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The House of Widows: An Oral History Paperback – March 4, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Melnyczuk's ambitious third novel is a soulful noir about the damaging effects of history on one man's psyche. Cynical historian James Pak lives in Vienna and is still deeply affected by his father Andrew's suicide 16 years ago, and his confessional narrative, told mostly in flashbacks, fills the reader in on why he's still reeling. Just after Andrew's death, James takes possession of three of his dead father's belongings (a letter written in an unfamiliar language, a glass jar and military identification papers) and sets out to exhume his father's past. His pilgrimage leads him from Boston to England, Austria and Ukraine, and entangles him with Andrew's childhood friend, Marian, and her charge, Selena, a Palestinian woman with a twisted backstory. James encounters a branch of his father's family he never knew existed, and as he discovers the significance of the jar and military papers and the contents of the letter, his family's hidden past comes into sharp focus. James is a strikingly observant and literate guide to a world full of unsavory characters and nearly devoid of joy. Melnyczuk (What Is Told; Ambassador of the Dead) doesn't let anyone—especially the reader—off easy. (Mar.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* A young American, James Pak, wins a fellowship to Oxford to study history. He also plans to learn why his Ukrainian-born father committed suicide before James’ eyes. James is full of historical knowledge and theories, but he soon learns that he and his theories are impossibly naive and callow in the face of the terror, horror, and decadence of World War II and the postwar period—and the atrocities that are still being played out across Europe and the Middle East. Among other things, he learns that his grandmother and his father’s brothers are involved in human trafficking and that his father blamed himself for not saving his brother from the Gulag. Despite its modest page count, this is a big novel. It’s about identity—personal, political, and tribal. It’s about fathers and sons and mothers and sons. It’s about love, war, duty, honor, betrayal, history, and politics—and the perils of each. Melnyczuk is a writer of great power, lyricism, and assurance, and he has created a large cast of compellingly complex characters, as well as vivid portraits of London, Vienna, and Ukraine. Hard to put down and harder to forget. --Thomas Gaughan

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; 1st edition (March 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555974910
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555974916
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,589,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Askold Melnyczuk has published three novels: The House of Widows, an Editor's Choice selection of the American Library Association's Booklist, Ambassador of the Dead, a Los Angeles Times Best Book for 2002 and What is Told, a New York Times Notable Book.

He has also published a novella about Rimbaud titled Blind Angel.

Melnyczuk's essay on visiting Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria was selected as a "Notable Essay" for 2008's Best American Essays and excerpts from his memoir-in-progress, Turbulence, Love were selected as "Notable Essays" in the 2010 edition of Best American Essays. He received a three-year fellowship in fiction from the Lila Wallace Foundation, as well as numerous grants from the NEA for his work as editor of AGNI magazine, which he founded in 1972. In 2001, Melnyczuk received the Magid Award from PEN which described AGNI as "one of America's, and the world's, most significant literary journals."

Melnyczuk, founder of Arrowsmith Press, has edited six books, including three volumes in Graywolf's Take Three Poetry Series, an anthology of writing from Ukraine, From Three Worlds, a volume on the painter Gerry Bergstein, and a book of essays about Father Daniel Berrigan.

He translated Girls, a novella by Oksana Zabuzhko, Ukraine's leading novelist and poet, as well as a selection of poems, Eight Notes from a Blue Angel, by Marjana Savka.

Other Melnyczuk work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Boston Globe, Ploughshares, Grand Street, and Poetry. He has taught at Harvard University and currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In 2011 he received the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Associated Writing Programs. Excerpts from Smedly, a novel in progress, may be heard on The Drum Literary Magazine website.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Christine Paclawskyj on June 14, 2008
Format: Paperback
This beautifully written family saga holds ones attention from the first to the last pages. As an only son, James Pak, an American, is shocked by his father's suicide just as James is about to leave for Oxford for further studies in history. Feeling that his own prodding the elder Pak about the family in Europe might have contributed, James makes it his mission to learn about them and himself as well. As the story unfolds the after-effects of WWII and the havoc it played among those caught in it, shed light on the elder Pak's life story and his personal demons. Weaving this suspenseful story from Boston through several European capitals, Melnyczuk, a masterful storyteller, fills it with memorable characters interpreted with sensitivity and psychological insight. One ends the book with the conviction that wars and upheavals do cast dark shadows over future generations; perhaps a word to the wise in today's world of conflict and impantience. Definitely a must read book!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Bohdan Vitvitsky on May 26, 2008
Format: Paperback
It begins with flirtation, then it altogether seduces you, finally grabing you and then ricocheting around in your mind like a pin ball in a machine.
It's a 360% narrative exploration of historical happenstance, honor/dishonor, existential choices, responsibility and love.
It's an extraordinary novel, extraordinary because in a multitude of passages, it attains near perfect compositional pitch ("soft, touch me sweaters"; "They seemed to have grown past sex. Maybe it had been civilized out of them, turned into culture or dogma or doubt"; or "It's impossible to say anything fresh about a kiss. Paint me the taste of oysters swallowed by moonlight; teach Homer to pigeons; build Paris with a spoon. If you're lucky in love, the kisses you've won blur like a view of the infinite, fading tiers of Himalayas. Yet, once, maybe twice, in a lifetime a kiss comes along that changes everything, and the clock of one's life is reset"); because it illuminates the relationships among the past, present and the future from cross-cultural perspectives infrequently enountered by the English-speaking reader; and also because it explores in a calm, humane but unflinching manner the always strange and often strained relationships between the powerful and the comparatively powerless in wars, politics and love.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Meg Sumner TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 20, 2010
Format: Paperback
James Pak is a smart guy-he's heading to Oxford and his qualifications are impeccable. He knows the facts of history, is well-educated in most fields, has a gentlemanly manner, is apparently good looking, and cash doesn't seem to be an issue. He seems to have it all together, except for the haunting questions about his father's suicide that nag at him in inopportune moments. His main problem seems to be that while he studies the facts of history, he doesn't understand the emotions that are interlinked with it. Unless one can ascertain both, they aren't prepared to deal with some of the ugly truths that surround them.

In this novel, The House of Widows, we see James try to make sense of it all. He travels to one of his father's oldest friends, looking for answers. Much about her is veiled in mystery, and her strange brother and her adopted Palestinian daughter complicate James' understanding as well. He discovers that what he thought about his father was so wrong that it has to change how he thinks about himself. In fact, James plays the unreliable narrator to perfection.

The novel travels throughout the world, with James on a quest for answers, yet ignorant to some of the solutions he carries with him. War is a repeating motif that underlines the emotional ties to history. They can't be separated and defined on a page. And the trouble that comes with searching for answers is realizing that the answers may be worse than your imagination. On top of that is the knowledge that in many cases, such as the Middle East (where portions of this book take place), there are no easy answers that are palatable to all.

A few times my jaw dropped in shock at some of the revelations, and at other times I was a bit overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all.
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