THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss

This is a story about a boy in Poland at the start of the Second World War, who falls in love with a girl his age.  But, as happened so often in those times, the girl was sent to New York by her family, as a response to the rumblings around them of the German activities.  The boy, Leo Gursky, at a later time, is hustled to hide in the woods by his mother who says she will join him.  The Germans come to the village and kill everyone.  The boy, saved by another, makes his way, also to New York, hoping to find Alma, his love from the village.  But not having heard from him at all, she assumed, with good reason, that he was dead, and married someone else.

Fast forward to NYC, present time.

Here there are three narrators: Leo Gursky, our Holocaust survivor and sometimes writer, living alone in New York, waiting to die; 14-year-old Alma Singer, a precocious girl who has to deal not only with her father’s death but with her mother’s subsequent depression as well; and a third person omniscent narrator who relates the story of a little-known book called  The History of Love. It goes without saying that these characters are connected in ways they don’t understand which turns out to be the mysterious book) and that somehow this connection, once made, will help everyone involved.
One of those books with several seemingly discrete storylines, which eventually get woven together.  In this case, they got a little confusing, and a little tangled, but it was still a lovely story nonetheless.
Leo has an upstairs neighbor, who is also part of the tangled threads.   Some of the book is a little look into the dilemma of aging and loneliness.  Leo tells us, “I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty. If a store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction.”  We become more and more invisible as we age, but perhaps not so invisible as we think.  
I enjoyed this book quite a bit.  Perhaps you know that Nicole Krause was married to Jonathan Safran Foer, whose work I have talked about here on the blog.  Just put his name in the search window.  The two divorced in 2014.  Just a little bit of trivia for you, to keep you on your toes.
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NEKROPOLIS by Maureen F. McHugh

The cover blurb says ‘A literary novel in sci fi clothing.’  Well, no.  Literary, ok, if you mean a smidge preachy and a bit lead-footed on the metaphoric racist aspect. Sci fi, not much.  More like sci fi light.  Set in Morocco in some kind of near future,  we do have harni, which are biological creations made to look like humans, although they are not, and are manufactured for specific tasks.  Kind of like DIY servants.  And we do have the process of jessing,  which is an implant that makes a person bonded to whoever pays for them…. buys them.   This is voluntary, kind of a guaranteed job program.

It leans heavily on the idea that harni aren’t ummm well people, and of course they are not.  So they are looked down upon, and looked upon as I guess we would look at robots.  So anyway, the protagonist,  Hariba, has herself jessed because she doesn’t know what else to do with herself.  Her widowed mother lives in the Nekropolis, the old graveyard with its mausoleums now used as housing by the poor and just-above-poor, containing shops and markets, just like a little city within a city.

At her employment, Hariba meets and falls in love with a male harni, a lovely hunk of manhood, and he falls in love with her, and they plan to run away together and find a way to get smuggled into Spain, where they will be given asylum and a new life.

I should have liked this much better than I did.  After all, it did have some interesting characters, and a fine action line, a plot where something happened next and next, etc, as plots should have, but really, I think I was underwhelmed because of possibly where I am in my own head at the mo, and the relentless undercurrent of moralizing throughout the story.  Lots of musing about what are feelings, and emotions, and reflections on what it means to be a human.  Ho, not to mention hum.  Was this supposed to be a disguised discussion of Islam, the Arab world’s treatment of women, or what?

This is not this author’s first rodeo, but I will probably not be searching out more of her books.  Like I said, the fault lies with me and my cranky world outlook these days.

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer

A young Jewish-American writer journeys to the Ukraine to find out more about the life of his grandfather. Guided by Alex , an America-obsessed local, Jonathan ventures into the heartland of the Ukraine seeking to shed light on events that occurred to his grandfather during World War II. Joining Jonathan and Alex is Alex’s surly grandfather and a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.

