The World That We Knew: A Novel by Alice Hoffman

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She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden.

Said to be a book about good and evil, it encompasses all that humanity is. In a safe world where we don’t have to face choices between life and death, nor chose to side with those that evil has trained their eyes on it’s easy to imagine yourself as a hero. Reality is a multifaceted beast though, if we’ve learned nothing from history, good and evil can live inside all of us. Every choice is the difference between cowardice and bravery, but for a mother she wouldn’t blink at damning herself to save her child. There is a line in the novel that says “A wolf will seldom attack, Bobeshi always said, only when it is wounded or starving. Only when it must survive.”  People however, are different creatures entirely.

Berlin in 1941 Hanni Kahn, with the help of a rabbi’s daughter Ettie, will conjure a golem to protect her beloved daughter Lea. The golem will remain beside her, guide her in escaping the Nazis. Ava is brought into existence, meant to remain by Lea’s side with no thought of her own being, always to protect her as fiercely as her own mother would. The two leave for a convent in France, Lea will never see her mother again and the world that they knew will be forever changed. It is a tale of magical realism during a time when evil was spreading throughout the world.

The rabbi’s wife knows it is the men of the Jewish tradition who can give Hanni what she wants if it is even possible, it is not for the women to dabble in such things, for it takes educated scholars, women are only for bringing babies into the world. With the rabbi’s wife dismissing her, it is the rabbi’s progressive, intelligent daughter Etti who will help Hanni but for a trade, for she too has a plan of her own as desperate for escape as anyone. A plan that includes her sister, jewels and tickets on a train to Paris.

All Lea knows is this strong, tall woman named Ava is her cousin and will be her companion on her journey to safety. A cousin she has never heard of until today. She will no longer be Jewish, in order to survive she must become Lillie Perrin. She is to be the link in her family’s future generations, if there are to be any, she must survive. She must say goodbye, for if she lives on so too will her mother, and her mother before her. Setting her child free is sometimes the most terrible choice, the only choice, and the greatest gift of love any mother can give. But this ‘cousin’ behaves strangely, and has an odd encounter with Ettie and her sister Marta, who have also boarded the train. Surely something is afoot, Lea knows there is more to this ‘cousin’ Ava than her mother let on. How can Lea not resent Ava, whom she doesn’t even really know, when it is her mother and grandmother she longs to be with, not this strange ‘cousin’ who acts like a guard dog. Her heart is breaking inside, she never wanted to leave her mother behind, never! But her mother had to remain surrounded by all the demons and care for her invalid grandmother, Bobeshi as their world grows smaller and smaller. Lea will keep the memory close to her heart of their last dinner together, and the beautiful gift (given to Lea early by her mother Hanni) meant for her thirteenth birthday, a day that they will never share. Lea must promise to obey her mother, no matter how much her heart breaks at their final goodbye. Obeisance comes in the form of keeping close to Ava.

Something horrific happens on that train, that Lea and Ava witness. Ettie and Marta walk among demons themselves, and Ettie will swallow her sorrow on the run and become many things, to survive. Working her way through the countryside of France, forsaking her orthodox Jewish traditions, waiting to know her fate, whatever it may be, with unflinching bravery. She bides her time working where she can until the time comes to rise, to fight. She must be as strong as the golem she brought to life.

Lea and Ava seek sanctuary with André Lévi , a dangerous thing for the Lévi family to take  more strangers in with the Germans coming after Jews in the streets of Paris. What is there to do? They cannot turn away these distant cousins. Lea and their son Julien fall in love, much to the dismay of Julien’s mother and always under the watchful eye of Ava. With his elder brother Victor’s disappearance in the night, he is the only son left. Sadly, this is no longer a world made for young love and family loyalty is above all what sons and daughters must first cling to, Lea herself has to understand that. Lea and Ava must journey to the convent if they are to remain alive, there she gives offerings of bread and milk to a heron, comes to the heron with requests. The heron is a symbol of hope and messenger of love. Can her love for Julien survive in a world full of hate and violence?

In another village Marianne and her father have always done what is right and saved those in need of rescue. She comes in contact with an old friend whom she had lived with in a Paris house for five years, and he informs her that he has joined up with a group of Jewish resistors and has been living in the forest. Their story will burn again, now that they are together but the blows will still come. Evil will win, but so too will good, it is a never ending struggle on this scorched earth.

