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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rambunctious and charming examination of the life of a farmer in postwar Poland, July 6, 2011
By 
G. Dawson (United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Stone Upon Stone (Paperback)
Stone Upon Stone is the first-person narration of the fictional life of Szymek Pietruszka, a Polish farmer living during and after World War II. At various points in Szymek's life, this proud bachelor worked as a barber, a fighter in the resistance against the German occupation of Poland, and a government administrator. With charming honesty and rambunctious humor, Szymek covers all the details of his life from the banal (the proper technique for mowing a field), to the lurid (his womanizing and knife-fighting) and the universal (his deep love of family and the land).

As Poland rushes towards modernization, Szymek attempts to establish a sense of purpose and stability in his life. In particular, he seeks permanence in the form of an elaborate family tomb, despite the fact that nobody else in his family seems interested in the project. The building of the tomb provides an overall framework for Szymek's story; it is the physical embodiment of his metaphysical struggles. Although Szymek's lengthy monologues are occasionally tedious, his (often unintentional) humor keeps the story lively and entertaining. Only Szymek, for example, could turn dangerous food shortages into something funny:

"No one bothered setting snares anymore, there was no point when they had rifles, handguns, automatic pistols. And how many hares could there be left after that long of a war? When you saw one hopping by somewhere it was like seeing a miracle. Look, a hare, a hare! And it didn't even look much like a hare, it'd have its ears shot away or a missing leg and it'd be peg-legging it along more like an old man than a hare."

Szymek's no-nonsense attitude often leads to distasteful actions (like the time he sold his dog to a dogcatcher to get money to go to a dance) but also provides a hopeful contrast to the often bleak postwar conditions:

"I was always more interested in living than in dying. Living and living, as long as I could, as much as I could. Even if there was no reason to. Though does it matter all that much whether there's a reason or no? Maybe it actually makes no difference, and we're just wasting our time worrying about it. ... People don't need to know everything. Horses don't know things and they go on living. And bees, for instance, if they knew it was humans they were collecting honey for, they wouldn't do it. How are people any better than horses or bees?"

This 500+ page novel will reward the patient reader with a remarkably detailed understanding of postwar life in rural Poland and, by extension, the human condition in general.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent addition to any literary fiction collection, February 15, 2011
This review is from: Stone Upon Stone (Paperback)
No man is the same person for their entire life. "Stone Upon Stone" is a translation, excellently done from the original Polish by Bill Johnston, of a post war tale. Wieslaw Mysliwski brings his character Szymek Pietruszka to life and tells his story of life and the changes he faces. Szymek, through his many careers and lives, tries to maintain his intelligence and wisdom through it all. "Stone Upon Stone" is a riveting and moving piece of international literature, an excellent addition to any literary fiction collection.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Winner of Best Translated Book Award for fiction 2012, May 4, 2012
This review is from: Stone Upon Stone (Paperback)
My review is below, but just have to rave that this title JUST won the Best Translated Book Award. A huge nod to this amazing book!

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"Words bring everything out onto the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away . . . Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words?"

Szymek Pietruszka talks endlessly, conducting an inner monologue that never takes a break. An all-around badass who is beloved by all, he's played many roles: resistance fighter, fireman, policeman, civil servant, and farmer, all while remaining an insatiable ladies man with a penchant for vodka, dancing, and fighting (usually in that order). He has stories to tell--some deadly serious and some not--but all told in a restrained voice that doesn't ask for pity.

As Stone Upon Stone begins, he's working on a tomb, obsessing about the details of construction but not explaining who it is for. The tomb and its obvious ties to earth and death form a theme that is lighter than one would imagine. As he studies the other memorials in the cemetery, he makes note of their flaws, as some are too showy, too cheap, or in once case, too tall:

When you stand underneath it it's like standing at a gallows, and you have to tip your head way back like you were looking at a hung man. What does it have to be so high for? You can't look at death high up like that for long. Your neck goes stiff. Looking up is something you can only do to check the weather . . . Death draws you downward. With your head craned up it's hard to cry even.

My'liwski writes in a style reminiscent of Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, wherein earth and family and history are intermingled; yet as a protagonist, Szymek is witty and naughty and far chattier than Hamsun's Isak. One scene shows Szymek as a policeman, searching the countryside after the war for contraband weapons:

"We've had enough gunfire to last us a lifetime . . . Our Lady up there in that picture, they can be our witness--we don't have any guns."

But you only needed to reach behind the Our Lady or the Lord Jesus and pull out a pistol. You'd look in the stove, and inside there'd be a rifle. Have them open the chest, and there under a pile of headscarves, rounds and grenades.

[. . .] Not many people got fined, because what were you going to fine them for. It was the war that brought folks all those guns, the war was the one that should have been punished."

As he relates the story, he tells what the guns (pulled from dead soldiers) end up doing in the villages, as from that point, it appears no dispute is too small not to be handled with gunfire. Szymek's wickedly wry, and the humor takes an edge off what is deeply painful. Similarly, he describes the pride of his hard-won officer's boots that the villagers admire. Yet without self-pity, he describes loaning those to his younger brother to wear to school, because his search among the dead bodies around the countryside failed to turn up another pair. He notes that no matter how isolated the corpse, the paths to it were wide from the human scavengers. Horrific, but told matter-of-fact.

Foreshadowing is never used; instead, a sort of reverse takes place. When he suffers a deeply personal loss, he looks backward, making a connection with his family's traditional sacrifice of bread to the land to ensure future crops. As a child, he mocked it, thinking that the bread should be eaten instead. Of course, he did sneak some of it to eat. Now, given his adult experience, that bread becomes all the more symbolic.

