Blog

Dear Edward: About Before and After the Crash

Dear Edward

By Ann Napolitano

Published 2020

Read Dec 2020

Twelve year old Eddie Adler and his family—parents Bruce and Jane, fifteen year old brother Jordan—board a flight leaving Newark airport for LA.  They are moving from New York City to Los Angeles; their possessions are on a truck and will meet them there.  Unfortunately they don’t make it.  The flight goes down in Colorado and 191 souls are lost.  The only survivor is Eddie. 

Chapters alternate between the day of the flight and Edward’s story after. (Eddie’s Aunt Lacey, Jane’s sister who, with her husband, take Eddie in after the crash, decides that the press should refer to Eddie by his given name, Edward.  That name sticks for him.)   The pace of both parts of the stories is rapid but not hurried.  We get to know Eddie’s family members as well as some of the other passengers as they fly across the country.  We get to know Edward’s aunt and uncle as they struggle to support Edward deal with his trauma and work their way through  their own sadness regarding multiple miscarriages.  Edward’s journey towards a new normal for him rolls out slowly and compassionately. 

This reader devoured this book.  Alternating focus on the flight and Edward’s story both compelled the reader forward but also gave the reader a needed break from each story.  Knowing the crash is coming for these passengers whose hopes and dreams we are learning is difficult.  Relief from Edward’s pain and suffering and the struggles of his aunt and uncle is also welcomed.  But neither story feels neither heavy -handed nor overwrought—hence the desire to keep reading and participating in these multiple stories.

Well done Ann Napolitano!

Lady Clementine: Informative Historical Fiction

Lady Clementine

By Marie Benedict

Published 2020

Read Nov 2020

This reader has learned about Winston Churchill through a variety of means—documentaries, books, audio short courses, movies.  The latter is certainly a form of historical fiction, in this case for the movie theater.  This reader knew Churchill was married and had some children but knew nothing about his wife beyond this.  Thus this reader was delighted to have Lady Clementine chosen as a book for one of her book discussion groups.

This reader was initially surprised that Lady Clementine is a historical fiction book about her vs a biography, but the bigger surprise was that it is written in first person and narrated by Lady Clementine.  This reader has come to understand that her preference for the approach to historical fiction is like that used in Dreamers of the Day—a fictional character and their story occurs in parallel to historical events depicted or mentioned in the novel.   Coincidentally Dreamers of the Day introduced this reader to a major meeting held after WWI to set up the modern Middle East.  Two major players were Churchill and Gertrude Bell, a figure previously unknown to this reader.    Dreamers of the Day led this reader to read a biography of Gertrude Bell.

However, once this reader decided to set aside some discomfort with the approach, this reader found Lady Clementine to be interesting and informative.  The focus is appropriately on Lady Clementine, but given her spouse and the nature of their relationship, Winston Churchill certainly plays a big role.  His nature to demand a tremendous amount from his wife and those serving him is certainly consistent with other sources with which this reader is familiar.  

This book filled in this reader’s lack of understanding of The Dardanelles Campaign which injured Churchill’s career substantially.  It draws out the major contributions Lady Clementine played in several critical aspects of WWII including courting the Americans to join the WWII war effort, spearheading efforts to obtain donations to support the struggling Russian people while they were enduring the ravages of war, and improving the quality of air raid shelters in the UK in which citizens spent countless hours while their country was incessantly bombed by the Germans.  The disappointing learning for this reader (and Lady Clementine) was that, in the end, it isn’t clear how much credit Churchill gave to Lady Clementine for the role she played in enabling his personal success or the success of the war effort.  This likely isn’t surprising given the general view of the place of women at the time and given Churchill’s self-centeredness.  Lady Clementine points this out in an interesting way.  Although both Churchill and Lady Clementine were from the upper class, they relied on the Churchill’s small income as a government official (small since most government officials of this rank were independently wealthy) and income from his writing to support their family and fulfill the entertaining obligations expected of his rank.  Despite their limited income, Churchill insisted on drinking expensive champagne which he ordered by the case. 

While Churchill didn’t publically acknowledge his wife’s contributions, others have done so.  Lady Clementine covers a trip she makes to Russia near the end of the war where she is surprised to receive a high honor from the government for her efforts in feeding the Russian people.   Additional research this reader did regarding Lady Clementine revealed that she was appointed a grand dame cross in the Order of the British Empire and was created a life peer member of the House of Lords when Churchill passed. 