Magic can save some of us, but not without a price. For there is always a sacrifice. “You cannot hide who you are without doing great damage,” but there is no other choice than to bury oneself. By the end there will be so much lost, bones in a field, tests of faith, love lost and found and lost again, so many wounded souls in need of healing and new beginnings. Will a mother’s love and the creation of a golem lead to the survival of Lea and future generations? You must read to find out.

Alice Hoffman’s tales always have a mystical touch that so many fans love, and this is magical realism but without the usual lightness because it a story of such an ugly time in human history. It starts with the purest act of love, a mother wanting to save her beloved daughter. What love is greater? Tell me? Than a mother’s love for her child? There will be loss, evil actions and more hate than we can swallow, history is it’s own horror story. Destiny will have its way with every character here within, and not everyone will survive to the end but it’s their burning hearts, their fight that makes this a beautiful read.

Now we wait until Alice Hoffman’s next novel, with hearts full of hope after such an emotional read.

Publication Date: September 24, 2019

Simon & Schuster

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This Wicked Tongue: Stories by Elise Levine

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I’d walk a few steps and the haze would lift, as if I’d squeezed my last tears and could get on with things.

I had to settle myself in a quiet place, undisturbed to dig into these stories. The first tale in the collection Money’s Honey had me riveted because of the language, the emotional impact. “Fat girl, some call me. Hey there, fat slut. Like I’m there just to get a load of them.” In the span of a few pages, she will figure out just what she has to do, while going through the memory of who she has left behind, of the many hands that have touched her, can she abandon her wild ways and go home again, and maybe what she carries will make it all worthwhile? The stories are more about what is going on inside each character’s mind because the wicked internal language we have is what drives our own wicked worlds. Whether a narrator is ministering the dying as a divinity school candidate while failing to comfort the living or a cop searching for their unhappy wife in a cave, as his claustrophobia increases, suffocating as much as marriage the writing pulls us in. Are we okay? We’re not okay.

In The Association we’re inside young Martin’s head and privy to his observations about his uptight mother and the failings, ‘lapses’ he collects about his father. A bright kid who ‘needs to get out of his big head’ according to his dad, living between his newly divorced parents, mother wanting too much from his 11-year-old self and finding his new voice, one that upsets the balance, but so what- he is enjoying this snide self. Sometimes when I read from a child’s perspective that is spot on about the adults, I remember what it was like to feel forced to be the audience to adult antics, and how good anger felt when you let loose.

Levine’s stories include one based in c. AD 1372, language of the past, a journey through grief, the one sealed off in the cell for those seeking counsel, a spiritual practice long gone, “our words a poor magic mashed to this world.” 

Difficult relationships, disheveled selves, past, present, shifting timelines- an engaging lyrical collection.

Publication Date: June 25, 2019

Biblioasis

The Bundy Secrets: Hidden Files on America’s Worst Serial Killer by Kevin M Sullivan

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Ted was  well-behaved, well-dressed, intelligent, and acted extremely proper at all times.

Growing up in Florida I still remember the day Bundy was executed in the electric chair as it was announced on a radio station I was listening to. I remember the dj telling a joke about there being a power bump because Bundy was on old sparky, certainly no one I knew was grieving. I go from thinking labeling such horrific murderers as monsters gives them too much power and removes them too far from humanity for us to attempt to understand them to feeling this has to be evil. There is information in this third and final book in Sullivan’s triology about Ted Bundy that I didn’t know. It makes sense that Liz was an anchor to his sanity, what remained of it anyway. I have to wonder why or how someone becomes Ted, with his urges? Do we study it, can it be explained, prevented? I don’t know, I really don’t know. Were there more victims? There certainly must be more we don’t know about Bundy than what we’re sure of. There are records of surveillance in this book, it starts off with Ted being followed. Such books serve a purpose, because when authors comb through the police records, victims testimony, interrogation of Bundy in the cases, speak to those who knew him well and those who just had a run in with him there is an extra pair of eyes that may well connect more dots, or find new evidence, make sense of the old.

