If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

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My mother had no daughter. It was her gift to me.

The novel begins in Vietnam as our young narrator is reunited with her mother, living under protection inside a military camp after she comes to the dangerous attention of the Prime Minister for her work as an energy consultant “bringing electricity to hundreds of districts in Vietnam”. Angering those corrupted by greed who would rather abuse the funds by “buying defunct equipment” keeping the wealth for themselves,her only option had been to seek refuge, leaving behind her daughter. Her lieutenant friend saves her, but she must remain loyal to the President. Cassette tapes were their means of communication during the separation but now she is living with her mother among other families under military protection as well. Lonely, she spends her time being cared for by ‘my soldier’, there to take care of her every need, emotional and otherwise, more nurturing than her distant mother. Her mother’s overload of information a jumbled mess to her child’s mind, “I wanted only to be held, to press my nose to her stomach,” she feels like a failure, a poor student, worse a bed wetter. To no longer be given away, she promises to be good, oblivious to her mother’s political games, not understanding that the only reason they are alive is because of her mother’s abandonment.

A child of loneliness her entire existence, everything changes when she meets ‘little girl’. The two sometimes merging into one, making up stories for each other, giving funerals for bugs, playing games and sharing in the disgusting shame of the adults. Little girl is destined for poverty and ignorance, and yet she is the deepest, earliest connection to love she will ever know. Their love is a sisterhood that will haunt her for years to come. The past becomes ash when her mother manages to help her escape to the United States to begin her second life leaving behind her best friend.

Part Two or second life to my thinking, she is now a grown adult recalling the punishing years of moving through different homes of friends, families, her mother’s connections in America, never fitting in. Longing for information about her mother “lost in her fiction”, trying to follow Vietnam’s politics, knowing she is alive only through second hand sources, sorting through gossip online, life is again solitary. She meets a woman named Lilah in Montauk, New York, echoing the immediate bond she once shared with ‘little girl’. Pulled into her escapades and ‘affairs’, passion grows between them until their lives merge. Lilah has wounds that fester but her eccentricities and boundless energy hide the sorrow. “I was drawn to her because people are drawn to uncertainty, the abyss.” When around husband Jon, Lilah is less free, diminished somehow. The two become three and she surrenders herself in their hands. This is where the story explores the meaning of friendship, love, all-consuming grief and the maniacal nature of fate. She is between two places always, until tragedy strikes and life comes full circle in Part Three. It is a strange and tragic tale. The defilement of both the narrator and her friend at the start of the novel had me gutted, the horrors always eat away at the children when it comes to politics, don’t they? Hard to read, but closing your eyes changes nothing. It’s a rupture in time, the things that transpire. As a grown woman I certainly don’t make light of how mind numbing it must be to make your way through the world without the nurturing and love of parents. Tragic doing so while moving between two countries, two identities with scars and severe trauma. That is shocking enough, a child hungry for love, connection so much so that she is willing to encompass her best friend’s pain as her own, later learning to be degraded, coming of age expecting nothing as not to feel disappointment. There is another vital character later, her neighbor, and I love how they both act as ghosts in a sense for each other, but come to mean so much more. The author’s take on loss and love hit me between the eyes.  Loss… loss as ‘a fuller experience than love’ opened the floodgates for me. Whoa!

I stayed up late last night, devouring every last page and that is saying a lot as I am recovering from invasive surgery, but I was at the end and it was actually my favorite part. The beginning reads a bit differently than when our narrator is an adult, because it is told through the mist of youth, but it flows.  Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 19, 2019

Europa Editions

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Fall Back Down When I Die: A Novel by Joe Wilkins

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I should have been prepared in my head as I was in my hands. Let that be a lesson to you boy.

Wendall Newman’s cousin Lacy finds herself in serious trouble for charges of possession of methamphetamine, child endangerment and willful neglect. He finds himself caring for her son Rowdy, a troubled 7-year-old little boy with communication delays. Barely getting by himself as a ranch hand, despite his rough surroundings and gruff appearance, Wendall comes to love his nephew and want nothing more than to do right by him. A certain type of poor all his life, he knows all too well the difficulties Rowdy faces, and the many ways the adults have failed him. With his father gone, Wendell was the sole heir of ruin, caring for his sick mother until her death, fatherless. Now he will do anything to give Rowdy the upbringing he deserves.