This reader found it interesting where the author chooses to end her book—at the end of the war and before Churchill again loses his position as Prime Minister.  Perhaps this is due to a desire to keep the book at about 300 pages or perhaps the author didn’t have sufficient primary source material to describe Lady Clementine’s life during this period.  Certainly most of her most notable efforts are appropriately covered. 

While devoid of the references in a more academic treatise, Benedict has clearly done substantial research.  This reader was disappointed the author didn’t provide any details of this research in her notes.  However she does share her motivations for writing this book.  While British citizens alive during WWII may have known about her, especially those in London where she played a personal role in visiting the bombing debris, standing watch for incoming bombers, and improving the air raid shelters, this book allows Lady Clementine to be visible well beyond this population.  This reader does thank the author for that and for piquing her interest in learning more about Lady Clementine—a measure this reader uses when assessing the impact of what she reads. 

Unquiet: A Novel

Unquiet:  A Novel

By Linn Ullmann

Translated from Norwegian:  Thilo Reinhard

Published 2018

Read Oct 2020

This reader listened to an audio version of the book which allowed her to be unaware that Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.  This reader has since learned that the book, while called a novel, does, at least in part, reflect actual events.  Frankly if the book had been called a memoir and/or the true parental situation of the author was part of the marketing of the audiobook, this reader likely would have not chosen to read it.  But absent that distraction, this reader did choose to read the book and greatly enjoyed it.  Although this reader is generally aware of the celebrated works of the authors’ parents, this reader is just young enough and just uncool enough to have none of their films.  So this reader won’t discuss the real parents any further.

The narrator tells us fairly early in the book that she and her father, a famous Swedish filmmaker, had planned to write a book about him.  They had spent two years discussing the project and planned that they would take a jeep tour when they were done (her father loved driving his jeep).  Unfortunately by the time the tape recorder was purchased and the recordings began, the father’s health had failed substantially and only a few recordings were made.  So the narrator instead provides us with her thoughts about her life—focusing only on her childhood, the time during which the recordings were made, and after his death.

The narrator was the “love child” of a famous Swedish filmmaker and a Norwegian actress. She never names them, which suited this reader, and refers to them by “the father” or “papa” etc.  She was the youngest of his nine children born of 5 mothers.  The filmmaker was married to four of these women but he and her mother never married.  So there was never “the three of them” that she remembered but rather only she and her mother and she and her father. 

She tells of the summers spent with her father and his last wife on his property on an island off the coast of Sweden.  The property had a number of buildings including the narrow house he progressively expanded over the years and a barn that was converted to a movie theater.  She tells of times with her mother including when they were in the United States in a rented yellow house outside of New York City chosen because it had trees and children should be raised with trees.

She tells of the sessions she records on a small recorder but never listened to until after her father’s death so she didn’t realize how poor the sound quality was  despite being told this was the best device for the job.  The dialog between father and daughter is quite sad as it shows the rapid decline of his mental and physical capabilities which contrasts with his robustness when she was a child. 

Absent the knowledge of the true identity of the characters of the book, this book told a story of a girl born of a father 48 years her senior and a younger (by 20 years) mother.  This reader developed a sense that the narrator generally felt distant from both of her parents.  She desperately wanted more connection with her father, a desire that lasted throughout her life.  It seems she had more connection with her father than any of his other children but this connection was still very much on his terms and didn’t seem to take into consideration any needs of hers, perhaps due to expectations of fathers in the timeframe of the story (1960’s), his age, and his focus on his own interests and career .  The mother/daughter relationship seems somewhat universal in many ways:  daughter is annoyed by mother; mother has distinct ideas about what children need  (in this case trees and milk); mother is inconsistent in dealing with her daughter; and likely neither ever understands nor connects fully with the other.  The author moves seemingly randomly through time with her various memories which suited this reader well.  It felt like our own memories which pick varying times when we choose to start remembering. 

The writing was quite engaging.  Descriptions of the wind-swept island, her father driving his jeep fast to make the ferry to buy his papers on the mainland, the drying house where she hid when a young girl—all are quite vivid. 

Forget that the characters are real people and enjoy the beauty of the writing, the way the author reels out memories of a childhood, and the approach she takes to show the realities adult children face when parents’ lives are coming to a close. 

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi

Published 2016

Read Oct 2020

This book was published posthumously after the author succumbed to cancer a mere twenty-two months after diagnosis with Stage IV Lung Cancer.  It has received several awards and spent over a year on the best seller lists.  The author had been struck down quickly and completely just as he was finishing his neurosurgery residency and just before he had originally hoped to launch a scientist/surgeon career and have a “normal” life with his wife, also a medical doctor.  The author wrote this book during the time between diagnosis and death.

These aspects this reader knew when she started reading the book. 

This reader posed some questions:   Was the hype surrounding this book associated mainly with the tragedy of the loss of a young medical superstar long before his time? Did the book itself have elements that could drive it to endure as a book of great substance after the early hype had faded? 

In Part 1:  In Perfect Health, the author gives us a sense of his journey leading to becoming a neurosurgery resident.   His father and uncles are doctors and he knew before graduating from high school that he didn’t want to become a doctor, especially as he saw little of his father while growing up He had decided “if that [little time with family] was the price of medicine, it was simply too high”.  He takes a BS in English and Biology at Stanford and then continues at Stanford for a MA in English.  After spending so much time with literature and words and his continuing interest in the biological aspect of identity, he decides to go to medical school.  He spends a year taking all the classes needed as prerequisites and during the year that his medical school applications are being considered, he completes a yearlong program at Cambridge in the History and Philosophy of Science.  That program confirms to him that words aren’t enough.  “I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life and death questions was essential [to him] to generalizing substantial moral opinions about them.”  “Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.”

 So the author is off to Yale Medical School where he soon meets Lucy who will eventually become his wife (whom he discusses very little in the book).   When it is time to choose a path for residency, he chooses away from “lifestyle” specialties—those with more humane hours, higher salaries, and lower pressures.  So after choosing away from medicine before he entered college, he chooses neurosurgery because it “works in the crucible of identity” and it was the most demanding path.  Could he become a member of the ranks of the “polymaths”.  He now sought a career path that would be all consuming. 

While in his sixth year of residency, after he became chief resident, he begins experiencing a lot of pain in his back.  About six months later he finally submits to appropriate tests and scans and his feared diagnosis of lung cancer is made.

In Part II:  Cease Not Until Death, the author charts his progression through various treatments and through his evolution of the patient-doctor relationship.  Initially he is a clear partner with his oncologist in choosing his treatment course.   Although Paul initially doesn’t see the possibility of returning to surgery, his oncologist picks a treatment course that will be least damaging to his hands.  He does eventually return to residency, initially focused only on the surgery piece and later on the whole experiences of patient care as well after he learns his program may not find him worthy of graduation from residency if he doesn’t.    If ever there was a person motivated to be the best, Paul was certainly one, although he never actually says this.  He loses out on a Stanford surgeon/scientist position for which he was contending prior to his diagnosis but is later offered a similar position in Wisconsin which he decides he cannot accept.  His runway is no longer twenty years and the position required that in his view.  Through this period he understands that his oncologist has provided him the space to determine what’s most important to him so that the treatment course can be directed to support that. 

The patient-doctor relationship takes another turn just as he is about to graduate from residency abd just weeks before Lucy’s due date.  His disease begins to overpower him, preventing him from attending the graduation ceremony and shortly thereafter he releases himself from needing to be a doctor on his case.  He then fully devotes himself to writing this book. 

By considering the topics he spends significant time discussing, it’s possible to follow the author’s evolution on several paths:  what questions are important to him; what path should be pursued to answer those questions; what career path in medicine should be followed to allow driving as close to the asymptote of excellence he expects from himself.  A fundamental question he pursues throughout his life is what enables the essence of the identity?  Words can describe identity.  Biology must somehow define identity.  Neurosurgery can enable reclaiming the identity when the body is diseased.   But science is imperfect in answering some of these fundamental questions.   He comes to a wonderful conclusion:  Human knowledge is never contained in one person.  It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and it is never complete.  And Truth comes somewhere above all of them…”

Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s wife, provides a thirty page Epilogue that gives pictures from the last eight months of his Paul’s life:  his determination to write this book despite increasing pain including his fingers; the warm times they spend together with family and friends; the final days and hours of his life; the memorial service.  She attests she was a witness to his ability to face death with integrity. 

While the initial hype about this book was likely in part due to the tragedy of such a promising doctor being struck down at an early age, the book should remain recognized as a book of substance.  The author notes that dying of this type of cancer at such an early age is unlikely but dying at some point isn’t.  We all have to face death at some point.  His chosen vocation was to not only technically help his patients but also guide them in deciding paths of treatment—which might include no treatment.  He lived this situation from both sides of the patient/doctor relationship and it made him a stronger doctor.  In sharing his story the author the reader might choose to consider asking themselves a question he poised for himself—what gives a life meaning—which he learns is different than what gives a life purpose. 