This book really takes you knee deep into interviews, and what happened to his victims. It is horrifying, how can it not be, doubly so reading this as a mother? I cannot imagine what the families suffered in the aftermath, suffer still anymore than I can imagine the heartache his own family must face, friends who once trusted him. It’s terrifying how charming, educated, friendly he seemed to others. Why wouldn’t someone trust him, in all honesty, knowing so many felt he was always proper, sounded well-educated and looked like the sort of person we’re told to trust? It was as if there was this switch that turned off whatever was human inside of him. Where did his rage come from? Why one person and not another?  He seemed so blasé about everything he had done, though of course he didn’t want to talk about the victims, that would make them real people. I cannot get the thought out of my head of Bundy as predator, ‘observing people everywhere he went’. Not every stranger was fooled though, like the older bank teller who immediately thought he was a killer- why do some of us have the correct instinct and others of us fall for the act? Do our eyes trick our brain so much? These are just questions that hit me when I read anything about his sickening crimes.

The victims, let’s not forget the victims were people with lives, families and friends. Beautiful human beings who happened to attract Bundy’s attention through no fault of their own. Liz was his victim of a different sort too, but did he love her? Was he really capable of love, it seems she was more than a ‘cover’ to camouflage his blood-lust because again and again he turned to her. Was any part of him genuine? No one can act all the time, right? I cannot imagine having to face that the person you shared your life with, or given birth to is someone like Bundy.  “What did I miss, what is wrong with me that I didn’t see the signs?” There aren’t words to really describe the chaos that reigned in his wake, even today it lingers.

Kevin Sullivan’s book gives the reader the feeling of what it must have been like to piece together information from so many sources, trying to put it all together to tie Ted with his victims, the ones we know about anyway. In real life it isn’t all laid out in an orderly fashion and from the interviews to testimony and Ted’s own words it’s dizzying. Those who knew him best (if that were even possible) to strangers, many of their epiphanies came far later after he was caught and things added up from his presence in certain locations, to attempts at abductions and his nervous behaviors. This certainly speaks of years of research on the author’s part. Now I have to go read something else that reaffirms my faith in humanity.

Out Now  Published April 23, 2019

Wildblue Press

 

 

 

We Will Tell You Otherwise: Stories by Beth Mayer

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You have to count your blessings. Or pick your poison. And for God’s sake, not every single thing means some other terrible thing. But that I keep to myself.

This collection of stories by Beth Mayer will play with your emotions, is it dark? It can be, human behavior isn’t always pretty. It is moments of people at their best and worst. The very first story can break your heart as in Tell Me Something I Don’t Know a father tells us about his mother’s visit to give he and his wife a break, trying to get through the heavy days of their little boy Ethan’s chemo for his brain tumor. How do you grab happiness watching your child suffer, how do you break out of the fear that something worse is waiting around the corner?

In When The Saints Tell Their Own we’re left to wonder who is broken, when Blue (the narrator’s brother), checks himself into a hospital because ‘something is wrong with him’ but she is the one talking to the saints. Each story has fractures, I loved Let Her Tell The Way. It is the summer of 1978 and a family of four is meant to go on a vacation but the father (Bill’s) loyalty is always his clients (he owns and runs a funeral home). But this time, Peggy (wife/mother) is going to go on the trip as planned, of course her eldest child and headstrong daughter is going to test her. “The girl thought of herself first (always) and it was ugly.” What stuck to my guts is the disappointment, their trip is closer to reality than all the happy ads we see about how great getting away is. You take your family issues with you. Even the little ones can’t rally enough happiness to make it work, “The children bore too much.”  There is a short little story too from the “summer people” who really don’t mind the old bachelor whose family has been on the lake for generations… no, not at all. They tolerate the locals.. sure they do. If they don’t stay long they won’t be infected by whatever miseries visit the locals, right?

The lump in my throat remained from Don’t Tell Me How This Story Ends, it’s for imperfect families, the ones who have a revisionist in their midst. Truth is malleable for some, the convenience of old age or ‘forgetting’ to suit your own conscience… it hit hard for me. The most difficult family member (here it’s a father) but it can be anyone, grandparent, mother, sibling, uncle… that their fragility humanizes them, the unfairness of it all, when it seems they should be punished for the cruelty they spread. Life doesn’t play out like that though does it? Not always.

