A rich trove of letters tells the moving story of two young physics students in Stalin’s Russia whose love was severely tested while separated by exile in Siberia.
In this first publication of “the largest cache of Gulag letters ever found,” Figes (History/Birkbeck College, Univ. of London; The Crimean War, 2011, etc.) has sifted through more than 1,500 missives to uncover a story of two people who found a way to endure over eight years of the harshest isolation and repression. After meeting at Moscow University in 1935, Lev and Svetlana, or Sveta as she is called in the letters, became kindred spirits over their shared passion for poetry and learning. With the invasion of Russia by the Nazis in 1941, Lev was mobilized to the front; he was soon captured and spent the war as a POW. However, because he spoke German, he was enlisted as a translator. With the liberation by the Americans, Lev was urged to take a job as a physicist in the United States, but he refused, returning to Moscow to find Sveta. Upon arrival, he was accused of spying for the Germans and was sentenced to 10 years in the Arctic Gulag. News of Lev’s whereabouts finally reached Sveta and her family, and in an extraordinary letter dated Jul. 12, 1946, Sveta wrote to Lev for the first time at the labor camp: “How many times have I wanted to nestle in your arms but could only turn to the empty wall in front of me? I felt I couldn’t breathe. Yet time would pass, and I would pull myself together. We will get through this, Lev.” They managed to express a cautiously optimistic tone through the grim, lonely stretch of Lev’s incarceration, and were even able to meet secretly a few times. Their devotion to each other allowed them each to survive.
A heart-rending record of extraordinary human endurance.
With subtlety and grace, a first novel—actually a series of eight linked, chronologically arranged stories—illuminates momentous if commonplace events in the lives of a modern New England family.
It’s 1979, and O’Neil’s parents, Arthur and Miriam, are preparing to visit him at his New Hampshire college. Each has a secret: she’s just learned that she probably has breast cancer; he’s just written a note to Dora Auclaire, a family friend he believes he’s fallen in love with. Those secrets are never divulged (though Arthur’s note will surface later). On their return to Glenn’s Mills, New York, they take a wrong turn in a snowstorm and are killed; their deaths will reverberate throughout these pages. O’Neil’s future wife Mary is introduced well into the novel, working rather aimlessly at a bar in a Minnesota college town not far from where she grew up. Pregnant by her artist roommate, a man she doesn’t particularly like, she decides on abortion: “How terrible, she thought, to be twenty-two, and already have the worst thing of her life to remember.” Cronin only sparingly sketches the details of how Mary and O’Neil meet, while their wedding is related in a brilliant passage titled simply “Groom.” Late for the ceremony, O’Neil remembers his parents: “He holds the picture in his mind as long as he can, until . . . the signal breaks up like a radio station gone out of range.” Nothing very unusual happens to the couple. They become teachers, have children, incur debts, face marital problems. Much of the story’s second half is taken up with O’Neil’s sister Kay, now stricken with cancer. Throughout, O’Neil himself is cast in the everyday roles of son, brother, husband, and father, yet Cronin infuses these passages of common life with a tenderness and depth that draw the reader in.
A quiet debut, its very understatement giving rise to its poignancy and strength.
Love lost in Alsace during World War II, rediscovered 50 years later in New Jersey.
A former New York Times journalist, Maitland has seized on her family’s far-flung tale of fleeing the Nazis in Europe and energetically made it her own. Having grown up under her mother’s heavy emotional baggage, the author came to share the sense of shame and sadness that her mother carried with her as an immigrant to the United States in 1943, a refugee of Nazi Germany. Maitland’s mother Janine, along with her German-speaking parents, sister and brother, originally fled in 1938 from Freiburg, having lost everything they owned. From Mulhouse, France, where the teenagers hastily learned French, they moved to Gray, where the family eventually got transit papers to pass through to the Free Zone. The family then landed in Lyon, where Janine, now a young woman, reignited a friendship with a dashing Catholic law student, Roland Arcieri. After falling in love during their brief time together, Janine was yanked away again with her family—to Cuba and then America. Soon married to a successful salesman, Janine did not stop grieving for her first love, and Arcieri apparently tried to find her. However, Janine’s father, who wanted her to have a fresh start in America, intercepted his letters. In 1989, Maitland organized a trip back to Freiberg and to Mulhouse with her family. Once her father died, she tracked down Arcieri, who was then living in Montreal. Though the details of the courtship are a little bizarre, especially since the author re-creates her mother’s bold seduction of Arcieri, who was married, this is a touching story about the odd collision of fate and will.
A poignantly rendered, impeccably researched tale of a rupture healed by time.
Artificial intelligence meets the questing of the human heart in an ambitious, accomplished debut.