The Thing Around Your Neck: Exquisite Short Stories

The Thing Around your Neck

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published 2009

Read Oct 2020

This reader continues to find this author quite remarkable.  In Half of a Yellow Sun, she enabled this reader to better understand the challenges faced by the Nigerian peoples following being “made” into a country by lines drawn by Europeans for their convenience and the Biafran war.  In Americanah she explored the challenges of encountering what it means to be “black” in the US and the issues associated with trying to return to your native country’s culture after spending years studying abroad.  In both cases the characters engaged the reader deeply.

This reader describes this collection of twelve short stories as exquisite.  In each case the story is a human one with universal themes, but the intersection of cultures, usually Nigerian and American, provides a unique perspective to each. 

The End of the Affair–Greene Classic

The End of the Affair

By Graham Greene

Published 1951

Read Oct 2020

Many of Greene’s works have been adapted for film and this book is no exception. This story, set in London during and after WWI, was adapted as a movie twice:  one film was released  in 1955 and one in 1999.  An opera based on the book premiered in 2004. 

We meet our protagonist and narrator, Maurice Bendix, about two years after the end of his affair with Sarah, the wife of a civil servant.   He recounts the story:   Maurice had been interested in writing a story about an administrator in the government so met Sarah and her husband, Henry.  Maurice and Sarah carried on a passionate affair that lasts about two years.  Bendix tells us he knew the affair was coming to an end, driven in part by his jealousy, but he did not expect the abruptness of the ending which occurred after his house was damaged by a bomb in 1944 and he was nearly killed. 

The story now moves forward:  Maurice remains angry with the ending of the affair.   He encounters Sarah’s husband, Henry, on the square on which both of their residences lie.  Over drinks, Henry takes Maurice into his confidence that he thinks Sarah may be having an affair.  Maurice privately hires a detective without Henry’s knowledge to determine the identity of this new lover to appease his own jealousy.

The detective obtains Sarah’s diary which explains the end of the affair and her new love interest. The second half of the book relates Maurice’s handling of this information and the events that follow.

Greene converted to Cat holism at age 24 and several of his books have strong Catholic themes.  This is the fourth of those novels.  In this one, the characters struggle with the question of believing in God, a struggle Greene also shared prior to his conversion and again later in life.

Greene was both a “popular” and “literary” author.  Greene’s literary talents are well displayed in this book.  Making the main character and narrator a writer is especially interesting as he relates Maurice’s approach to his work and the challenges he faces in his writing while being in mourning for the affair and while he struggles with questions of faith.  This novel demonstrates Greene’s ability to weave a classically interesting tale of an affair with philosophical questions that remain impossible to completely answer and to keep both topics fresh despite the passing of nearly seventy years since the book’s original publication. 

Clock Dance: A Family Story

Clock Dance

By Anne Tyler

Published 2018

Read Oct 2020

This reader found this book in one of several Little Free Libraries this author frequents and to which this book will return for a new reader.  You can find a Little Free Library near you here

This reader has enjoyed each of the Anne Tyler novels that she has read.  They deliver stories of believable and (not overly) flawed people doing regular life things in an imperfect world.  Tyler welcomes the reader into the world of her characters and provides them a taste of the imperfect and real lives they lead.  Problems usually remain unresolved although the characters are not untouched.

In Clock Dance, the reader spends some time with central character Willa in 1967, when she is in fifth grade and her mother has left the family again for some unknown period of time; in 1977 when she is a junior in college and her boyfriend  Derek is about to graduate and wants her to quit school and marry him and move to California;  in 1997 when her husband Derek makes an aggressive move in traffic to soothe his road rage and manages to die in the accident that results; and finally in 2017 when she gets a call from Baltimore asking her to come to take care of a girl the caller thinks is Willa’s granddaughter while the girl’s mother is in the hospital.

We spend most of our time with Willa in 2017 as she and current husband Peter answer the request to come to care for Cheryl, the daughter of Denise, Willa’s son’s ex-girlfriend.  Cheryl isn’t her granddaughter but the caller didn’t know that and Willa responds anyway.  The readers are treated to living with Willa and Peter and Cheryl and her dog, Airplane, during the summer that Denise is recovering from a broken leg due to a stray bullet from an unknown gun.    We meet characters in Denise and Cheryl’s neighborhood and we learn about Cheryl’s approach to living with a single mother.   We learn about Willa and Peter’s marriage in 2017 although we don’t know when they married or anything about their life together prior to the here and now of this story.

