I’ve just checked out this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, and I’m seeing that it’s good I’ve got Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss on my shelves, as she won for fiction, and the awards have also reminded me that I’d like to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which won for autobiography and that I must, must, must read Lawrence Weschler soon, whose book Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences won for criticism. I’ve got his book Vermeer in Bosnia on my shelves. I don’t like letting prizes dictate my reading — I like at least to pretend that I make book choices based on my own insights rather than other people’s, although surely that’s largely an illusion — but the awards are reminding me of books I’ve been interested in lately (the hundreds and hundreds of them — there’s little likelihood I’m getting to any of these really soon).
I finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics a couple days ago (post on that to come), and so now I’m working on finishing up some of my other books and will then choose another novel. I can’t decide exactly what I need right now — something old, perhaps Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, or something new (and shorter) like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Or something entirely different. We’ll see. I’ll let the impulse of the moment guide me.
But for now I want to write about having finished the audiobook of Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, which I enjoyed very much and highly recommend. I find it hard to write about audiobooks because I don’t have the book in front of me to look at, and I can’t refresh my memory of the plot details or give you quotations, but I can say that this has some great characters and an intriguing plot, it has humor and pathos, it’s about people who write and who love books and reading, and although the book’s title makes it sound like it might be hopelessly and annoyingly sentimental, it’s not.
The novel introduces you to various characters and then throughout the story brings them closer and closer and reveals unexpected connections among them. It feels a little bit like a mystery. There’s Leo Gursky, an old man living in isolation in New York City, who has loved one woman in his life, named Alma, whom he knew when he was a boy in Poland, and then lost when she moved to America. He had written a novel called The History of Love before emigrating to America himself, but, because he left his hometown fleeing the Nazis, he lost the manuscript. There’s another Alma who’s a 14-year old trying to deal with her mother’s depression and her brother’s worrisome obsession with religion, who becomes fascinated with a novel called The History of Love, which her mother is translating. Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from the way it unravels the mystery of what happened to the manuscript and how Leo’s and Alma’s lives are connected.
I really liked Leo’s character; he’s funny and wise, and the narrator who read the sections devoted to him had a wonderful voice and accent. The narrator who read Alma’s sections had a voice I found a little grating, but she’s a wonderful character too, odd and quirky and smart in a way that can make teenagers’ lives a misery but turns them into fascinating adults.
This book is a pleasure, plain and simple.