Agata Tuszynska has written a remarkable family memoir, Family History of Fear, A Memoir. Tuszynska is a Polish poet and writer who tries to find out what happened to her family, both before and after the Holocaust. As the daughter of a survivor, she has some family assistance with her search, but in the end there is a lot she cannot know. The author’s efforts to uncover the past are founded on one basic story. Her grandmother nearly survived, but died just when she had reason to feel she might be safe. Despite her own death, the grandmother managed save to her daughter, the author’s mother.
For Polish Jews, it wasn’t enough to to survive the Holocaust. Pogroms survived World War II, and then Poland had its own anti-Semitic purge in the late 60’s. A surprising number of the author’s relatives survived and elected to remain in Poland to work with the new Communist regime. The decision to stay despite having lost so many family members and barely escaping death themselves during the war years is bewildering. Poland may have been their home, but it never felt really safe.
This isn’t a book where the author’s story is neatly sewn up. There are stray ends and elderly relatives who either don’t know much or have chosen to forget. It isn’t all the surprising that Tusznska’s family history is difficult to pin down, because so much was lost during the war, and this was not a cohesive family unit. Episodic poverty and the near-constant threats to their security, combined with a series of deaths, divorces, second marriages and various alliances depict a family under considerable stress. At times I found it difficult to keep all the aunts and cousins straight, but that didn’t detract from the author’s story. To the contrary, this somewhat messy family history where not all relatives are forthcoming about the past and where everyone didn’t always behave all that well rings very true. At some level the people who survived are very ordinary. They seem to go about their lives without a lot of reflection about their extraordinary experiences.
In addition to being a wonderful family saga, Family History of Fear also adds to what we know about the Holocause and how some people managed to survive, as a result of bravery and luck, was well as the kindness of those who chose to help.
I ignored my general aversion to dystopian novels, and read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It was completely compelling, and I’m a huge fan. Now I am hoping there will be a movie version and a sequel. This unique novel goes back and forth between the pre-pandemic lives of individual characters who shared some connections and the post-pandemic period featuring a ragged group of survivors. The sense of what is missed when society is just gone pervades this beautiful book. The survivors keep on going, but the fabric of relationships is tattered and keeps dissolving. This is a troubling tale of how people think and act after everything on which they based their lives vanishes overnight. It is very much a story of individuals — this is not a book about an heroic family that somehow muddles through with brave and noble parents and plucky children. Here the focus is on a captivating collection of individuals and what they are thinking, and that is what makes this such a stellar read.
Charles Bock has written a fine autobiographical family novel about cancer. Specifically Alice and Oliver tells the story of what happens to a family after the young mother’s abrupt diagnosis of cancer. There is an overwhelming sadness to this book, but a lot of other things are going on as well. This young family has taken good health and good fortune for granted. They leave an optimistic life. Suddenly everything changes, and nothing will ever be quite the same. Alice is always ill, and Oliver is confronted with enormous, unanticipated responsibility. Life wasn’t supposed to be this way. In addition to taking care of his wife and child, he struggles to keep his business afloat and figure out how to pay for his wife’s astronomical medical expenses. This isn’t a story where everyone rises to the occasion and the sick and healthy spouses continue as before, except with increased adoration and nurturing. This couple is shell shocked and utterly unprepared. In many ways they take independent paths and aren’t always kind for each other, even as they doggedly pursue a cure.
The appeal of Alice and Oliver is twofold. First, the author repeatedly looks at the situation from both the wife and the husband’s point of view. Secondly, these are flawed and immature young adults who are both terrified and resentful at suddenly have to grow up and get serious. They don’t always get it right. Sometimes muddling through is the best you can do.
Charles Bock’s first wife died after suffering from cancer for two-and-a-half years. She left a young child who wouldn’t remember her and a bewildered, grieving husband. In Alice and Oliver, Bock addresses his family’s story through a novel. His efforts to show what his wife was feeling through this ordeal are bolstered by some diary-like pieces she wrote while she was ill. Questioning Oliver’s behavior, as well as the way Bock elects to present it is one of the puzzles presented by this intriguing yet very sad book.
This is far from a feel-good novel, but I do recommend it for its thoughtful presentation of human behavior under stress.
Amy Haimerl’s Detroit Hustle – A Memoir of Love, Life & Home is a conflicted book. Haimerl, a journalist who was covering Detroit for Crain’s Detroit Business during Detroit’s protracted bankruptcy, and her husband end up in Detroit. They can’t afford Brooklyn and are oddly taken by the challenge of Detroit. With more guts than common sense, they pay cash for a crumbling house lacking water, power and windows, among other things.
Their aim to support a critically ill city is admirable, but they land in a mass of contradictions. For lots of reasons, buying and rehabbing houses in Detroit, at least at the time of Haimerl’s book, seems impossible for Detroit’s poor residents. As outsiders, with access to cash, Haimerl and her husband can afford to buy a formerly gracious house and fix it up right. They recognize that they are putting more into the house than they are ever likely to recoup, but they fall in love with the process, and are determined to do the job “right,” which in their case means hiring contractors and spending a fortune. On top of all the economic woes, Detroit has an historical commission, so the financial outlay is just crippling. Haimerl and her husband end up with a beautifully restored home in a neighborhood that is increasingly gentrified, and thus increasingly unaffordable for the poor.
