Monday, April 4, 2016

The History of Love

by Nicole Krauss

           For much of the time I was reading this book I kept thinking the title was utterly bizarre and made no sense. Which is best explained by quoting the opening lines: “When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.” Such a fabulous opening. But for a book called The History of Love? Really?
            Well, the novel ends up being an elaborate unfurling of this contradiction. The History of Love turns out to be a book within a book, and Leo Gursky turns out to be a character complex enough to have written a book-length elegy to the only woman he ever loved—and also live in an apartment full of shit. And really, in a way, that’s the beating heart of the story; those mystifying contradictions that make each of us so interesting to those who know us best.
            And The History of Love –the outer frame novel—is itself an elegy of sorts, to the generation that fled Poland and the Ukraine in vast numbers when the Second World War broke out, leaving all they knew and cherished of literature and music and art to scrape out paltry livings as unskilled immigrants in New York. Professors and composers, historians and philosophers, writers of subtly nuanced works of art, all cleaning toilets in Brooklyn. Laughed at by children in the street for their strange clothes, bad English, their trailing odors of fish and garlic. They may technically have survived what six million did not, and most were deeply grateful, but they lost their  former lives as surely as did those who didn’t make it out of Europe.
            Nicole Krauss includes pictures of her own grandparents in a dedication that says, “For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing.” In the novel many forces conspire to make Leo Gursky, writer of a brilliant work for which someone else claims authorship, disappear into an apartment full of shit. But even as an invisible vestige of a writer, alone and unclaimed by those he loves, even then, when he’s ready, he finds he has more lovely words to stitch together. This fascinating and unusual novel stitches together all kinds of strange and lovely pieces. I highly recommend it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Book of Strange New Things

By Michael Haber

This IS a book of strange new things—mostly due to its odd brew of components. On one hand it’s a sci-fi space travel book. On another it’s a tale of religious mission, with a Heart of Darkness type of set-up. And then it’s a quirky love tale, of a relationship fighting for survival. Can you envision a book that merges these elements? I certainly couldn’t—not before I read it.

 And long into the book I was still shaking my head and wondering where it was taking me. But then, as it progressed, I gave up thinking and just inhabited the story, completely transported to the world it built. And what a cool and magnificent world! And what a beautiful story.
cover: book of strange new things

 Set an unspecified number of years in the future, somewhere between fifty and a hundred, The Book of Strange New Things tells the tale of bringing the Christian Bible to the Oasans, the native people of a far-off planet newly discovered by USIC—a global corporation so big that no one can say what it sells. Peter Leigh, the missionary sent to treat with the natives, is a former addict with a long criminal history who’s recreated himself as a minister. This rare opportunity is, for Peter, the apex of all he’s struggled to achieve. Yet he’s also torn between the mission and his wife Bea, left behind on Earth.
 I won’t say anything more of the story for fear of spoilers, but instead say how—against all my expectations—I SO enjoyed this book. How refreshing to be along for a journey that defied prediction at every juncture. I kept thinking I knew where it was going, and then bam, it all turned on its head.

 Which isn’t to say the whole book was perfect, for there were a few parts in the middle that sagged, but it was one of the books where the ending is so perfect that you quickly forgive everything else. And I love a story where you don’t know what to make of it until it’s over. Where it’s not until you read the end that you can go back to make new sense of the pieces.

And then—this is the best thing— all at once it adds up to something bigger than the sum of the parts. Which in this case is a deeply complex human bond. A relationship so nuanced it could easily be our own. Where the failings and achievements of each partner add layer over layer to our sympathies.

Until, whatever little we might hold in common, we are friends, confidantes. People who know one another. People who worry one another's worries. Which is love, I suppose. If we can love characters, we love Peter and Bea.          
My congratulations to Mr. Haber for quite an achievement. To my own friends, I hope some of you have a chance to read and enjoy this book as much as I did

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Midwife's Revolt (by Jodi Daynard)

           I freely confess it; this is exactly the kind of book I’m predisposed to like. Which means my recommendation should be served with a good pinch of salt as I’m biased. But if you happen to likewise have a soft spot for historical tales about women that aren’t primarily romances, you might find it as entertaining as I did.
            Set in the Revolutionary era, the midwife in revolt in this tale is one Lizzie Boylston of Cambridge, recently moved to Braintree (both next to Boston) with her young husband Jeb, who, within a few pages, proceeds to die in the opening skirmish of the brand new war. Lizzie and her neighbor Abigail Adams and several other women are left to fend for themselves in Braintree while the war flares and ebbs and creates hardships of every sort. Lizzie, a gifted midwife, saves babies and mothers and takes in stray young women in need of shelter, all of whom band together to outwit a set of British spies. Lizzie is courted by a Patriot but falls for a Tory, after which a number of loyalties and allegiances are tested and strained.
            At one point Lizzie convinces herself the only noble course is to dress as a man and go into Boston to visit a tavern where known conspirators congregate. This, easily, was my favorite part of the book, as Lizzie proved an utterly bumbling spy whom everyone immediately recognizes. I thought Ms. Daynard did a nice job of juxtaposing her heroine’s noble intentions with the reality of a situation far outside her wheelhouse. And she had a dang funny mustache.
             Overall I enjoyed the story and had the sense the historical details were pretty spot on—though it’s not an era I know much about. It reminded me of Cold Mountain in  bringing to life the harsh conditions on farms during war, where the women left behind did the work of the missing men on top of their own. And when the weather fails the crops, scarcities are compounded by wartime shortages.
            One of the more intriguing aspects of the novel is the exploration of the difficult allegiances during this first war between Britain and her colony, where neighbors and even families came down on different sides of the war. The novel depicts how the level of mistrust among people living in close proximity can induce as much—or more—strain than the physical hardships. Lizzie, a staunch Patriot from a family of Tories, forges a friendship with her neighbor Abigail Adams that serves to anchor the story in historical relevance, where the spy plot revolves around John Adams and his doings. I can’t say I found the characters fascinating but there were moments of excellent revelation.
            Thus if you’re not already tired of historical novels of the Revolution, I recommend this one as a good read.