Verl Newman, Wendall’s father, long ago ran away into the Bull mountains, Montana after committing a murder. In the mean weeks that follow, he survives off the land and writes to his son in the school notebook he grabbed on the run ‘thinking to use for starting fires.’ With the feds on his tail, how could he possibly get this notebook, these words to his boy? “A boy should be able to hear his father always”, and yet they took even that from him.  Wendall killed a wolf, against the laws, the government is a wolf itself, keeping a man from a living, forcing him to cower, beg. When a man comes and turns against his friend, his heart no longer brave, honest what can he expect but violence? What other choice did Verl have than save what was his family’s very livelihood? Not everyone sees Verl’s act as monstrous, some outright admire the courage of his convictions, which echos through the years within a resistance group.

Gillian works as the school counselor and tries to cope with her own loss, raising her daughter alone after her husband Kevin’s murder. Student Tavin, whose family is a part of the Bull Mountain Resistance, has been missing too many days of school, yet it’s impossible to gingerly approach his mother, on alert for any interference from officials. Gillian fears the boy will fall into a cycle of poverty, poisoned by the ‘rural stupidity’ of the men in his life, like so many others. She knows exactly the sort of horrors such beliefs can lead to, how many lives can be destroyed.

 

Maddy, Gillian’s daughter, comes to care for Rowdy, and has more in common with Wendall than she could have imagined. The three will need each other for their very survival as all the stories converge. Good and bad blends, and the bones of the dead rattle into the future of their unfortunate children. It’s a painful tale of family, poverty, the ugly history of inheritance and the tragedy of fate. Yes read it!

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel by Lindsay Stern

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The usual wreckage drifts towards me…

Ivan and Prue are married and couldn’t be any different. Ivan is a philosophy professor who lives in a controlled manner, lover of language that longs for it to be exact, ‘like symbols of mathematics’, a languge that can be played with, twisted to mean anything other than what is is. Like philosophy it would ‘eliminate misunderstandings once and for all’ here in lies the humor in the novel, for his marriage crumbles under that exact invader, misunderstanding. Wife Prue studies biolinguistics whose discoveries leads her to believe one day people could understand their ‘birdsong’ as language, not senseless chatter. This form of communication could be very much alive in the animal kingdom, as much as human’s relate to one another, why not they? Certainly studying ‘sounds’ of birds, monitoring them cannot truly tell us what they are saying, feeling, thinking? What about we humans, superior animals and our gorgeous vocabularies? Aren’t our words often fraught with unintended outcomes, consequences, errors, comedies? Words used as camoflauge to hide our real feelings? Words to strip and bare our souls, just as misunderstood depending on whose ears they fall? Prue’s lecture scares Ivan, because he fears no one will take her, nor her intelligence seriously and it all unravels.

Prue’s father Frank comes into town to hear his brilliant daughter lecture, but he is on a downward spiral, his highs and lows having long navigated Prue’s entire childhood. Strange that his inability to corral his thoughts and behavior somehow makes him the most solid character in the novel, and the most likable. Prue and Ivan’s marriage is tested too by writer Dalton Field, whose book she has taken an interest in reading, the attractive visiting author infuriating Ivan. He sees an easy intimacy between them, but no, it has to be his imagination? There are clues something is going on, he can feel a rupture in their love. To make matters worse, people are always surprised that Prue chose a man like him as husband, bland and predictable. Then there is Prue’s niece May, witness to the adults falling apart around her, which gives insight into what life with Frank must have been like for Prue, the fear of his mania as well as the thrill of it. Which makes the reader wonder if that could be why Prue fell in love with someone as stable as Ivan. “It may come as a surprise to you, Dad, but you’re not a prophet. You’re a provocateur.” I was focused more closely on Frank and the influence his mental illness had on his daughter’s life. It was beautiful and sad because he does love her. Ivan loves Prue as well, without a doubt, but he never feels quite worthy while at the same time feels superior, it’s so odd.