Aside from what he's thinking, he relays conversations from everyone from his father (who compulsively overreacts to everything) to the village's Sure Thing, a batty woman who undresses and seduces while complaining about inventory shortfalls (she's kind of adorable). One memorable conversation is with his hated childhood priest, one who named him in sermons "when he needed a bad example that wasn't from the Bible." Now nearing death, the priest wants to talk about forgiveness:

"Of course, it's said that whoever you absolve, their sins will be absolved, whoever you deny, they'll be denied. But can I really be certain who deserves forgiveness and who doesn't? What I'd most like to do is to absolve everyone, because I feel sorry for everyone. But do I have the right to use God's mercy as my own mercy, even when I feel great pity towards someone? Does God feel that pity? It's true his mercy is without limit. But I have no idea how what I'm allowed to do relates to that boundlessness?"

Without affectation, Mysliwski ties in the religious faith of the people, the irrationality of war, the endless needs of the land, and the stubborn, often foolish, nature of the villagers that keep charging ahead when the past might suggest they delay a bit. Many of the most important details are not laid out in a narrative form, but hinted at in a sidelong view, with some points being mentioned only in a passing conversation, leaving the reader to put together exactly what has happened with his parents and three brothers and their farm.

"They say that when a person's born, the earth is their cradle. And all death does is lay you back down in it. And it rocks you and rocks you till you're unborn, unconceived, once again".
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars " there was no way he spoke, but I will not interfere him because he spoke truer than it was", July 1, 2013
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Stone Upon Stone (Paperback)
I am a Pole,so I read the original version
(and excuse my English ))
You just need to read it, so that Your life has become fuller
It won't give You any simple answers,
but makes You see the world with it's beauty and "wyrozumienie"
(I'm trying to be carefull with words that can seem pompous
but this book feels me up with feelings of pain,love and beauty of the world,some peace
and acceptation of it,and myself
as the hero says says
" ..and there was no way he spoke, but I will not interfere him
because he spoke truer than it was"

he writes one book per 10 years.
just a few novels.But I read them over and over
open on any page

he understands me better than I do
tells the words which are inside me,just I can't find them
with no judgment,no cheap feelings,no teaching,no mercy
plane life,with a touch of loving forbearance
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing literary work, May 6, 2013
By 
Caroline Lim (Lexington, MA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Stone Upon Stone (Paperback)
Starting with the building of a family tomb, Szymeck Pietstruszka, a Polish farmer shares an unending stream of stories of his childhood, his family, his varied career as a barber, a soldier, a wedding official and being a farmer. That he loves life, tries to do the right thing most of the time, and has a healthy fear of God and is at times a smart ass, is clear, and one cannot but continue to cheer him on.

His reminisces of the dances he attends, the drunken fights, his lovers and only love and recuperation following his accident are both touching as they are at times humorous.

His is not the only story shared though. We are also treated to stories from his friends and neighbors, and through them all, a picture of a Polish post-war village is formed in rich detail.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A masterful epic about rustic life in 20th century Poland, February 14, 2013
This review is from: Stone Upon Stone (Paperback)
"Having a tomb built. It's easy enough to say. But if you've never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs. It's almost as much as a house. Though they say a tomb is a house as well, just for the next life. Whether it's for eternity or not, a person needs a corner to call their own."

Symek Pietruszka has returned to his home village in late 20th century Poland, after a two year hospital stay that has left him crippled but unbowed. He is in the twilight of his remarkable yet largely unfulfilled life, one spent working indifferently on his parents' farm and in different occupations; attending numerous village parties, where excessive drinking, carousing and fighting were essential to an entertaining evening; exchanging favors for mundane, loveless sex with any woman that he could; and gaining some degree of respect from his fellow villagers for his bravery as a soldier in the Polish Army at the start of World War II, and as an often wounded but never defeated freedom fighter during the German occupation, which earned him the nickname "Eagle". He has always lived in the moment, with little concern for his parents, his three brothers, and the villagers who criticize his irresponsible and wayward behaviors.

Upon his return, Symek finds that his parents' house and farm have been completely ransacked by his neighbors, and everything of any value has been taken, in the manner of a pack of hyenas that have completely feasted on a dead animal. He is devastated, yet he remains undeterred in his plan to build a lavish family tomb, one which will house his late parents, his brothers and their wives, and himself.

Symek engages in frequent flashbacks as he tells his story, and he describes his impoverished childhood in which bread was often a desired luxury, his relationship with his deeply religious but troubled parents, his fantastic experiences and numerous escapes, and his past friends and lovers. He also notes the changes that have taken place during his lifetime, and he bemoans the skilled craftsmanship and individualistic lifestyle that have been replaced by modern equipment and collectivism.

"Stone Upon Stone" is a sweeping and masterful epic of life in a poverty stricken Polish village during most of the 20th century, whose people struggle to survive and are filled with animosity toward their neighbors and families, yet persevere and occasionally thrive. The narration is simple and filled with rustic wisdom, in keeping with the book's rural setting, and it flows seamlessly, due in large part to the expert translation by Bill Johnston, who was rightfully recognized and rewarded for his effort.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very, VERY good book!, May 7, 2014
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This review is from: Stone Upon Stone (Paperback)
Look folks...I have little to offer in the way of qualifications for book review; I can tell you that I'am enjoying all 528 pages of this tomb. There are just some books that are written in a style that lends itself to conversation in a way that makes reading enjoyable...in other words its plain-spoken. Also, I have come to appreciate Mr. Bill Johnston who translated the book, and several other books, all with a great deal of success.

So, if you enjoy a tapestry of very well written stories, set in a period not that long ago, this is your book.
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Stone Upon Stone
Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Myśliwski (Paperback - January 18, 2011)
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