I've always been interested in novels about Poland. There's a good-sized population in the Milwaukee area and most people enjoy reading books about their culture. I found this list from James Hopkins, but it definitely tends towards the cerebral. And here's another similar list from the Guardian, filled with lots of guys. And I'm not really talking about the Polish Jewish experience here, about which, much is written.
I guess I was looking for Polish Americans. Jane at Next Chapter had success recommeding James Conroyd Martin and his novel, Push not the River. Ah, here's a collection of writers who read at the Polish Museum of America. Ah, Leslie Pietryzk's Pears on a Willow Tree. I recommended that one for several years. And it says that she's got a novel in the works about Polish immigrants in Chicago. I hope she'll remember us!
So I've always been intrigued by Brigid Pasulka's A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True. It's a present-past novel, with one story taking place in the years of World War II in the Polish countryside, and the second story (intertwined, of course) following a young village woman who has migrated to the city of Kracow to live with her aunt and cousin. Baba Yaga (as he is known to her friends) cooks for a neighbor during the day and is a bargirl at night. Her cousin Magda is studying for a college entry exam, while Irena (Baba Yaga's mom) stays inside, having pretty much given up a semblance of an outside life.
The historical portion of the book follows the Pigeon and Anielica, a couple who have enough trouble coping with the Nazis and the Soviets, but whose lives are made more complicated when Anielica's brother Wladyslaw marries a Jew, Marysia. Let's just say things don't go well.
I originally wrote to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt when the book came out in hardcover, hoping they might consider sending this Chicago author to Milwaukee. We've had some success with this, but it's been harder than I thought it would be. I said I would read the book and see what happened.
Of course forty other books got in the way, and in the meantime, the author won the Pen Hemingway Prize, which as I've mentioned before, is a first fiction prize administered by the Hemingway Foundation and PEN New England. This list of winners is truly inspiring--and in true Daniel fashion, I immediately lost interest in this post and decided to find out how many of the books I'd written. And here is my list of the 11 books I've read:
Speedboat, by Renata Adler (1977), in mass market, no less
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (1982)
Shiloh and Other Stories, by Bobbie Anne Mason (1983)
During the Reign of the Queen of Sheba, by Joan Chase (1984)
Dreams of Sleep, by Josephine Humphryes (1985)
(I had quite a roll there)
The Book of Ruth, by Jane Hamilton (oops, thanks Sharon!) (1989)
Maps to Anywhere, by Bernard Cooper (1991)
The Grass Dancer, by Susan Power (1995)
Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh (2004)
(There are some books in between that I'll bet you thought I read!)
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris (2008)
and of course this year's winner. I may have read the Mark Richard, but I'm not sure. I do remember that the promotional copy said, "Whose name is pronounced in the French way." He's got a memoir coming in February, House of Prayer #2: A Writer's Journey Home).
So we had our book club discussion, and it was a bit smaller than normal, and less lively on my part, because for the first time, I hadn't finished the book beforehand. Several readers bogged down at the beginning, particularly for the contemporary story, but in the end, just about everyone liked the book just fine.
The publisher tried to market this as a Jonathan Safran Foer-ish book, from the similar title to the cover treatment, to at one point invoking his name. I get it on some level--a contemporary and historical attempt to come to terms with the author's cultural past. But the style is so different, the humor far gentle, the structure more traditional (except for the present-past dual narrative) that for me, it doesn't seem like the best comparison. I haven't come up with an alternative.
I'm usually good at writing down our members' thoughts on the book, but I misplaced my notes. I'm also sad as there were a couple of good insights that I wanted to share. One of our clubbers did mention that this is the first book she's read that painted a sympathatic picture of a Polish community during World War II. Yes, there are the inhabitants who are Antisemitic, but in the end, the village goes to great lengths to protect Marysia and her family.
But what I really want to say is, "Ms. Pasulka, if you're still in Chicago, please consider coming up for an appearance. I've read the book!"
What we're reading in the upcoming months:
Monday, January 3rd: Tinkers, by Paul Harding
Monday, February 7th: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel