A Soldier's Story
Articles of War (Doubleday, $17) is a gem of a book about a horrific subject. First-time novelist Nick Arvin describes how it feels to be a naive 18-year-old sent off to fight in a brutal war.
George Tilson, called Heck because he never swears (a promise he made to his late mother back in Iowa), lands at Omaha Beach in 1944. While waiting to be deployed, he wanders away from camp and gets briefly involved with Claire, a teenage French girl. Heck doesn't handle their liaison all that well, fumbling and backtracking in his reticent way.
Then suddenly he's at the front, battered by artillery in a harrowing scene Arvin evokes in perfect, riveting pitch. "The noise was like nothing he had ever experienced before, a noise such as might be used to herald the beginning of a terrible new world, and now, as he was bodily shaken and thrown by this wracking of the earth, there was no time, no memory, no future, no self, no control or sense beyond fear."
As Heck stumbles his way through the war, his thoughts return obsessively to Claire. Even though they didn't have much of a romance, she symbolizes something he wishes for and everything that isn't this awful war.
Heck endures a long march through enemy territory, with interminable spells in muddy foxholes, another terrifying artillery battle and a morally wrenching assignment that Arvin based on a true incident. The book ends in postwar Europe, where Heck has a final encounter with Claire. Though the scene is farfetched, it manages to pack an emotional punch that puts a fitting coda on this beautifully written and timely novel.
Nikolai Mayovskyj is an 84-year-old widower, newly in love with Valentina, 36, a bombshell from the old country. "She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade," writes his daughter Nadezhda, the narrator of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Penguin Press, $24.95), the charming, poignantly funny first novel by Marina Lewycka, a daughter of Ukrainian immigrants.
Valentina descends on the British village of Peterborough, mistaking modest pensioner Nikolai for a wealthy retiree. Nikolai will be Valentina's ticket to a visa, a Rolls Royce and a fancy education for her 14-year-old son, Stanislav.
Not if Nadezhda can help it. Nadezhda, a 47-year-old socialist-leaning professor, teams up with her formerly estranged sister, Vera, a divorcee 10 years her senior who scoffs at little sister's leftward inclinations. Mission: protect father from the gold digger. Nikolai and Valentina wed, but the marriage sours quickly, and the sisters marshal a legal offensive.
Some of the most hilarious scenes revolve around Valentina's condemnation of her aged spouse: " 'No car! No jewel! No clothes! (She pronounces it in two syllables -- cloth-es.) No cosmetic! No undercloth-es!' She yanks up her T-shirt top to display those ferocious breasts bursting like twin warheads out of an underwire, ribbon-strapped Lycra-panelled lace-trimmed green satin rocket launcher of a bra."
Throughout this quirky saga, Lewycka weaves in Ukraine's troubled history (world wars and the Stalinist famine), which are told through Nadezhda's reminiscences about her family's travails, some of which come to light only as she and Vera bond over their father's plight. Meanwhile Nikolai, an engineer/intellectual and lover of tractors, has taken it upon himself to write a history of the machine he adores, which touches on key Ukrainian milestones. In the end, Valentina's warheads are no match for the Mayovskyj family's brains, and heart.
Sasha's Sad Saga
If, as the publisher suggests, Natasha Radojcic's You Don't Have to Live Here (Random House, $21.95, forthcoming in April) is largely autobiographical, then you have to admire the author's ability to overcome adversity. Unfortunately, the shock value of all the nasty things that happen to Radojcic's narrator, a Yugoslav Muslim teenager named Sasha, doesn't make up for the novel's episodic dreariness.
Beautiful, adored Mother is dying of cancer. Cousin sexually molests Sasha before she turns 15. Adding displacement to the mix, Mother decides she and Sasha should move for a while to Cuba, where Uncle has a big-shot embassy job. Then it's back to Yugoslavia, where Mother's cancer worsens and Sasha gets turned over to Father, a gigolo who insists she move with him to Athens, where he's pursuing his latest rich girlfriend.
Sasha reacts by getting into all kinds of trouble, mainly involving men and drugs. In Greece she cuts school, sleeps with a fortysomething American soldier and starts dealing hashish. Sasha has a bold style, as shown when she pulls a kitchen knife on Father or leaves her dead boyfriend (who has overdosed on drugs) and skips town. Eventually she finagles her way to New York City, where she does lots more drugs and has lots more sex in the depressing 1980s East Village.
Radojcic offers moments of soulful writing and introspection. "I remember Mother for a second, whimper, and hit my head against the wall," laments Sasha in the midst of a hip downtown party. "I miss her, miss her, and the pounding does nothing to quiet the craving. Where are you. I ask the carpet, the chairs, the feet and shoes passing. Nobody answers." But such passages are overwhelmed by the stark, pitiless recounting of yet more drugs, sex and petty crime. The ending is weirdly hopeful but fails to redeem the rest of the book.
In Search of Lost Time
Amadeo Terra is a vegetable. He drools, defecates into a diaper, eats baby food spooned into his mouth by a nurse. In The Cigar Roller (Grove, $21), Cuban exile Pablo Medina paints a disheartening portrait of Amadeo, a broken man facing mortality.
One day, instead of the usual tasteless mush, Amadeo's nurse feeds him an ambrosial mouthful of crushed mango. The intoxicating flavor prompts him to reflect on the unbridled life he led before a stroke devastated his body.
Born in 19th-century Cuba, Amadeo started working at age 12 in a cigar factory, where he took great pride in his rise to roller. He was married young, to the lovely Julia, but quickly tired of the domestic life. "When he isn't searching for a domino game he is searching for a cockfight, when he isn't searching for a cockfight, he is looking for a woman," recalls Amadeo of his younger self. He savors the memory of sleeping with a naive 14-year-old, until Julia showed up and nearly brained him. Unaccountably, Julia stuck with Amadeo, moving with their three sons to Tampa, where he continued to philander.
But Amadeo's past adventures become tiresome rather than exciting. Nothing about the old man is likable, and though Medina is an evocative writer, he fails to make anything of the overlong and stomach-turning description of Amadeo's infirmities.
There's a horrifying shocker at the end involving one of Amadeo's sons, but instead of making the previous slog seem worth it, this twist merely underlines what the reader already knows: Amadeo is a despicable character.
Susan Adams is an editor at Forbes magazine in New York City.