Category Archives: books

They fight to stay together.

Ten years later I am re-posting this review, about a book that I put off reading for a year after I bought it, mostly because of its cover design and notes. It’s a novel about Poland that won several minor awards, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN prize in 2010. Our church women’s book group read it at my recommendation a few years ago, when I was too busy to join in. So it may be time for my own reaquaintance.

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True exceeded my expectations; I don’t remember what I read on someone’s blog that got me interested, but when the book arrived and I saw the fanciful flowery cover with notes using the words “whimsical” and “romance” on the same page, I’m afraid I unconsciously relegated it to a genre of Light Reading.

A cover truer to the story.

But a story of Poland from the 1930’s to about 1990 is sure to be full of war, tyrants, secret police, lies and alcoholism. Wives and mothers can’t even mention their men who went missing years ago; their grandchildren grapple with the generational ripples of all the wounds and deaths and separations both social and physical. I had to look up the word whimsical just now to make sure of my understanding, and no, the author Brigid Pasulka never gave the impression that she was trying to be “playful, erratic or fantastical” with her subject.

The opening chapter that tells about an upright young man named Pigeon might make you think it’s all light and charming, and perhaps to some reviewers the idea of such a hero with old-fashioned morals seems like a fairy tale. He is a shining example of the classic Pole who has Golden Hands that can make or fix anything. And he loves Anielica, a sweet girl who will soon suffer much with and for him, including the long postponement of their wedding — but that turns out to be the least of their sorrows.

The novel alternates chapters about teenagers growing up during the war years with those about their granddaughter in the late 20th century. Her life, also, is nearly wrecked by many of the same old misfortunes as well as some newer ones, like drug-dealing boyfriends. Funny moments and comic aspects pepper her story, as they did her grandparents’. Being able to appreciate the comedy is one way to deal with the heartache; that doesn’t make the story a piece of humor.

Brigid Pasulka

The book was just serious enough and just long enough for my current reading “mood,” and I did not predict the ending that lifted me out of the general bleakness that was trying to smother the characters all the way through. The Polish people had several years of trying to survive and even fight against the Nazis, and then could barely catch their breath before the Soviets took over and they had to quickly shift gears and learn how to cope with a slightly different oppression, the effects of which stretched long into the future.

Through it all the protagonists in this story, the grandparents and the parents and grandchildren, fight to stay together and to protect one another. Bribes and lies and dreadful compromises at times appear to be daily necessities, but the characters’ love and perseverance keep them from the despair that lurks around the corners of their houses like a traitorous neighbor. The moral quandaries that they experience are neither explored in depth nor treated flippantly.

The author, I read on the cover, spent a year in Poland learning the language and the culture of her ancestors. She uses often untranslated Polish words lavishly throughout the story, and they aren’t always easily deciphered versions of English words, so I was frequently left wondering what I was missing, not having a Polish dictionary handy. Nor did I want to look up the many references to obscure events in Polish history which the characters mentioned. But those are my only complaints.

In the middle of meditating on the history and people of Poland I read this poem by a Pole who would have grown up during the Soviet era. The images the writer conjures up, of a field mouse, a tree, “A grass blade trampled by a stampede of incomprehensible events,” lined up very well with the impression I got from this debut novel, of a brave people surviving by means of the virtues of their humanity, which is the grace of God.

By Zofia Stryjeńsk, artist of the interwar period.

It was a time of stifling.

PERIOD

It was a time when wise men
Were not silent, but stifled
By vast noise.  They took refuge
In books that were not read.
Two counsellors had the ear
Of the public.  One cried ‘Buy’
Day and night, and the other,
More plausibly, ‘Sell your repose.’

R. S. Thomas, 1913 -2000 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With thanks to Stephen Pentz,
who has all the best poems.
Illustration by Johan van Hell.

 

All the cozy things a girl needs.

What more could a girl want on a fall evening? Here (in a photo Pippin sent) Ivy has Fred the new kitten, Black Beauty which she is continuing from where we left off together last week, a soft blanket and the flannel nightgown I made for her last year about this time. Oh, and a black stuffie horse is peeking out from under her book. I wonder if he is reading along silently, or being read to. I find the scene pretty inspiring!

Books and Bouquets

Hello, my Dear Readers!

Life has been messily, exhaustingly, gloriously busy — and often fun. As a result, my house is messy, my body and mind have been weary, and I have seen many glimpses of the glory of God and His world.

Flowers, flowers, flowers! In my own garden I have sunflowers; in addition to the usual Delta species, I have “Autumn,” which seem very like in branching habit, but with more variety of color and shape of bloom. The tallest plant this year is an “Autumn.”

These shots from the front yard are just before we sheared the teucrium, so it was getting shaggy and with fewer and fewer flowers for the bees. Between the sunflowers and the asparagus let go, it’s a jungle out there for sure. Each successive summer the jungle is thicker, because the asparagus crowns deep under the soil are bigger. They send up more and fatter stalks every spring, which after two or three months of harvest I stop cutting as spears to cook and eat. They turn into  ferns, occasionally 5 feet high, and those green bushy parts carry on photosynthesis for months, growing the crowns even bigger.

There were plenty of flowers on the Feast of the Dormition yesterday, to celebrate Christ’s mother. We always have flowers, and extra for feasts, but the tradition is to have extra-extra for Mary:

I’ve been to the beach alone and with a friend; I’ve walked in the neighborhood, ferried friends all over two counties, and bought a new phone.

Our book group met yesterday, in a living room this time, because of heat and smoke; the smoke is still not from any wildfire nearby. We had lively discussion, mostly about A Long Walk with Mary, by Brandi Willis Schreiber, which I hadn’t read. The ways that the book had engaged such diverse women made me think I might like to read it myself in the future. We also talked a lot about what to read next, and we could not decide. No one wants a story so light as to be fluff, but they feel an avoidance for anything melancholic or gloomy right now.

One highlight of the book club event for me was afterward, when I got to visit the host’s garden for the second time. What a collection of flowers she has! I took a few pictures in the garden, and then she sent me home with a bouquet’s worth, plus several ripe tomatoes. My own tomato plants are puny and not very productive, and I have few flowers here that are good for cutting, so I was most grateful. She has two unusual and charming forms of zinnias that I would like to grow myself:

But I do have wisteria, at its most lush right now, making deep shade on the patio. Bees are happy in my garden, shown here on the apple mint that Mrs. Bread gave me, which has grown by leaps and bounds. The tomatoes below are the Atomic Grape variety, which are grape-shaped, but much bigger than any grape you ever saw. They are very tasty.

I’ve still been reading a lot. I abandoned a couple of books I’d started, and picked up new ones. Many times I have enough of my wits about me to read a book, but not enough to write about it. So I keep reading…. Lately the weather has been just the right amount of warm that it is the perfect thing to leave the too-cool house and carry my book and my lunch out to the garden. After a while I return to refill my big glass of iced something or other, and back out again to read a while longer. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, it’s the perfect summer treat.

God bless you all and your own summer days.