Photo: hotel terrace sunset Poland

Two stories of new and old Poland are intertwined in this month's book.

Photograph by PCL, Alamy

By Don George

August 2009

Book of the Month: 
A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True,
by Brigid Pasulka

Every country presents itself to us in layers. As travelers, we usually apprehend the visual layer first—landscape, architecture, dress. Then, over time, we begin to absorb the layers of history and culture, tradition and belief. One of the many gifts of Brigid Pasulka's debut novel, A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True, is that it transports us through the outer layers straight into the heart of Poland, brilliantly evoking the country's emotional landscape.

Pasulka's narrative masterfully braids two stories: The first begins on the eve of World War II in the mountain hamlet of Half-Village, and centers on a resolute young man nicknamed the Pigeon and the beautiful young woman he falls in love with, Anielica Hetmanska; the second follows their granddaughter, Beata, in Krakow in the 1990s, where she has gone to make a new life with her crusty cousin Irena and Irena's modish daughter, Magda, after the death of her beloved grandmother.

Unfolding with an accumulating fairy-tale ferocity, the story of Pigeon and Anielica illuminates the hard ways of country life, where houses are hand-constructed with rocks and trees from nearby woods, backcountry gossip confers its own life-changing consequences, and when German troops arrive, unshakeable bonds ensure survival.

Beata's story reveals the New Poland of cafés, clubs, and brand boutiques, where Germans come as tourists and the openings of a McDonald's and a Japanese cultural center signal the advent of a global dawn. At the same time, as she discovers in her wanderings, the past endures in the milk bars and vegetable markets of the city's shabbier quarters—and closer to home as well.

Pasulka poignantly portrays Poland's checkerboard history in the latter half of the 20th century and the evolution of its national character under Nazi occupation, Soviet Communism, and post-Soviet capitalism. With a passion for Poland that suffuses each page, A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True rings hauntingly, enchantingly, real.

New-Book Roundups:
Mothers and Daughters

In The Calligrapher's Daughter, author Eugenia Kim was inspired by her parents' story of life in Japanese-occupied, WWII Korea. Her assured debut novel tells the tale of a privileged young woman who lives through the decline of Korea's dynastic tradition and the harshness of the occupation. The Beirut, Lebanon-based memoir The Locust and the Bird also gets inspiration from family. Author Hanan al-Shaykh writes in her mother's voice of falling in love with a man who was not her husband and leaving him (and daughter Hanan) during a time (the 1930s) when such decisions were unheard of. The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico, by Sarah McCoy, follows 11-year-old Verdita Ortiz-Santiago through pre-teen angst in Puerto Rico (anger at her pregnant mother, confusing feelings for her American friend Blake), set against the backdrop of the island's 1960s political tumult over independence from the U.S.

China Near and Far

American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, by Bonnie Tsui, delves into often mystifying Chinatowns in New YorkSan FranciscoLos AngelesHonolulu, and Las Vegas, each different and brimming with fascinating stories. Fans of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress will be glad to hear that author Dai Sijie is back with his latest novel, Once on a Moonless Night. Set in past and modern-day China, the story revolves around a silk scroll written in an ancient tongue and once owned by the emperor of Japan—but at its heart the novel crafts an ode to the power of language.

South American Sojourns

The vivid debut novel The Invisible Mountain is, in author Carolina De Robertis's own words, "a love letter to Montevideo," the capital of Uruguay. This saga follows three generations of women over 90 years, from a small village to a prison cell. In The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Våsquez, a writer's delving into his family's WWII past leads to treachery and the revelation of long-hidden secrets in this novel set in Colombia. In City of Silver: A Mystery, by Annamaria Alfieri, an abbess in 17th-century Potosí, Peru, must serve as sleuth in this whodunit launched after a young woman living in her convent turns up dead.

Reading Matchmaker:
If You Like...

...Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, or Larry McMurtry in general, check out the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's newest novel, Rhino Ranch, which wraps up the story of Duane Moore and his small town of Thalia, Texas, which began in 1966 with The Last Picture Show. The story centers around the arrival in town of a plucky billionairess who opens a ranch devoted to the preservation of the endangered black rhino and to whom Duane finds himself drawn despite their differences.

One Last Thing:
Bulgaria Bound

As it is for many Americans, Bulgaria is a big blank on my mental map. So I was delighted to discover Kapka Kassabova's witty and wise new book, Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria. Kassabova grew up in the drab outskirts of the capital, Sofia, in the authoritarian 1970s and 1980s, then escaped with her family to New Zealand after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In this moving account, she returns to tour Bulgaria past and present on the eve of its entry into the European Union. Her journey elucidates the public and private history of this compelling and confounding country—and the risks and rewards of returning home.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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