The story is about Jonathan Safran Foer, curiously named the same as the actual author of the book . He is an aspiring writer in his early 20s who travels to Ukraine to try to find the small Jewish village of Trachimbrod where his grandfather grew up and to find the woman who helped him escape the Nazis during the war. He speaks no Ukrainian or Russian, and his only maps of the area are 60 years old, and so so he  needs a translator and a driver and somehow happens upon Alex, who has the most wonderful and creative English, sounding like a thesaurus.  Alexander is an Odessa native about his own age, and his blind grandfather, who acts as their driver (if you have read any modern Russian literature you will understand not to question this kind of thing) and their ‘seeing-eye’ bitch Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

Half of the story is written by Alex, as letters to Jonathan. He writes in English in a broken idiolect that suggests computer translation gone awry His sections are humorous, and touching, as he takes side trips into  the nature of friendship, grief and regret, among other things.

The other half is written by the fictional Jonathan, and covers the history of the village from the day it got its name in 1791 until its destruction by the Nazis in 1941, by following the exploits of his ancestors. All of these sections have a very surreal quality. They jump around in time, different eras have glimpses into the past and future.

It is a story about what happens when you put an American and an Eastern European born in the Soviet era, in the same room and try to make them explain to one another why the other one thinks the way they do.

The over arching story of the ancestors, how the village was created, up until the arrival of the German Nazis is poignant, if a bit surreal,  and emotive.  But we come to love Alex, who wants so desperately to go to America and be an accountant, and is so proud of his English, with his enormous vocabulary.

I admit to mashing together selections from other reviews because I have entered the Age of Unabashed Laziness.  But I would have written every word had I felt up to it.  Cross my heart and hope to die.

This was Foer’s first novel, written when he was 25.   He later wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I commented on here.

 

SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn

Sometimes I have to be in just the right place for  certain writers, and that is true for a Gillian Flynn novel, because they are dark, quirky, strange, with an unsettling undercurrent that makes you absolutely positive that something unpleasant is about to happen.

Sharp Objects is her first book, published in 2006.  It is a testament to my short attention span that after reading Gone Girl  although I acquired her other books, I never got around to reading them, other lovers having intervened.  Her debut effort earned her a couple of awards.

A young woman reporter in Chicago, the product of a hypochondriac mother, a strange and quiet step father, a dead sister, is sent back to her home town by her paper to report on the murders of two preteen girls.  She stays in her mother’s house, where she is in contact with her strange half sister, now thirteen, an odd mix of mean girl and sweet mama’s baby.

While nosing around, trying to find out more about the deaths of the two murdered girls, she stumbles on facts that lead back to her own childhood, and we readers discover that she has been in psychiatric care for cutting.  It is an obsession she still struggles with, but is holding her own.

It is a creepy read, and one you cannot put down.  I don’t want to tell you too much.  You’ll learn more than you really want to know when you read it.

 

WILD LIFE by Molly Gloss

It is the early 1900s and Charlotte Bridger Drummond is a thoroughly modern woman. The sole provider for her five young boys, Charlotte is a fiercely independent, freethinking woman of the West who fully embraces the scientific spirit that is sweeping the nation at the dawn of the industrial age. Thumbing her nose at convention, she dresses in men’s clothes, avoids housework whenever possible, and proudly supports her family by writing popular women’s adventure stories. Ready to show off her knowledge of the local flora and fauna and have an adventure of her own, Charlotte joins a search party for a child who has disappeared in the deepwood wilderness on the border between Oregon and Washington. But when she gets lost herself, she is thrust into a mysterious world that not only tests her courage but challenges her entire concept of reality.

Starving and half dead from exposure, Charlotte is rescued by a band of elusive, quasi-human beasts. As she becomes a part of the creatures’ extended family, Charlotte is forced to reconsider her previous notions about the differences between animals and humans, men and women, and above all, between wilderness and civilization.

Yeah, I lifted that plot description directly from Goodreads, because I am behind in writing up my thoughts on what I am reading, and I am also lazier than the guy who drew the Japanese flag. So, in keeping with my motto not to put off til tomorrow what you can put off til the day after tomorrow, I kind of got backed up in my posts.

So.  This book.  It was great until about 2/3 through it, telling the story of of Charlotte, who is definitely a chick you would want to know.  It also has a lot about the logging industry back in the turn of the other century, and gives the reader a real taste of what life must have been like out in the far west as the country was beginning to grow up.  Had the flavor of Angle of Repose  which was based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote.   

