Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tocarzcak (2019. Penguin (Audible) ISBN 978-0525541349)
My book club, the Greater Mesabi Men’s Book Club of Hibbing, Minnesota, is located over an hour from my rural NE Minnesota home. Some time ago, I was invited to join the club after the guys read a couple of my novels, a snippet of the more than 450 works of fiction the club has read and discussed over its thirty-plus years of existence. As the Club’s newest (and youngest) member, what I love about this club is that the mix of members is so eclectic, you just never know what the next selection will bring. Drive Your Plow is a book I would never choose on my own but I’m glad I read it.
Janina Duszejko, the book’s first-person narrator, is a retired civil engineer living in the mountainous region of Poland along its border with the Czech Republic. She is working, after her career in construction has ended, as an English teacher in a local Catholic school. It’s an intriguing read insofar as language because the author, a Nobel prize winner, writes in Polish and must await translation of her work into the wider-read English language. I loved the woman who narrated the audio version: her accent alone called to mind a babushka-wearing older woman, whose health is plagued by a mysterious illness, and who is suddenly surrounded by dead bodies, all of them men, all of them neighbors. While critics (and the author) bill this novel as a crime thriller/mystery, that’s not really a good fit in terms of labeling. This is more of an introspective, literary reflection chronicling the narrator’s singular, loveless existence in the hinterlands, including her affection for and dedication to living things. She abhors hunting. She has lost her two “girls” (dogs) and that loss figures into the solving of the murders and the storyline.
In the end, this was not a great tale. Nor was it especially suspenseful or thrilling in its pace, story, and unfolding. Rather, it’s a good read from a talented author and I enjoyed it, despite some dragging points here and there, to the very end.
4 stars out of 5. She’s a Nobel winner not for this book but for her body of work.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien (2011. Audible. ISBN 978-0767904421)
This is a read that was actually a listen. Again, as I try to stave off low back surgery by working out and walking the Hermantown Y track, I listen to novels and biographies and what have you, all of them provided by Audible. Being a fan of O’Brien’s work (he’s a Minnesotan so what’s not to like?), I selected this novel for my workout routine. I wasn’t disappointed.
This is unlike any other war novel you will ever read. If you are trying to replicate the internal angst and fear and combat weary feel of Matterhorn ( a great novel of the Vietnam War in its own right) or O’Brien’s slender, much loved The Things We Carried or If I Die in a Combat Zone, you’ll experience some of the same reactions and emotions you encountered reading/listening to those books while listening to/reading Going After.
But this book is far more experimental, far more cerebral in its conception and execution than simply a straight-on, tell-it-like-it-is war novel. You simply have to experience it to understand what I mean. Without giving away the store, all I can say is there is magic and mysticism in this tale. There are also imagery and longing and fear to be gleaned from a listen or read, all of which ring true despite the format and the narrative license the author engages in to tell the story of one squad, sent to find a deserter, as it heads west, out of the war.
A fine book. I’m not sure if it deserved to be book of the year or not but it is a dandy read.
4 stars out of 5. A great book club selection.