A young boy seeks council about his future through his classmate Suzy, a man fancies old-fashioned ways until his world is rocked by a mysterious girl who will help him navigate the technology he hates and a young girl finds a best friend in the beautiful Cha Cha McGee who the whole town may want to mark just as badly as Lady Pearson, the harlot, witch…  These stories are all about human nature in its many forms. This is an author to watch.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

Black Hawk Press

Beth Mayer is the Hudson Prize Winner

for more information  https://www.blacklawrence.com/we-will-tell-you-otherwise/

Wild Wisdom: A Warthog’s Tale by Laurada Byers, Natalie H Stewart (Artist), Stewart Williams (Designer)

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Here are some of the Wonderings and Realizations I’ve had along the way.

We are told from the start this isn’t a book meant to guide you, dear reader, towards a “perfect life”, what is a perfect life anyway? This a book of warthog wisdom, an animal that Laurada Byers sees as a sort of spiritual creature like herself, they may not always be pretty and graceful but damn if they don’t rise from all the muck and face life head on. Facing life head on is what Laurada herself has had to do, particularly after the tragic murder of her beloved husband, father to her children, Russell. She certainly didn’t give up when later, illness reared it’s ugly head. It isn’t that horrible things happened to Laurada that makes this book so inspiring, it’s what she chose to do with the arrows life slung her way.

The illustrations are playful at times, and sweet, did I just say that about renderings of a warthog? There is a page about the brain being permanently changed after witnessing a violent act that depicts a leopard leaping in the air at the warthog, it certainly must be as frightening, the act and the loop the mind gets stuck in. Seems perfectly suited to the thought. It isn’t all misery, though the moments in Laurada’s life aren’t anything to laugh about there is still humor in her wisdom. As they say, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. In memory of the life her husband lived, she chose to start a charter school which proceeds from the sale of this very book will benefit. How is that for not giving up? For thumbing your nose at misery? Inspiring, indeed. Anyone who has ever lost anyone, or suffered through an alarming diagnosis will relate. Lovely.

Available from Warthog Productions

Laurada Byers is a survivor, fighting cancer, Parkinson’s disease as well as PTSD from the tragic loss of her husband Russell.

 

 

Strangers and Cousins: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen

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She’s become dislocated while standing in place.

That’s a fantastic line for this character driven novel, for family in fact. What is more dizzying than a gathering of your clan, particularly as it continues to grow? How can you not feel dislocated standing in place, and who can blame sweet Aunt Gladdy with one foot in the past and one in the present? Of course she slips in and out of time, gets confused by the faces and happenings, it’s a full life she’s been having. She and little Pim are my absolute favorite characters in this family novel. Pim lives in his own little world, battling unseen enemies in the buff, oblivious to the drama of the grown ups. Actually, he and Gladdy share similarities, youth and old age are so tightly intertwined (one coming as the other is slowly leaving), one battling imaginary foes as the other deals with ghosts of memories.

Walter and Bennie Blumenthal’s daughter (eldest of four children) Clementine, is marrying her college girlfriend, Diggs. But this is a special sort of wedding, a performance of sorts. Like all things meant to go against tradition with the best of intentions it can get out of hand. There will be an invasion, the Blumenthal’s are meant to accommodate nine extra people in a house already full with six family members. The real intruders to Walter’s thinking are the ultra-Orthodox Jews, going around town asking the locals to sell, trying to tip the demographics in their favor where they are sure to infiltrate all that has been, destroying entire communities. Bennie and Walter have two big secrets, one that may upset the ‘status quo’, help the very people he is against. If he and Bennie sell, they will be party to the ruin of this special community. Even Clem, as liberated as she is assumes so much about bride to be Diggs, based on her ethnicity. Aunt Gladdy is in the past, remembering fire, after-all her skin is marred, a constant reminder of an earlier tragedy.  There is a constant struggle with old versus new, in a sense. Loss, tragedy and change. Even open to accepting the ever changing world, there are fears that sway our decision making as a family, and as a community. Lloyd is the ‘prodigal one’, and has a great conversation with Tom about loyalty and what we owe our families and ourselves as he struggles with Walter’s distrust of the Haredi, and I can’t think of a more perfect example of the inner struggles children face in life. Parents raise their children to think for themselves and then feel betrayed when they might have a different opinion or view. Sometimes just in examining how they feel about a situation can force us to see our own blind loyalty to old, or outdated versions of truth. Family dynamics are always at play when you’re under the same dwelling for any amount of time. It’s hinted at in moments “What? What’s going on?” there’s a note of jealousy in her voice, a hint of the old kid sister don’t-leave-me-out petulance, when Carrie senses the tension while Bennie and Walter fight about the Haredi.