The book is well written and keeps your interest, even if you have absolutely no interest in inserting yourself into a local bar scene or living in a construction site for years while confronting major panic about your ability to pay for it. The challenge, as Haimerl recognizes it, is that she and her husband are part of a movement that will make Detroit more beautiful and probably more economically sound, but it is sort of a yuppie fantasy. No matter how much they try to patronize local establishments that predate their arrival, Haimerl and her husband are inevitably part of a recovery that will mostly benefit the middle and upper classes, with the poor being left behind. In the end, this is a bittersweet book that raises lots of questions, but I have to admire the effort Haimerl and her husband make to do the right thing and to be sensitive to some of the less positive effects of their settling in Detroit.
Alistair Horne’s Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century focuses on the dangers of over-confidence in the military arena. He begins with a brilliant quote from the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck: “A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one that receives it.”
While focusing on the fateful decisions made by various admirals and generals, Horne provides a useful history of warfare in the Twentieth Century. This is no history of the Korean War or of the Russo-Japanese War, but I learned a lot about both from this very readable book. Again and again Horne shows how prior victories gave outstanding tacticians unfounded confidence in their ability to keep winning. At some point, they stopped reflecting and accounting for worst case scenarios and just got carried away by feelings of invincibilty.
Horne’s study of why wars unfolded as they did is well told. Plainly there are a myriad of factors, but I’d much rather focus on individuals and their fateful decisions. There were plenty of fundamentally evil players on the battlefields of the Twentieth Century, but Horne also shows how more thoughtful and nuanced individuals also got carried away and just kept pushing until they seized defeat from the jaws of victory, as one of my colleagues used to say.
I recommend this book for its focus on the folly of hubris and also because it provides a lucid tour of warfare in the Twentieth Century.
Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman – A Novel, is a pretty strange book and unlike anything I have ever read. Environmental disaster has struck and the population of Mancreu, a doomed island is fleeing. Lester Ferris has been sent to half-heartedly mind the British portion of the retreat. Ferris is ex-army, bored and feeling pretty useless, but he has befriended a young boy. As tensions rise amidst increasingly vicious, yet seemingly random acts of violence, Ferris and the boy formulate a unique response.
The whole thing is a fast-paced and well-written mystery set within an environmental dystopia. Lester Ferris and the boy are both great characters, and so I was hooked. What I liked best was the way their friendship developed and the juxtapositions of their evolving relationship. “Never assume” pretty much sums up this great read.
I loved everything about A Man Called Ove, a wonderful novel by the Swedish writer Fredrik Backman. Ove is an elderly man struggling with grief. Ove is his own greatest enemy. He doesn’t understand other people and has contempt for all. Enter kind neighbors who refuse to take offense or leave him alone and a series of circumstances that Ove can’t avoid or stop, and there is a fine story. It also happens to be very funny.
Saying any more risks ruining this book, so I’ll just close by saying that this book’s knowing take on the loneliness, frustrations and challenges of old age is very moving
I Will Have Vengeance – The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi is Maurizio de Giovanni’s first book in the Commissario Ricciardi series. Based on the two books I have read thus far, this is a great series. Commissario Ricciardi is a compelling and mysteriosly driven detective struggling in the dangerous muck of fascist Naples. The few friends he has are intriguing in their own right, and Naples provides a dangerous and romantic backdrop.
Since I Will Have Vengeance is the first novel in the series, De Giovanni takes his time describing Commissario Ricciardi, his environment and what makes him tick. Ricciardi is an unusual, tragic soul with a mystical approach to solving crimes. I found the mystical twist to be an unnecessary distraction, but I still loved this book. Ricciardi is plenty smart; he doesn’t need to “see things” that others do not see. Mysticism aside, Ricciardi is a compelling and clever detective whose remote and forbidding demeanor intimidates his boss and vaguely offends most of his colleagues.
The historical and operatic context of I Will Have Vengeance is its greatest strength. A nasty yet immensely talented opera singer is bumped off, and Ricciardi faces intense political pressure to solve the case immediately. The year is 1931, and Mussolini’s fascism has overtaken Italy, but this particular mystery is driven by opera. As it happens, Ricciardi knows little about opera, so an enthusiastic opera buff is recruited to educate the detective about the opera and its singers. It is a nice twist to have an Italian detective know so little about opera, and we learn as Ricciardi learns.
Even so, the prevailing political mood is sinister and opportunistic. Fairness and justice are early casualties, although this book doesn’t have the cold and deadly atmosphere of terror that dominates a later book I read in this series. Clearly things will be getting much worse in fascist Italy.
I happen to love European noir mysteries. This excellent series stands out because it is set in Naples, which combines its own blend of poverty and corruption with deadly fascist terror. With the benefit of hindsight, I recommend that you read this series in order to take full advantage of De Giovanni’s brilliant depiction of the creeping horror of fascism, while at the same time developing a complex picture of an unusual and oddly pragmatic detective and his friends.