Ivan is methodical until he let’s his fear of losing Prue ravage his common sense. He is going to stay on the sinking ship until the end. Will he save their love? Salvage the wreckage of his marriage, patch up the cracks caused by his misinterpretations of their love language? Ivan thinks he is nothing like Frank, there seems to be a condescending attitude toward his father-in-law, but as he unravels he may find he has more in common with him than he ever imagined. A novel that speaks in more than words or birdsong.

It’s a clever story of academics turned foolish. I enjoyed it, but some may not as the excitement is quiet.

Available Now

Penguin Group

Viking

 

The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev, Translated by Antonia W. Bouis

 

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Something happened with her that Kirill had never seen. It was as if ghosts of terrible unimaginable catastrophes, wars, fires, floods, were nipping at her heels.

Russian born Kirill is the last member of his family, descendant of Balthasar Schwerdt who came to Russia from Germany in the 1800’s. An author who collects other’s people’s life stories, fearfully avoiding his own. It is time to tell the story of his family, with papers, archives he will chase the ‘threads of memory’ and ‘preserving the misunderstood and the unseen.’  It is the only way  Kirill can flee the fate of the family. As a child he sees a stone book in the German cemetery where his family plot lies, chosen as he is to be his grandmother’s constant companion on these visits. Naturally the visits isn’t something any of them talk about outside the confines of home. The book, blank as if an omen of what he must one day fill, is always waiting there for him as he comes of age.

Why, he wondered, was his Russian great-grandmother buried in the German cemetery anyway? With the adults ‘omissions about the past’ he learned to create stories as explanation. It isn’t until his grandmother Lina reveals, speaking in German, the name of his great-great-great grandfather while at his headstone, that he knows the bold truth of their German ancestry. Vile German blood, much like the Goose Fritz symbolized to the villagers, strangled to death by the harmless old Seargant in his drunken rage on the anniversary in July when he was wounded in the Battle Kursk. The goose, in the old man’s war ravaged mind, a German soldier. German, the stuff his family is made of.

Why did they not carry the surname Schwerdt, what fate befell his ancestors, a ‘scattered people’ bones buried in soil far from their fatherland? It’s always been easier for him to dig into stranger’s families than disrupt the rest of his own, and what would revelations mean for his own blind future? Is he destined to walk a path forged by those who came before him? Why can’t he guide his own future, be no one’s son, grandson? A crack in the headstone of his beloved, deceased grandmother, separating surname from birth name, birth date from death date seems to beg from the beyond their stories be told.

Balthasar’s life took a strange turn from that of medical doctor, working as his father’s assistant, to that of practitioner of homeopathic medicine, a ‘heretic’s career’. Thwarting his father’s plan, trembling with his newfound passion, Balthasar left his fractured world for a larger one, with the knowledge of his ‘travels’, Kirill needs to understand the why of it all. Pieces in museums and visiting cities doesn’t always lend an emotional landscape to history, it’s hard for him to imagine being born in the cities of his ancestors. There were seven daughters, and a son- there were wars, assassins, disease, even an early feminist who ‘excited men’s strife.’ Worse the strangest fate of all will befall the brilliant boy when as a man he encounters cannibals.

Kirill is blind to his own future but revisionist of his family’s past, able to look upon it with a godlike eye, see the impending doom as well as lucky escapes that his ancestors couldn’t. With one family member a migrant to Russia, they cannot be native nor accepted as such, forced to hide their German blood as if a stain, as evident by Kirill not even realizing he wasn’t fully Russian, born under the hammer and sickel, loyal as the rest of his family to their country.

This novel is about political history as much as family history, how it affects us all. Are you allowed to be a nationalist when your ancestors were enemies? There are many stories about all of the characters but it is rich in history, perfect for historical fiction lovers. I adored the relationship between Kirill and his beloved grandmother Lina. It’s incredible to think about what our ancestors suffered through, how they could still cling to hope, love and laugh. Personal history too can give birth to strange fears and rituals. The deepest shame is having to hide our blood for fear of persecution. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

New Vessel Press

 

 

 

 

 

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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She said people will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. “And they will do anything,” she always said, “to own that piece of you.”

