again, Bohjalian insists in matters of war, love, survival, “judge not, that ye be not judged.” His haunting penchant for blurring lines, perspectives, sides, casts rigidity aside here, proving ‘black’ and ‘white’ should only be used to label the ink and paper on the printed page. Humanity cannot, should not, will not be so simply defined.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the FeastEvery so often, I seem to get on a specific reading spree on a topic not exactly of my choosing – that is, the books seem to serendipitously line up on their own. The latest batch of they-chose-me-titles have been set during the final brutal months of World War II on the European continent, with an emphasis on the not-so-well-known experiences of the women.

Yesterday’s post, Elizabeth Wein’s wrenching Rose Under Fire captured the horrific tragedies of the women-only concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Today’s Skeletons is a three-part narrative, in which one-third is comprised of the lives (and heinous deaths) of the prisoners of an unnamed (not unlike Ravensbrück) women-only camp. Coming up: The Light in the Ruins – another Chris Bohjalian novel, his latest – highlights the Italian end-of-war story, which also receives pagetime in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (interesting overlap of titles, too, no?).

But back to the triangulated Skeletons … Binding all three narratives together is Anna Emmerich, half of just-turned-18-year-old twins and the only daughter of a Prussian aristocratic family. In German-occupied Poland in January 1945, war is drawing to a frenetic close amidst changing borders and desperate military maneuvers, prompting a mass exodus of surviving civilians in hopes of escaping the final onslaught of Russian soldiers and reaching safety somewhere west with the incoming Allied Forces.

While the Emmerich men have been conscripted by the Nazis, Anna, her mother, and her younger brother are accompanied by a Scottish prisoner-of-war who is also Anna’s lover. Their arduous journey will overlap with that of Uri Singer, a German Jew who has lost everything but his own life, who has thus far survived by literally donning the enemy’s clothing. Paralleling these flights are a group of Jewish women prisoners on a death march away from their camp, the only remaining of thousands who must not be allowed to tell the world the truth of what they have witnessed and endured.

While Bohjalian is the consummate storyteller, his most exceptional talent is his uncertainty – that is, rigid definitions of right and wrong prove impossible, and good and evil could change places minute-to-minute. Humanity cannot be defined by unyielding rules, and yet – as Bohjalian hauntingly shows from both ‘sides’ – inhumanity has an intractable bottom line.

Tidbit: If you choose to go audible, Mark Bramhall once again proves an excellent choice, smoothly embodying not just ages, accents, and both genders, but convincingly distinguishing degrees of desperation and decay. The single drawback to listening is that no one will read you the ending “Acknowledgments” in which Bohjalian describes the novel’s genesis (a close friend’s East Prussian grandmother’s diary!). Lucky for you aural junkies, Bohjalian’s got you covered: his “Backstory” appears on his extensive website.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Sandcastle GirlsI think at least a decade has passed since I read a Chris Bohjalian title (Midwives remains my favorite). Two shocks came with this, his latest: 1. He’s got 15 books out already; and 2. He’s of Armenian descent (yes, I should have connected that ‘-ian’ in Bohjalian – as a BookDragon Facebook follower pointedly commented – but I have a habit of missing the obvious).

Sandcastle, according to an Armenian Weekly interview with Bohjalian, “may be the most important book I’ve written. It is certainly the most personal.” If you choose the audible route (read by Alison Fraser and Cassandra Campbell), you’ll also hear him say the same in the bonus interview at book’s end; he also “loved” his two narrators’ performances, and adds how his narrators (many of them loyal repeats, including Fraser) “elevate” his work. He’s a big audible book fan, in general, too. See what sort of fabulous tidbits you get stuck in the ears?!

In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott accompanies her father to Aleppo, Syria, fresh from Mt. Holyoke College and eager to participate in the great wide world. Father and daughter arrive from Boston at the behest of the Friends of Armenia, bringing supplies and medical aid to miraculous survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Elizabeth quickly becomes attached to a young widow who desperately mothers a silent girl not her own; both have witnessed the worst of mankind. She falls in love with an Armenian engineer still reeling from the brutal loss of his wife and baby daughter, only to watch him leave.

Almost a hundred years and a continent away, Laura Petrosian is a writer living in an affluent New York suburb. Growing up with an Armenian grandfather, she was aware of “Nineteen-fifteen [as] the year of the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About,” and yet her own distance from “The Great Catastrophe” allows her to glibly remark that such things as “an oversized paperback with a black-and-yellow cover, The Armenian Genocide for Dummies … [o]r, perhaps, an afterschool special” just didn’t exist as teaching tools for the masses.

At 46, she gets a call just before Mother’s Day from her college roommate about “an old picture of your grandmother in The Boston Globe.” Expecting to see Elizabeth Endicott, she finds instead the shocking photograph of an unfamiliar woman who shares her family name. Even as her husband points out that ‘Petrosian’ is “‘a common Armenian surname,'” the haunting photo propels Laura to delve deeper into her family history. What she recovers is a love story she never knew, and a shattering tragedy that determined her very life.

Allow me one last Bohjalian-quote from that audible interview: “relentless.” Bohjalian uses the word in reference to his earlier novel, Skeletons at the Feast, set during the final days of World War II; many of his readers let him know they found the depicted atrocities “relentless.” When he wrote Sandcastles, Bohjalian explains, he purposefully created a dual narrative with a century in between, with Laura’s contemporary search meant, in part, to temper the gruesome events of 1915; not surprisingly, time does little to diminish the degradation, torture, abuse, and murder of 1.5 million people. I offer fair warning: here, too, the word “relentless” looms large. By the final page, the multi-layered epic saga is ultimately eclipsed by the horror, the horror.