Hutchins’ impressive if overlong first novel hinges on an ironic setup that delivers multiple layers of cherishable content. His hero, Neill Bassett Jr., is working on a computer program derived from the diaries of a “Samuel Pepys of the South,” helping to create the world’s first intelligent machine. These diaries were written by Neill’s father, so the many conversations between Neill and the computer offer rich opportunities for comedy and rueful reflection, as well as comparisons between Neill’s life to date—divorced, lonely, 30-something bachelor—and his father’s achievements as parent, homeowner and doctor, although while the computer program is able to figure out Neill is its “son,” what it doesn’t know is that Dr. Bassett Sr. committed suicide. Constant debate about and adjustments to the program lend a minor element of pace—the Turing prize is at stake—meanwhile, Neill muses on his father, relationships with various females and a cult called Pure Encounters. Suspicious that he’s really a beta-male, Neill journeys skeptically toward connection as Hutchins plays simultaneously with ideas and language, sex and psychology, capturing the angst and insularity of modern urban life.
Clever and extensive navel-gazing is modulated by tenderness, humor and charm. A writer to watch.
A provocative antiwar novel by one of Israel’s best-known writers (See Under: Love, 1989, etc.).
If Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a post-apocalyptic journey across a ruined landscape, Grossman’s latest describes a walkabout across forbidding country that is ever in danger of being consumed by war. Ora and Avram meet in a hospital at the time of the Six-Day War, speaking back and forth across fever dreams: “We’re the last ones left from the plague,” says Ora, still not sure why sirens and artillery shells are the music of their night. Avram disappears into the maw of another war, when, captured and tortured, he returns unable to connect with the past and the people he has known and loved; Ora, for her part, marries a mutual friend and has a son, Ofer, who, decades later, is called up to serve in yet another war. Unable to bear the thought of losing her boy to the unending conflict—a loss that Grossman himself suffered as he was writing the book—Ora leaves home, locates Avram in his Galilean hermitage, and sets out on a journey (“which she was still calling a hike,” at least at the beginning) crisscrossing Israel with two purposes in mind: to weave a protective armor of words around Ofer, and to keep herself one step ahead of the soldiers who inevitably will come to her door to announce that he has died. Grossman’s characters define the limits of human endurance and of language. Through conversation that takes them across generations and ethnicities, each discovers something about the other, and each, it seems, becomes less inclined to accept the old way of accomplishing aims through violence and terror, through “the many and varied dangers from which they could no longer protect their sons.”
A classic, full of sharp descriptions of life in Palestine and Israel today, urgent in its insistence that peace can come through sharing stories and the time required to tell them.
Connection and enlightenment are sought and occasionally experienced in a first collection from Canadian poet and Giller Prize–winning novelist Skibsrud (The Sentimentalists, 2011).
Relationships remain unexpressed or rest in not-quite-connected small family knots in Skibsrud’s dreamy yet searching fictions—e.g., “The Limit,” in which an absent father reaches out to his stranger-daughter. Reminiscence features often, as in "Clarence," recounting a newspaper photographer’s use of a childhood episode to revive his subject, the oldest man in the county. The stories offer glimpses of France, Canada and the Midwest, yet the landscapes seem desolate and are often visited by death, like the suicide of a son in “French Lessons” or the casually mentioned murder in “Signac’s Boats.” These two stories are also connected via the character of Martha, an American in Paris who falls in love there, but even on this subject Skibsrud’s approach is cerebral, almost abstract. "Cleats," another story in the Martha/Paris sequence, is more concrete, tracing the feelings behind an abandoned marriage, although it too is driven by the ineffable. And the closing tale, “Fat Man and Little Boy,” is one of several striving to capture a flash of understanding for which words seem scarcely adequate.
Skibsrud’s economical, poetically aware stories reveal a writer comfortable with the form, and one who requires her readers to think.
Two love triangles (equal one love hexagon?) that reveal much—or at least enough—about love.
The first complication d’amour involves Thomas Le Gall, a psychiatrist in Paris. He waits for Anna Stein, one of his patients for 12 years and now finally getting ready to end her therapy. Toward the end of this session, she impulsively blurts out that she’s recently met Yves Janvier, a writer whom she finds intriguing. Le Gall duly notes this information and then a few hours later is struck by an erotic thunderbolt of his own in the form of Louise Blum, a lawyer whom he meets at a party and who could be Anna’s “blond twin.” Louise is married to a prominent scientist, Romain Vidal, whom she’s beginning to find lackluster and boring, while Anna is married to Stan, a prominent ophthalmologist. And while both family situations are complicated by children, amatory instincts begin to overtake the better judgment of the adults. Anna and Yves begin an affair, as do Thomas and Louise. French author Le Tellier occasionally and cleverly crosses the threads of his dual plot—e.g., by having Anna and Louise meet each other accidentally while shopping for clothes. And of course Anna makes her developing relationship with Yves (and deteriorating relationship with Romain) part of her confessional sessions with Le Gall. Tellingly, at one point she says, “ 'if I stay with Yves, I’ll have the life I’m dreaming of,’ ” which Le Gall repeats as, “ 'The life you’re dreaming of. You’re dreaming.’ ” Yves writes a short book based on his liaison with Anna Stein (Forty Memories of Anna Stein), which Le Tellier incorporates as part of his novel. Meanwhile, Romain sets up an appointment with Le Gall under an assumed name and uses this occasion to let the psychiatrist know that Romain is not in the dark about the affair Le Gall is engaged in with his wife.
Le Tellier examines the possibilities of love after 40, and he deals with this issue with patience, understanding and bemusement.