Then there is that mouse, that poor little mouse whose just going about living among the humans, whom she scavenges from. The animal just trucks on, starts over when everything falls apart, a new generation when the one before is destroyed.

Gladdy is overlooked by her family, as the aging so often are even if they are beloved, and yet if anyone has understood change and how deeply a turn of a moment can bite, it’s her. She is the wisest of them all, Clem’s too young to hear the truth (How could one so young be expected to understand?), that the world itself is no more than temporary. It is a novel about change, because whether we accept it or not, change comes.

For me, the title is interesting because family can sometimes feel like strangers too. Eventually, everything can start to feel unfamiliar as the old ways die off, the hardest of all is letting go of truth as we have known it to be and allowing the next generation to flourish. A story of constant upheaval, strange and interesting relatives, secrets, births, deaths, tragedies, intruders and how we live on in scraps of memories until there is no one left to remember.

Published May 14, 2019   Available Now

Riverhead Books

Summerlings: A Novel by Lisa Howorth

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We existed in a smaller world of our own daunting challenges, peopled with gods and monsters. Sometimes they were the same.

It is the summer of 1959 and there is a plague of spiders on the streets of Washington DC, an exciting occurrence for John and his friends. Living with his grandparents he is part of a family of oddball Washington natives on his mother’s side, of course he knows nothing of his father’s family since his parents divorced when he was five. His grandfather John, but called Brickie, swears his daddy is allergic to work, lazy. It is true his father was spoiled, but his mother needed so much attention. Both good looking and wild, their marriage ended and John’s mother contracted tuberculosis, so they say, and for two years now that’s where she is still at the sanatorium, St. Elizabeth’s. Children of divorce an anomaly in the 1950’s could make for a lonely life, his sister Liz is away at camp, but John has his buddies Ivan, Max and girl pal Beatriz.

This was a period of time after World War II when your neighbors all knew each other and anyone foreign was suspect. The Russians were still enemies to the American way of thinking and any strange occurrence could well be a part of their schemes. Even grandpa Brickie thinks the Russians are behind the spiders! Spending their lazy days of summer concocting a plan to catch poisonous bugs to defend themselves against their bully, nemesis Slutcheon -leads the children into a far bigger story, one that may make them criminals.

Then there is the beautiful Elena, Ivan’s aunt, whose presence does strange things to John. Enlisting the beauty to help them hatch the “Beaver Plan”, a neighborhood party, something to help everyone be nicer to each other is perfect, when she has the time and isn’t busy going out with different men. “Air-conditioning and privacy were luxuries few people had in those days”, everyone knows Elena’s business, there are no secrets in these sort of neighborhoods, not for a party girl who hangs out with ‘Commies’ and comes home far too late in the night. There could be Russian spies everywhere, and even a school mate with a gorgeous aunt could be one. She spends too much time helping refugees, and then there is the mysterious Cuban on the motorbike.

The children play war with cherry bombs, drive the adults crazy in each other’s yards, bicycle through the streets, swim in a play pool until it gets dirty wondering if it could give them polio, that dreaded disease instilling fear in the hearts of children of the 50’s and flirt on the edge of adulthood. The boys don’t fully understand the fights between Elena and Josef, why her ‘refugee friends’ embarrass him so nor Ivan’s rage at his father. Nor does John comprehend why his mother is suing his own father. The adults world is one of confusion, conflicting information like the war, and spies… everyone spies, everyone! Heck, on their own street they all spy on each other and suspect them! Why is it wrong for one country but not another, and why do all the adults always say ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ about all the complicated questions? And will Dimma (his grandmother) really give him an enema? A dreaded enema? Just what role is a vinegaroon going to have in this story? In fact, what IS a vinegaroon anyway?

A heist the children plan, special tropical punch, a party where everyone drops their guard and a tragic turn of events come morning changes everything causing an abrupt end to the summer and their innocence. The world keeps turning, people move on but memories remain. A story of innocence before the dawning of adulthood. By far the cutest book cover!

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Doubleday Books