And then it got weird.  The granddaughter of her housekeeper is taken by her father up into the logging camps to see what it was like.  She goes missing, and a massive search is on for her.  Charlotte gets it in her head to go up into the mountains around the camps and join the search, she gets lost, and hallucinates and is taken in by some wild creatures.  It went on and on and on, and not being in an introspective mood, but in a mood for the STORY, I lost interest and skimmed and skipped until she is finally rescued and the thread about the missing girl comes to a conclusion.

I still, even thinking back on the work,  cannot figure out what was the point of (a) a pragmatic women who is the widowed mother of 5 boys choosing to go off on the hunt, and (b) the getting lost part, and (c) what WAS that about the half human creatures?   Did we slip ever so slightly into fantasy there?  Anyway, it ruined the book for me, so if you read it, feel free to skip over that part, because the rest is great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hFoote,

SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

A story about bigamy.  Yeah, don’t see too many of those, do ya.  It is a story about Black families in Atlanta, which started back in the fifties when Laverne, at age 14, gets pregnant in a one night dalliance.  Her parents throw her out, and Miss Bunny, the matriarch of the family of the young boy who is the father, takes them into her home and teaches Laverne how to be a wife and mother.  At the same time, Miss Bunny’s best friend had a son about the same time as Miss Bunny, decided she didn’t care for motherhood, and Miss Bunny took him in, too, when his mother left.

The two boys, James, the reluctant young father, and his abandoned friend Raleigh, are together all their lives.  Sometime in their twenties, James meets a beautiful woman working the gift wrap counter in a department store, and I guess falls in love with her, but with no intention of leaving his wife of ten years.   They begin to see each other, and the woman gets pregnant.  Shortly after, his wife also becomes pregnant, and the two children are born, both girls.  The ‘outside’ woman wants to be married, and she and Raleigh cajole James into getting married across the state line.

The book is the story of the two girls and the two families.  The outside wife and her daughter, Dana, secretly spy on James’ legitimate family, but those two know nothing of the other woman and Dana.

Dana eventually insinuates herself into the life of the legitimate daughter, Chaurisse.   There is back story on all the characters, and of course, it all comes to a head when the outside woman and daughter come to the beauty shop of the legitimate wife and reveal themselves.

What happens next.  Does James get kicked out of both houses?  Does he have to choose?

This is all about the effects of bigamy and secrets and lying have on families, the fallout of desire, and the issue of trying to have one’s cake and eating it too.

I found it extremely readable, and a really well-done look at the issues involved.  Not everything got tied up with a nice ribbon at the end.  There were still some unanswered questions, because like life, the story doesn’t end until the characters do.

MY HONOR FLIGHT by Dan McCurrigan

A … hmmmm….. delightful is not really the right word ……  touching …. yeah, that’s it, touching…. first person account of a soldier’s  experiences in Europe  during WWII.

Well, sort of first person, in that this is a novel, and a beautifully written one at that.  The premise is that a young soldier, soon to be deployed to Afghanistan, accompanies his great grandfather on a sponsored trip to visit the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., an ‘honor flight’.   During the flight, the old man recounts to his great grandson his experiences in Buzz Company, a group of misfits and leftovers from other companies, brought together to form their own unit.

The ‘memoir’ has tales that are funny, and heartbreaking, and poignant.  Lots of action, lots of characters we come to love, and mourn,  just all around a fine work, helping us to remember and appreciate our soldiers from an older war, from a time when war meant protecting your country, not destroying another country for what seems to be no apparent reason other than oil reserves.

I remember reading a couple of memoirs from the First World War that I found on Project Gutenberg.  This novel has the same feel and flavor as those accounts of an even earlier war.

Golly, we suck as a species.

Honor Flight — Our Mission: To transport America’s Veterans to Washington, DC to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.

Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

Of all of the wars in recent memory, it was World War II that truly threatened our very existence as a nation—and as a culturally diverse, free society. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 WWII veterans die each day. Our time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out.