Tag Archives: book covers

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.

Women talking about books.

Arthur Lismer – My Wife at Sackville River

What I love about our women’s book group at church is how, over the course of the year, so many different women participate, and yet, each gathering is a totally different mix of women; the literary conversation is unique and fascinating in its range of genres, and even more so in the literary lives of each woman present. Those who met this week wear a variety of “hats” in their daily life, including those of mom, wife, schoolteacher, iconographer, farmer, marriage and family counselor, librarian, and screenwriter.

Our recent meeting — our first in-person meeting in over a year! — was after a non-reading break for Pascha, and it was a short get-together solely for the purpose of picking our next book. We were all supposed to bring an idea, and then we would vote. At the end of Lent when we met on Zoom, we had planned to return to the group’s original focus on women authors, and we also hoped to read something “summery” next, not in the “spiritual reading” category.

But of the six women at the table in the church hall Sunday afternoon, half weren’t aware of those parameters. The books that were suggested were:

1 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

2 – The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

3 – The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

4 – My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

5 – Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives by Elder Thaddeus

6 – The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

Each of us told a little something about the book she was nominating, and then the informal and public voting began. Several of us lobbied for someone else’s suggestion. We had to choose a date for our discussion, also, which was harder, because for sure someone will have to miss that fun. People go on vacation.

Which book would YOU choose? Would you want to read a few, as we wanted? I came home and perused book covers to display here, and it was not easy to decide even among them.  If I were a graphic artist, I would think it the loveliest thing to do book covers.

I will tell you later what books we agreed upon, if I manage to read one or both of them. In the meantime, please tell me if any of these pique your interest or reaction for any reason. And I hope your own summer reading is satisfying in the best ways.

by Katie Harnett

Books have beauty inside and out.

I love it when the AbeBooks newsletter shows us interesting book covers. This particular edition features “The Prettiest Publications of the Past” and there are some lovelies. It’s almost enough to make me enter my credit card number right now so I can get a copy of The Book of Bugs for only $139.37.






Seas and Lands would cost not much over $80.











I could pick up Poppies and Wheat by Louisa May Alcott at $200…

But not really. I just like to look at the covers briefly, and then I go inside and delight in the artistry of the words, or I get caught up in the story or the vast worlds of ideas between the covers. I forget the pictures outside.

Still I wondered, do I have any pretty 19th century books on my shelves?

I own this copy of The Saints’ Everlasting Rest by the Puritan Richard Baxter. It was published in 1850 though he wrote in the 1600’s. I don’t actually find it pretty, but it’s the only one I found that has any decoration at all. It was given to my great-great-grandmother Margaret in New York City on the first day of 1859, when she was 24 years old and soon to be married.

I wonder if she read it? At the very back some words were penciled in and then erased. It wasn’t her fiancé who gave it, or anyone obviously family, for the message on the front flyleaf is signed somewhat formally “H.E. Browne”….

Well, you see how right off I’m concerned not with art but with the people or the book’s contents.

My favorite older book is from the 20th century, this copy of The Faithful Wife by Sigrid Undset. It was a recent gift to me from the shelves of an elderly friend, and I haven’t read it yet. But I think the design is very homey and wifey.





I’m reading The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts these days, which is all about what’s inside the books and what goes on in our minds when we are reading literature. That paperback is on my nightstand, so it doesn’t show up on this handy-dandy bookshelf that Soldier made for me many years ago.

A disclaimer is in order: This son was pleased and happy to build a tabletop shelf according to the vision I described to him, but he made me promise to fill in the screw holes and crevices and paint or varnish it, because he wasn’t happy with the roughness of the finished result. I lied, or broke my promise, and never finished it, and here I am showing the whole world.  My children put up with a lot.

But it is beautiful, isn’t it? And when our older son Pathfinder saw it he immediately knew that he wanted several for his house, too.

Now go look at or inside a book.