This reader appreciates Tyler’s choices regarding what to tell us, what to show us, and what to leave unrevealed.  Her endings are never abrupt nor do they tie the ends together—what happens next for the charactersis appropriately unclear.  This reader looks forward to finding more Anne Tyler books in Little Free Libraries and in public libraries and to savoring more of Tyler’s stories of people and the families and friends who share their lives. 

Bruno: Chief of Police–Crime, Culture, and Food

Bruno:  Chief of Police

By Martin Walker

Published 2008

Read Sept 2020

Martin Walker is quite an interesting fellow.  He’s currently Senior Director of the Global Business Policy, a private think-tank for CEO’s of major companies, and Editor Emeritus of the United Press International, and Senior Scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars…. among other things.  He’s been a journalist, a broadcaster, and historical scholar and he has written widely in various formats.  

 Fortunately for this reader and fellow Bruno, Chief of Police  fans, he finds time to write about Bruno, a policeman who lives in a small village in South France.  Bruno, a former solider, has found his piece of heaven in St Denis.  He’s built his own house out of an abandoned shepherd’s cottage, he hunts, he  owns a dog, he organizes parades and firework displays for the village, he gardens, and  he cooks beautiful and simple meals. 

He also solves crimes.   Martin Walker has given us a series of Bruno books in which the policeman deals with a major crime while tending to the needs of the village and cooking wonderful meals. This NY Times article about Walker will likely engage your interest in Martin Walker and his Bruno series: 

In this first installment, Bruno must deal with the murder of a local elderly North African man who had served in the French army during WWII.  There is a swastika carved into his chest.  He’s paired up with a young policewoman from Paris to delicately investigate this politically charged situation.   Walker confronts the reader with some messy details of French history during WWII providing the reader with both some French history, an interesting mystery, and some French culture of the region.

This reader stumbled on this series in a Little Free Library and reported on The Devil’s Cave which is the sixth novel in the series that currently contains sixteen entries.  This reader did not find it important to read the two books “out of order” although it might be nice to progress through them in the order written.   This reader looks forward to more adventures with Bruno cooking, engaging with the residents of St Denis, and solving crimes. 

South Pacific: It’s About the Waiting

Tales of the South Pacific

By James A. Michener

Published 1947

Read Oct 2020

Although this reader had never actually seen a stage or film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, three songs jumped into her brain immediately when this book was selected as a book for this reader’s book discussion group:  “Some Enchanted Evening”, “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, and “Bali-ha”.  This reader is happy to report this book is quite engaging and serious and not at all what this reader was expecting from the familiar songs—a light romantic comedy. 

When first released (the book in 1947 and musical in 1950), memories of World War II remained fresh in readers and viewers minds.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.   The musical was adapted for the screen twice:  for the big screen in 1958 (the film was a blockbuster) and for TV in 2001.   What accounts for this appeal in the late 40’s and 50’s and what accounts for the familiarity for even this generation?

James Michener was 40 when he enlisted in the US Navy.  He was sent to the South Pacific. He earned the rank of lieutenant commander and had various assignments.  He began compiling his observations about his experiences during that time.  Michener begins his book “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific.  The way it actually was.  The endless ocean.  The infinite specks of coral we called islands.  …. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting.  The waiting.  The timeless, repetitive waiting. But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene.” 

 Michener’s book (his first of over 40) is a collection of related short stories told, after the introductory piece, in approximate chronological order.  Each chapter is a complete story in itself and characters from one story carry into other stories.  While the stories can be read individually, knowledge of previous stories provides more depth of understanding of aspects of the story at hand.   The author makes clear who is narrating in each story.  Most of the stories are narrated by an officer who completes a range of assignments supporting various commanding officers.   In each case, the reader feels as though the narrator is speaking directly to him/her.

