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The Force of Things

A Marriage in War and Peace

Alexander Stille

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A masterpiece of literary memory—a powerful exploration of the intersections of family, history, and memory

“One evening in May 1948, my mother went to a party in New York with her first husband and left it with her second, my father.” So begins the passionate and stormy union of Mikhail Kamenetzki, aka Ugo Stille, one of Italy’s most celebrated journalists, and Elizabeth Bogert, a beautiful and charming young woman from the Midwest.
     The Force of Things follows two families across the twentieth century—one starting in czarist Russia, the other starting in the American Midwest—and takes them across revolution, war, fascism, and racial persecution, until they collide at mid-century. Their immediate attraction and tumultuous marriage is part of a much larger story: the mass migration of Jews from fascist-dominated Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It is a micro-story of that moment of cross-pollination that reshaped much of American culture and society. Theirs was an uneasy marriage between Europe and America, between Jew and WASP; their differences were a key to their bond yet a source of constant strife.
     Alexander Stille’s The Force of Things is a powerful, beautifully written work with the intimacy of a memoir, the pace and readability of a novel, and the historical sweep and documentary precision of nonfiction writing at its best. It is a portrait of people who are buffeted about by large historical events, who try to escape their origins but find themselves in the grip of the force of things.

BOOK EXCERPTS

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The Father and Mother of Lists
 

1. THE FATHER OF LISTS
On an October evening in 1911 in a rooming house in Ithaca, New York, a young man of twenty-seven set about writing carefully in a lined notebook with a black ink pen. He was at a crucial turning point—beginning his first semester of teaching at Cornell Law School—and starting a journal marked the start of his new life.
Oct. 10. Worked at office 8:30 to 11: class in property 11–12; loafing, walking about and at room and at lunch 12–1:45. at work at office 1:45–5: getting stamps, postcards,
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REVIEWS

Praise for The Force of Things

“Why should readers care about a pair of strangers’ bad marriage? . . . The thing is, in The Force of Things: A Marriage In War and Peace, their son brings to their story not only a sense of filial puzzlement and emotion, but also the narrative verve of a novelist combined with the unflinching eye of a seasoned journalist. In [Stille’s] capable hands, their distressing tale of marital woe becomes a fascinating psychological study of two people with complicated family pasts, trying to forge identities of their own—two people with utterly different views and experiences of history . . . It is Mr. Stille’s determination to use his skills as a reporter to flesh out his family’s history that lends this book its depth of field and emotional ballast . . . He leaves us not just with extraordinarily powerful portraits of these terribly mismatched individuals, but also with a deeply felt understanding of how they were shaped.”

—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“[The Force of Things is an] artful and formidably researched reconstruction of the two worlds that had produced [Stille’s] parents and their angry, improbably enduring marriage . . . Alexander Stille has a particularly adroit eye for the conflicting images of their lives together . . . The family he actually observed is brilliantly, if often brutally, described.” —Jane Kramer, The New York Review of Books

“In The Force of Things, his richly detailed narrative of his parents’ long, troubled union, Alexander Stille sifts through voluminous interviews and archives to conjure a couple—and a world—in the throes of change . . . The Force of Things maps a complex family tree, tracing a lavish cultural history through each branch and twig . . . The prose here is diamond-cut, evoking the glitter of a turbulent century—a son’s homage to the triumphs and disappointments of two flawed, memorable people.” —Hamilton Cain, O: The Oprah magazine

“Wonderful . . . Stille has the confidence to write about his parents as flawed human beings, with a minimum of blame or recrimination. He also has the historical imagination to evoke their very different backgrounds with equal vividness . . . As The Force of Things shows, the best memoirs transcend solipsism to become genuine histories of unknown lives.”

—Adam Kirsch, Tablet

“Stille paints a portrait that is as expansive as it is attentive to detail. It has been said the personal is the political, and both are fully represented here, from the rise of ethos dictating the fate of nations to the every-day neuroses, like the hoarding of old newspapers, that strain a family to the breaking point . . . The book feels much like a nonfiction version of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex—it serves as a reminder of how incredibly vast and varied are the influences of those who stand on American soil today, and it attempts to look back at how they got here.” —Nicholas Mancusi, The Daily Beast

“An engrossing, surprising look at conjugal life across four decades, with many fascinating angles.” —Good Housekeeping, Books We Love (on Pinterest)

“Award-winning author Stille presents more than the portrait of a tempestuous marriage. His father was a celebrated journalist whose family had immigrated to Italy from revolutionary Russia, his mother was a charming Midwestern WASP, and their life story captures the sweep of the twentieth century, the crossing of cultures, and a world in upheaval.” —Library Journal

 

“[Stille] depicts the histrionic partners in a truly mixed marriage with sharp insight and affection. A memorable study in contrasts, recounted with understanding and verve.” —Kirkus Reviews

 

“Chances are, everyone’s family history is fascinating—chock-full of tragedy, romance, and astonishing secrets of every variety. All it really takes is a keen observer of human behavior, an avid researcher, and a memoirist of considerable talent like nonfiction author (Excellent Cadavers and The Future of the Past) and New Yorker contributor Stille to forcefully communicate the unique trajectory of an individual clan. Stille reaches back into his family’s past in order to tell the story of his parents and of his own literary and cultural heritage. When his mother, a married Midwestern WASP, met his father, a Russian-born, Italian-bred Jewish journalist, at a New York cocktail party in 1948, sparks flew and another incredible family journey, mired in the past but pointing toward the future, began. Stille places his parents’ often tumultuous relationship into multiple contexts, examining it intimately from personal, historical, and cultural perspectives.” —Booklist

“In this compulsively readable book, Alexander Stille looks at his parents strange marriage with the doggedness of a great reporter and the eye of a poet. Theirs is a deeply American story, and as the history of these two fascinating people unfolds it encompasses the assimilation of three generations of immigrants from widely different backgrounds. In the end, this history of a particular marriage has become something larger, offering each of us something to identify with.” —Ruth Reichl, author of Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table

“I have never before read a book quite like Alexander Stille’s The Force of Things. I felt as if I was intruding on his and his parents’ privacy, as he vividly captures and conveys the stormy yet magnetic relationship between two difficult and complicated people, his Jewish father, the world-class Italian journalist Ugo Stille (only one of his various names), and his beautiful WASP, mid-western American mother. With taste, insight and sensitivity. the author lays bare an extraordinary family’s most intimate moments, as he introduces us to the various worlds they simultaneously inhabit and create.” —Victor S. Navasky, author of Naming Names

“Alexander Stille’s The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, is both an important contribution to the intellectual history of the twentieth century and an enthralling, wonderfully intelligent, and tender memoir of his extraordinary family. It brings tears to your eyes even as it makes you smile. Altogether a brilliant and virtuous achievement.”  —Louis Begley, author of Schmidt Steps Back



Praise for The Future of the Past

“Illuminating and engrossing . . . A fresh, lively, and ultimately wrenching display of a world transforming itself irrevocably.” —The New York Observer 

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Alexander Stille

  • Alexander Stille is the author of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, Benevolence and Betrayal, and The Future of the Past. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times.

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Available Formats and Book Details

The Force of Things

A Marriage in War and Peace

Alexander Stille

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FROM THE PUBLISHER

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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