Tidbit: Early in Sandcastles, Laura mentions an abandoned, earlier manuscript – “The book was a train wreck” – a failed first attempt at writing about the Genocide, now locked away “in the archives of my alma mater.” On his website’s “Q & A with Chris,” Bohjalian confesses to that 20-year-old manuscript: “It exists only as a rough draft in the underground archives of my alma mater [Amherst College]. It will never be published, even after my death. I spent over two years struggling mightily to complete a draft and I never shared it with my editor. The manuscript should either be buried or burned. I couldn’t bring myself to do either. But neither did I ever want the pages to see the light of day.” Now that the “rough draft” has been immortalized in Sandcastle, we readers will definitely be wondering what mysteries it might hold …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

Bastard of IstanbulEven before this book hit U.S. shelves, French-born Turkish author Elif Shafak was charged with insulting “Turkishness” in violation of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code because one of her characters refers to the large-scale massacre of Armenians that began in 1915 in Turkey as genocide. The charges were eventually dropped for apparent lack of evidence – “If there is a thief in a novel, it doesn’t make the novelist a thief,” Shafak was quoted in the International Herald Tribune – and the book definitely got some great press.

Would I have bought the title without the surrounding controversy (and finally get around to reading it now for some reason)? Probably not. Would I have finished it if numerous people had not told me how great it was? Definitely negative. As entertainingly wacky as some of Shafak’s characters were, too many too-clever moments and overwritten passages left my tired eyeballs rolling more often than not. But finish it I finally did …

Shafak’s second novel written in English and her fifth overall, is a painful history lesson – albeit told with moments of great humor – presented as two intertwined extended family stories, the Istanbul-ite Kazancis and the Armenian American Tchakhmakhachians. The Kazancis are a matriarchy-by-default because all the men seem to die young, except for the lone son who fled Turkey for the U.S. 20 years ago and never returned. Four generations of Kazanci women live together under one roof, the youngest being the eponymous ‘bastard,’ 19-year-old nihilist Asya whose gorgeous mother, Zeliha, is the youngest of four uniquely kooky sisters.

On the other side of the world lives Armanoush, the youngest of the extended Armenian genocide-surviving Tchakhmakhachian clan, whose Kentucky-born mother divorced her Armenian American father and soon thereafter married the lone Kazanci son, Mustafa. Splitting her time between father’s family in San Francisco and her mother and stepfather in Arizona, Armanoush decides she must go confront her past in Istanbul if she is to have any understanding of her own identity.

She lands in the midst of the Kazanci clan, and establishes a soulful bond with her at-first reluctant, sort-of-more-than-cousin Asya. There in the homeland, the family histories unravel story by story leading back to when ancestors overlapped generations past, thanks especially to the insistent djinn who sits on Auntie Banu’s shoulder and reveals one awful truth after another …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Riverbig: A Novel by Aris Janigian

riverbigFar too many immigration stories begin with an escape from tragedy – everything from economic hardship to devastating wars. The Armenian American experience is tragically rooted in the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1918, the systematic massacre of an estimated 1 to 2 million Armenians. A near-century later, the tragedy continues to fester with the Turkish government’s continued refusal to acknowledge that genocide occurred.

Among the surviving diaspora, California’s Central Valley proved to be an immigration destination for many families. Aris Janigian, a Fresno-born, second-generation Armenian American, introduced readers to such a family in his absorbing 2003 first novel, Bloodvine, about two half-brothers torn apart by jealousy and misunderstanding. In the ensuing rift, the younger brother relinquishes his inheritance – his claim to the family grape farm – to the elder, whose bittersweet victory results in far greater loss.

The brothers’ division looms large in Janigian’s sequel, Riverbig, which follows the separated life of younger brother Andy Demerjian, who is struggling to support his wife and two young sons at the novel’s opening. Denied access to his own land, he scrambles for odd jobs, weighed down by growing debt, with temporary relief found in alcoholic stupor. Two simultaneous farming opportunities save Andy from bankruptcy: A widow offers her land for lease, while a school acquaintance returns from the big city to propose that Andy manage a nearby land parcel. … [click here for more]

Review: San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, 2009

Tidbit: Okay, so here’s my two seconds of fame: Heyday Books, which published Riverbig, lists this blog at the top of their “Blogs We Like” links! Of course, that list is in alphabetical order, so I suppose it’s a good thing this blog name begins with “B,” huh? Also, if you scroll down a bit on the Heyday blog, the March 30, 2009 entry is all about the San Francisco Chronicle review and really nice comments about this blog. How wonderful is that? 

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Bloodvine: A Novel by Aris Janigian

bloodvineTwo half-brothers, Abe and Andy, the American descendants of Armenian refugees whose families have escaped the Armenian Genocide, have led very different lives in California’s fertile Central Valley. Abe, the eldest, loses his father and is forced to take on adult responsibilities far too early by an unforgiving stepfather. Andy, the youngest and favored son, finds reprieve and works his way through a college education and experiences the outside world.

Together, the brothers inherit the family land, to be equally shared. And, for awhile, the arrangement works well enough. But petty jealousies and unrelenting misunderstandings tear the brothers apart, until one brother severs the familial bond irrevocably and the other must finally walk away.

Watch for Janigian’s follow-up, Riverbig, coming soon.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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