The stories are about the people who serve on the islands on which equipment and supplies were landed to support various campaigns and where airplanes and PT boats landed and were repaired.  They are about the US Seabees who build the beaches on which the Marines and Sailors land to take control of the island and the airstrips that are used by US Navy airplanes of all sizes that fulfill various purposes:  bombers, dogfighters, scouting, etc. They are about the officers who have a variety of roles including supply officers, doctors, nurses pilots, communications officers, and recreation officers (this one focused on enabling “the waiting” to be bearable).  They are about the men who sweat in the hot humid climate and try to stay sane while waiting for the call to action.  They are about the coast watchers who provide the Navy vital information regarding the movement of their Japanese enemies.  They are about the nurses who are officers but who generally have backgrounds more like the enlisted men, with whom they are forbidden to socialize, than with the male officers.  They are about the officers that engage their men to build an airstrip in the middle of a jungle in 15 days and they are about the officers that disengage their men through arbitrariness and disinterest in their needs.  They are about the French plantation owners and their native and Tonkinese (North Vietnamese) workers that live on the islands.  They are about the entrepreneurial Tonkinese who gladly sell the sailors and marines what they need across a wide range of goods and services.  There several love stories, two which are a large focus of the musical. (The three unforgettable songs that are in this reader’s brain are related to these love stories.) The stories confront prejudices borne by the Americans regarding the various people living on the islands.   (The musical confronted this issue directly as well.)  The stories are stitched together by the recurring characters and how their experiences impact them.  The stories lead from the pronouncement of a group of admirals to take a particular island through the development of Plan Alligator to the strike on the targeted island and the aftermath of that battle.

Although not written as historical fiction, it serves as such to those reading it in 2020.  An indicator of good historical fiction, according to this reader, is that the reader is motivated to learn more about the subject.  Michener’s book had that effect on this reader.  Michener’s book provides the human face to that part of the war and gives it life that “regular” history books and TV programs using film from the time don’t provide.  This reader has a new appreciation both for the magnitude of the undertaking of the war in the South Pacific and the lives of the peoples involved.  And those songs will remain firmly embedded in her brain.

Go Went Gone: How Do We Deal with Other

Go Went Gone

By Jenny Erpenbech

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

Published 2015

Read Sept 2020

The protagonist, Richard, is a recently retired classics professor.  He is somewhat disoriented in these early days of retirement when the highlights of his day may include a trip to the urologist.  On a walk in a nearby square he sees a “tent city” occupied by what he discerns to be African refugees.  He becomes interested in how his German government is dealing with them and he decides to do a “study”.  By the time he has formulated a long list of questions for the refugees he hopes to interview, the refugees have been placed in several living situations including a wing of a nearby nursing home.  He visits there and begins a relationship with several of the refugees.  Their names are complicated for him so he identifies them (only to himself) with names suggested by his classics background—Apollo, Tristan, Olympian, Thunderbolt-hurler.  Over the course of the story he learns about German law regarding refugees, including the agreement with the European Union countries that only the country of original entry into the EU can grant asylum. Most of these refugees from various African countries entered after their (usually overloaded) boat landed in Italy.  Italy has no work for them so they have come to Germany in search of work.  Since they have no official status in Germany, they aren’t allowed to work.  As these refugees are black, they encounter racial prejudice as well as the barriers of their refugee status.

The title Go Went Gone is an interesting one as it applies to several aspects:  Richard’s academic career is gone (he is retired);  his wife is gone (he is now a widower); his lover is gone (she’s left him), the country where he was born and raised (East Germany) is gone (being now part of unified Germany); the refugees’ ability to work for a living is gone (no legal status = no right to work); the refugees’ ability to stay in Germany is going (once their cases are heard they will be deported to Italy); the refugees are endeavoring to learn German and are learning how to conjugate verbs in this new language (although most speak several other languages). 

The author’s depiction of Richard’s disorientation as a new retiree is very realistic based on this reader’s own experience—feeling a loss of identity and associated worth, feeling of isolation from former colleagues, feeling that days are endless in the absence of work. The disorientation is amplified by the loss of his wife and his lover.   A positive aspect of retirement is noted—absent external expectations from the department, university, or other career responsibilities, reading and writing can feel freer and new veins of thinking are available even in texts previously well explored.    Similarly his consideration of the impact of the reunification on the geography and societal aspects of his neighborhood and life as a result of Germany’s reunification are considered more closely now. 

The story provides the reader much opportunity to consider regarding refugees and immigration—who should be allowed to work/what barriers are appropriate for non-citizens to their ability to make a living/contribute to society;  what is the appropriate definition of “citizen” and who has the right to make that definition; are immigration laws truly seeking to protect job access for citizens or are they seeking to prevent “others” from crossing borders; how did political borders get drawn—why and by whom; who has the right to define “other”. 

There are no simple answers and the author doesn’t suggest there are.   The book’s ending is appropriately not the ending of the story for Richard or the refugees he’s met.  The courses of all their lives remain uncertain– as is the actual case for all of us.  What is clear is that the flow of refugees/immigrants has always existed and will continue to exist as people flee war/political issues and/or seek a better life than they have where they are.   Borders are man-made.  Arguments over borders are man-made.  The constant flow of people away from strife will continue to challenge people to decide how they will accept “others” into “their” space.