A frequently funny subversion of the coming-of-age story, though there’s a pervasive sadness underlying the comic.
This promising debut novel sustains itself through the strength of its voice—the first-person narration of Eli Schwartz and the distinctive voice of author Wilson. A pudgy, jobless, stay-at-home 20-year-old with a passion for cooking and an ambivalence toward sex, Eli describes himself as “a glorified townie without the glory. No rugged good looks or blue-collar gas-station-employee pride. No fading memory of a football career. No greaser girlfriend, legs thick and strong like the twin pistons on my (nonexistent) restored Camaro.” Eli might easily be described as a loser and a stoner, but the novel seduces the reader into identifying with him, caring about him, rather than treating him (as some others do) as an object of ridicule. “I’m a good soul who’s gone a bit off the deep end,” he explains. His well-to-do father left his mother for a second marriage and family and took his standard of living with him. His older brother left for college, keeping Eli in a claustrophobic relationship with the mother who encourages it (at least until she also discovers life beyond Eli and threatens to leave as well). The plot’s pivotal encounter involves Seymour Kahn, a veteran actor whose roles have diminished because he's in a wheelchair but whose sexual appetite remains omnivorous. Kahn enters Eli’s life as a surrogate father, potential lover, sexual procurer and/or drug buddy, after he becomes interested in buying the family home that Eli’s mother needs to sell. The repressed, apathetic Eli and the profane, uninhibited Kahn make for an odd couple, though Eli acknowledges, “I’m afraid of becoming Kahn, but part of me knows I’m already Kahn, that he’s the part of me I want to keep away from the world. I think Kahn might be in love with me.” Though the voice is strong and the characters indelible, the author rejects the resolution of a typical rite of passage. Instead, it doesn’t offer much resolution at all (except for Kahn), as Eli conjures 20 possible endings, committing to none.
A book with lots of laughs that's also very bleak.
The author of the popular Lemony Snicket series of children’s books puts a playful spin on adult themes of love and lust, showing a narrative ingenuity that should delight readers interested in exploring the possibilities of fiction.
The third non-Lemony book from Handler (after Watch Your Mouth, 2000) finds him challenging conventional categories. This initially appears to be a selection of short stories, even parables, with each of the 16 taking a different adverb as its title (“Immediately,” “Arguably,” “Symbolically” and, as a change of pace, “Often”). Teachers generally instruct fledgling writers to eliminate adverbs whenever possible (only passive verbs suffer from greater linguistic disrepute), yet Handler makes his strategy succeed, frequently putting the titular adverb at the service of a broader theme. In “Obviously,” he examines the essence of “kissassedness.” “Briefly” is the briefest piece here, and includes the pivotal appearance of a boy’s briefs. “Soundly” culminates in a boat ferrying across a sound. And so on. Yet in almost subliminal fashion, the author encourages the reader to make connections between the stories, with the repetition of recurring motifs involving magpies and money, plot lines that seem to leapfrog from pieces at the beginning to ones toward the end and the reappearance of characters (who may actually be different characters with the same name). Even the narrative “I” is suspect—sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. Some might find the key to the narrative strategy in “Truly,” which the author characterizes as an “essay” and in which he purports to drop the fictional pretense in favor of straightforward autobiography and explanation of authorial intent. Or is this just another twist of the metafictional maze? Whether one approaches this as a novel (in the loosest sense) or a series of somehow connected stories, Handler’s prose is warm, funny, smart and addictively readable. It might even send some adult readers to Lemony Snicket to see what they’ve been missing.
Experimental fiction is rarely this emotionally engaging.
They were some couple: artist and muse, Jewish and Catholic, owlish composer and flighty songbird. She was unfaithful to him, he was only faithful to his music, and neither could live without the other.
As Mordden (The Guest List: How Manhattan Defined American Sophistication, 2010) puts it, Kurt Weill (1900–1950) and Lotte Lenya (1898–1981) were “an odd couple, she so outgoing and curious and he so taciturn, as if he already knew everything worth knowing.” They would marry, divorce and remarry, and Lenya slept around as Weill studied his sheet music. (“But, Lenya,” he once told her, “you know you come right after my music!”) They met in Weimar Berlin at its inflationary, artistic, criminal and pre-Nazi peak—“the Wild West without a sheriff”—which Weill and a smelly, hectoring blowhard named Bertolt Brecht would brutally satirize in The Threepenny Opera. The reaction was mixed: Most people loved it, but the Nazis hated it. The thugs didn’t like his later shows either—one reviewer was shocked at how Weill, “a Jew, makes use of the German opera stage for his anti-German goals.” Weill and Lenya fled to Paris in 1933 (bad idea) and then America. Weill, who “could put on a musical style like socks,” flourished in the melting pot; Lenya, in between air pilots and choir boys, was his constant anchor. With smart, chatty and occasionally hilarious prose (“Richard Rodgers was the only composer with whom Weill was holding a hard-on contest”), Mordden ably captures both artists and their ever-changing geographical and professional locales.
The title cheats a little—it's more about him than her—but this is a lively, baroque account of two very cool cats, these opposites who attracted.