Sunday, July 28, 2013

Stories to Melt Memories: Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman

Minka Pradelski’s Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman, which I read in Philip Boehm’s colorful translation from the original German (Und da kam Frau Kugelmann), tells lots of tales: the initial, framing, story concerns one Tsippy Silberberg, who comes to Tel Aviv from Germany to pick up her inheritance (a fish service, of all things), but the real story in the novel is told by one Bella Kugelman, who barges into Tsippy’s hotel room, unannounced and uninvited, to talk about her childhood in Będzin, Poland.

File:Bed005o.jpgTsippy’s story is, initially anyway, pretty light—even “lite,” since her obsession with frozen foods sounds rather absurd—but Mrs. Kugelman barges into Tsippy’s imagination, too, by talking on and on, first about her school days, which include crushes, skipping class, friends, neighbors, and various adventures that feel pretty universal. Tsippy’s parents, whom she calls “fearful, postwar parents,” would never let her get away with so much; she has little sense of family history other than that her father is from Katowice, near Będzin. Meanwhile, Mrs. Kugelman sometimes looks decades younger or pulls at phantom braids when she tells her stories.

Of course we—and “we” includes Tsippy—know what will happen in Poland, and Tsippy begins pushing to hear more details because she thinks Mrs. Kugelman is making her hometown sound too perfect, too idyllic. I had the same feeling and was glad that Mrs. Kugelman obliged by telling more stories, including stories of miracles, stories of who survived and how… leading to discoveries for Tsippy, who grew up in a family that appeared nearly memory-less. Though the novel feels overly schematic to me, largely because Tsippy and Mrs. Kugelman were a little too obvious as opposites or counterbalances, I still can’t help but appreciate Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman as a book about finding ways to talk about frozen memories of the everyday and the horrors, the Holocaust, that erased the everyday. Thanks to its structure and mix of characters and stories, I think Mrs. Kugelman would be particularly good for young adult readers or others who haven’t read a lot of fiction about the Holocaust.

P.S. A brief interview with Pradelski on her publisher’s Web site addresses how Mrs. Kugelman came about:

What inspired you to write your first book?

I interviewed a survivor for the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation. The survivor asked me not to forget his hometown in Poland: Bendzin.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman from the publisher, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company. Thank you!

Up Next: Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which I liked very much.

Image: Old postcard of Będzin, including the synagogue, via Wikipedia, public domain

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Making Up For Lost Time: A Month in the Country & Two Others

This has been a strange summer for reading: lots of work, lots of abandoned books, and lots of distraction from travel and big changes in the weather. To get caught up on past reading, here are quick summaries of three books I’ve read (and even finished!) over the last month or so: I enjoyed all three, albeit in very different ways, though, hmm, I can’t help but notice that all three books are first-person narratives with very strong voices.

My favorite of the bunch, by far, was J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, a lovely and lively short novel about a World War 1 veteran, Tom Birkin, who goes to Oxgodby, Yorkshire, to restore a mural in an old country church. Of course Birkin restores himself from the trauma of the war in the process but the book didn’t feel predictable at all, thanks to small twists, like a hint of madness in a lovely local lady, Birkin’s feelings about religion and faith, and an organ-shopping expedition. I particularly enjoyed some of the descriptions of Birkin’s work, like these lines I found when I opened the book at random:

It was a splendid medieval gallery—nearest me, an almost Spanish head of the stricken Christ caught amid the leaves of a gallows tree; further along, a golliwog devil thrusting his grinning head between a couple trapped in the wrong bed; finally, a plump woman holding a blue shield of lilies. It proved what every church-crawler knows—there’s always something of surpassing interest in any elderly building if you keep looking.

I’d recommend A Month in the Country to just about anyone. I’d recommend Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, which I read in Bill Johnston’s translation from the original Polish Pod Mocnym Aniołem most to readers who enjoy Eastern European novels about drinking: Pilch’s not-so-angelic narrator, Jerzy (hmm…), tells tales of life as a rehab recidivist. He tells the tales of (and for) others on the ward, too. No novel about drinking is complete without references to Venedikt Yerofeev’s Moscow-Petushki, a.k.a. Moscow to the End of the Line, and Pilch fits Venya in early on, on page 11, when Jerzy mentions some teetotalling days:

“Why on earth don’t you drink?” my brothers sitting at the bar would ask, and they were angry, and the ghost of Venedikt Erofeev hovered over their heads, and their volitionless tongues spoke with his tongue, and I wrote down a few lines under his influence, and having paid homage, I released myself from his influence.

The language of Johnston’s translation, both in terms of vocabulary and cadences, is lots of fun to read; it feels like it was fun to translate, too. Finally, Ben H. Winters’s Countdown City, the second book in a planned trilogy about pre-apocalyptic America, narrated by an ex-cop living in New Hampshire, didn’t catch me as much as the first book, The Last Policeman (previous post), which won an Edgar Award earlier this year, but it still kept me turning pages, waiting for the end of the world with Hank Palace. This time around, Palace investigates the disappearance of Martha Milano’s husband: Martha babysat Palace and his sister when they were kids. Winters again looks, through the low-key and methodically responsible Palace, at questions of moral duty, wondering, among other things, who has the right to track down the missing when the end of the world is imminent. Winters includes some nice uses of a favorite word, “rummage.”

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I bought my copy of A Month in the Country; I am collaborating on a translation that will be published in a collection from New York Review Books, which published A Month in the Country. I received a copy of The Mighty Angel from publisher Open Letter Books; I always enjoy talking about translations (and not only!) with Open Letter. And I received two copies of Countdown City from Quirk Books… and gave the second copy to my local library. Thank you to all!

Up Next: Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which I’m loving… I have so many promising-looking new releases from publishers and used books from the library book sale that I’m not sure what will come after that…