Love stories shallow and deep
The search for love - whether by a N.Y. single or a Holocaust survivor - lifts summer reading.
America's summer reading is shaping up to be a tad schizophrenic. With "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and three works by William Faulkner ensconced at Nos. 1 and 2 on Amazon, it looks as if an 11-year-old boy and his great-aunt, a librarian of the old school, got their shopping lists all mixed up.
But for those looking for a happy medium, this summer offers plenty of other pleasures that don't require detailed footnotes to enjoy.
Take the new offerings by Melissa Bank and Nicole Krauss, both follow-ups to highly praised debuts. Bank's "The Wonder Spot," like her bestseller, "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing," is a series of short stories centered on the love life of a witty 30-something in New York.
(Bank's first novel came out in 1999, before the love lives of witty female urbanites became designated - or denigrated - "chick lit." Hence, she escapes that bright pink purgatory. It also helps that her writing ability exceeds that usually found between Jordan almond-colored covers.)
Sophie Applebaum, middle child and only girl, is introduced to us on her way to her cousin's bat mitzvah, inappropriately dressed and slinging self-aware zingers such as, "My mother told the same stories over and over - maybe twenty-five in all; if you added them up, there were only about two hours of her life that she wanted me to know about."
When her mother chirps that it's lovely that Sophie's seated at the 13-year-old table, she snarks to the reader: "I told her that I hoped that she got to sit with the other forty-one and forty-two-year-olds."
"Boss of the World" was my favorite of the stories. That may be partly due to the fact that teenage Sophie seems more vibrant than any of her adult incarnations, and partly because Sophie's relationships with her various boyfriends never seem quite as compelling as her interactions with her family.
The rest of the stories bounce around in time through Sophie's 20s and 30s, with the last leaving her at 40, dating a younger man and "feeling every pound of her weight."
Some readers may complain that Bank is just retracing ground she covered the first time around. It is true that she doesn't stray far from her winning formula (down to an appearance by a standard poodle), but it is also true that if you liked "Girl's Guide" you'll thoroughly enjoy "The Wonder Spot."
A teenaged Jewish girl also propels the plot of Krauss's "The History of Love," but no one would accuse Krauss ("Man Walks Into a Room") of repeating herself - or anyone for that matter.
The book's heart belongs to Leo Gursky, a Polish Holocaust survivor who lost everything but the memory of his first love. The retired locksmith spends his days writing a book for the son he's never met and causing small scenes - dropping change, knocking over store displays, spilling milk.
"All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen," he explains to the reader, before signing up as a nude model for a drawing class. Among the things Leo lost was his third novel, "The History of Love," which, unknown to him, traveled from Poland to Chile, where it was published under somebody else's name.
Alma Singer was named after the main character in that book, which was her dead father's favorite. (Alma's last name also is no accident; Isaac Bashevis Singer is one of several writers who get shout-outs.)
Her mother, as devoted to her lost love as Leo is to his, has frozen herself in time so as not to disturb his memory. Not surprisingly, Alma's younger brother, Bird, is not exactly thriving under these conditions and believes he might be a messiah.
Alma, for her part, has become obsessed with survival techniques (her journal is titled "How to Survive in the Wilderness Vol. 3") and finding her namesake. It's this latter search that causes her story to dovetail with Leo's in the incredibly moving ending. I can't say any more without spoiling the surprise for the reader, but trust me, it's good.
Krauss plays a few writerly tricks that aren't entirely successful. For example, imaginary friends have made me wince ever since "A Beautiful Mind." (To be fair, Krauss does provide clues that the character in question is more figment than physical.)
But in Leo Gursky, she's found an unforgettable voice and given it a note of grace.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.