I first read The Plague when I was in high school. In discussing the book in my senior English seminar, I “discovered” existentialism, and it was heady stuff. I didn’t read Camus again for forty years but recently decided to re-read The Plague. I was apprehensive. Could it live up to my memory? Had I liked it just because I was an impressionable teenager? Would it seem dated now? What should I make of what I now knew to be Camus’s rejection of the label existentialist? Despite the doubts, I plunged in. I was surprised that I remembered some of the passages—the blue dome of sky beginning to sizzle, the incorrigible sorrow of prisoners and exiles, the man standing on the shore, empty-handed and sick at heart— and I remembered the plot and the message. But this time, I paid more attention to Camus’s craft, and I was amazed. His physical description is more than just description; it conveys meaning and emotion. His seemingly simple words and sentences contain profound thoughts, both troubling and oddly comforting. The book did not disappoint; it was better than I remembered. And I’m guessing that Geraldine Brooks was also impressed, as she pays tribute to The Plague in her excellent book, Year of Wonders.
I met Simon Mawer at the Boston Book Festival in 2010. He had just finished speaking on a panel about “sense of place” in literature when I introduced myself. My interest had been piqued by his comments, and particularly by his reading of the opening section of The Glass Room, and I was keen to find out where the real glass room was located, the one on which he based the fictionalized one. He had already said it was in the Czech Republic, and it just so happened I was leaving for the CR in a few days. Mawer graciously shared his inspiration with me – the Tugendhat Villa in Brno, Czech Republic, a seminal masterpiece by Mies van der Rohe – and two weeks later I was in Brno, immersed in the novel. He never names the city in the book, but Mawer is masterful in placing the reader there. For instance, he describes the park where the house with the glass room was situated, and the real park is just like that. He describes the shadow cast by the looming castle, and there’s no doubt it’s the Spilberk Castle. And he gives us characters who are ripped from their comfortable life and forced to confront the growing Nazi menace, the war and the holocaust, all very much like the real people from that part of the world whom I know. A fabulous novel, deeply connected to place and time.
When Tony Judt died in 2010, we lost a thinker, a writer, a historian. He made European history read like a novel, as though we had to finish the book to find out the ending, even though we knew, before we started, that the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union dissolved and the European Union produced an integrated market. While Judt’s later works, The Memory Chalet and Ill Fares the Land, represent his personal legacy, and while his personal views are also present in this book, Post-War is a masterful collection of facts, woven together in a compelling narrative. Judt was also the founder of the Remarque Institute at New York University.
I picked this book up at Logan airport. Waiting for a flight, I was browsing at Borders (now departed) and saw this on the shelf. I didn’t know the author or the book, but flipped open to a page – the sentences grabbed me immediately and I bought it. I’m so glad I did – the book introduced me to a wonderful author and transported me (figuratively) to New York, London and St. Petersburg where a colorful family drama unfolds. The Russian city is the most vivid, almost a character itself, but Docx delves into the family members , too, plumbing their inner thoughts, motivations and memories.
Before I read the book, I saw the photo from the cover at an exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The picture shows a woman in dark clothes, probably widow’s weeds, on the beach, gazing at the remarkably large piece of debris from a wrecked ship, and as I stood in the museum, very much in the late 20th century, it took me to the life many women led nearly 200 years ago, those who were wives of men who sailed away to hunt whales, trade goods and seek fortunes. The narrator of Ahab’s Wife is different, though, from the typical wife; even though she waits for Ahab to return, and loves him very much, she had a remarkable life before meeting Ahab, and has a life after, fulfilling the promise of the novel’s celebrated first sentence: “Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Read this book in conjunction with two others – Moby Dick (of course) and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and you’ll be transported to Massachusetts of another era.