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I first heard about the graphic memoir The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui from reading Bill Gates‘ list of the best books he read last year, and I also heard about it from one of my favorite readers at my last library. Now my book club picked it and I finally got it off my “to be read” list! This was the first book I’ve read using Hoopla. It wasn’t a bad read that way — I downloaded it to my iPad. It beat either paying for it (although I might want to own it someday) or waiting for an ILL.

I loved this book, even though it was a tough subject. The art is wonderful — beautiful, expressive, and somehow both detailed and subtle. It’s a story that lends itself to the genre perfectly. How many times have you read a memoir and found yourself picturing various scenes? With a graphic memoir, the pictures take you into the story.

And this story is both particular and universal. Thi Bui writes about her parents, who are each shaped by the events of mid-20th century Vietnamese history, which they lived through. As a young adult, as she tried to understand her family’s history, Bui discovered the country’s as well, and I have to say, I had only the barest of understandings, so that was interesting to learn. The experiences of her parents and the particulars of their lives are specific to their stories. The universal human experiences, of loss, generational misunderstandings, changing roles and cultural shifts, fears about parenting, about raising a family well, growing up, functioning as both an adult and your parents’ child, understanding parents as people and not just parents, these themes are not only important to Thi Bui’s life and family, but to readers’ own lives and families. As Mohsin Hamid said when I hear him speak recently in Manchester about Exit West, “We all lose everything, eventually.”

He was talking about why authors write about things like the refugee crisis (the subject of Exit West). He also said, and Thi Bui says this in her introduction, that writers often write to answer for themselves some fundamental questions about life and the world. The Best We Could Do describes how we all come to realize as adults that is all anyone can do — our best. And it won’t always work out well, it won’t always solve every problem, we might face challenges and setbacks, but in the end, we love each other as best we can, and go on.

The book ends with Thi Bui reflecting on her relationship with her son. She remarks, “I see a life bound with mine quite by coincidence.” When you think about it, that’s what families are, and this beautiful book is a reflection on family and how we grow to understand those whose lives are bound to ours.

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Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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