In this fantastic collection of stories by Kali Fajardo- Anstine about the experiences of Latina women indigenous to the vast land of the American West, characters range in age and life situations. Beauty can’t save any of them from the violence of bad men, nor can it guarantee a better life , “they look at us like we’re nothing.”  In Sugar Babies, a restless mother leaves while her daughter cares for her own school ‘baby’. Sabrina & Corina is one of the saddest with a bad ending for a much admired Cordava cousin. The loss finds Corina using her make-up skills to tend to Sabrina’s body as she reminisces of her deep love  for “the family beauty”. Too, she shares the distance between them before everything went wrong, before her cousin’s ‘carelessness’ began to disgust her. This family of women  have lived with nothing but tragedies, how can anyone hope for a happy fate with so much evidence to the contrary?

In Sisters, Dotty has her sight stolen from her and thinks about a missing girl, about survival and thus begins the story of what happens when women say no and bruise a man’s ego, inciting his rage. This is the sort of story that makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s biting quote,  ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women  are afraid that men will kill them.’ What happens to the women in each story can knock the wind out of you, and though fiction, it’s not one bit fantastical and that is frightening.

In Remedies, lice are the monster. I adore characters that understand natural medicine and for some, home remedies was the only cure. Too, a young girl struggles with a half-brother in her life, the father absent for both of them but why should she have to share her own mother? The writing is gorgeous throughout, I kept breaking my heart against each one. Just when I thought it couldn’t get sadder, I was gutted again. ‘Cora and I had been around sick and dying people our entire lives. People, we learned, weren’t permanent and neither were their illnesses.’ Characters are all struggling to keep things together through illnesses, death, grief, and the aftermath of prison. Some deal with their own shameful pasts, others with the inevitable trajectory of what’s to come. The Bob Dylan quote before the stories begin is spot on, these are certainly sad-eyed ladies. Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Random House

One World

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden

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I wanted love the size of a fist. Something I could hold, something hot knuckled and alive.

Growing up as a privileged child isn’t always as glorious as the rest of us think, and of course no one wants to hear you complain because you have all that wealth, the private schools, horses, fantastic shoes but as a biracial child coming of age in Boca Raton, Florida -T Kira Madden struggles mightily. Born as a love child, early childhood begins with a mannequin father whose heft has more presence and love than her own flesh and blood daddy. Her beautiful Chinese Hawaiian mother knows her best and as single mother does everything she can to protect them, the mannequin is her mother’s idea used as a stand in for her her father’s sporadic visits to their mice infested apartment. Her father who feels like a giant stranger. A successful older man who already has an established family shifts sails and decides to live with T Kira and her mother, so begins the fierce memoir.

When her parents aren’t fighting or in drunken, drug-fueled fights her dad is passed out on the couch in a stupor, life is mad obsession over her show horses, an uncle who is unlucky in love, massive humiliation during junior high, hunger to fit in, and the gut wrenching loss of innocence that isn’t confronted until years later. Her father in their life means overflowing ashtrays, they’re rich but live off cheap food, life going off the hinges as much as the wooden doors in the house after one of his rages. Like this, she still loves him. Then there are secrets, so many secrets through generations and her father isn’t the only one with things to hide. As her family grows so too does an understanding of all the things she didn’t see while her eyes were smeared with youth. There is cousin Cindy and her beauty, which isn’t always a prelude to a charmed life. When T Kira ‘finds her own pretty’, she goes wild with her tribe of fatherless girls. The exotic features that once made her prey to kids in school with racial slurs becomes ‘sexy’ among her girls. Parties, drugs, sexual exploration, losing people and herself until the girl from Boca becomes a New York woman. In college she allows herself deeper love and intimacy with girls and faces what it means to be queer or not.

There are moments of such honesty it makes you wince. She lets too much happen to her, living at times on autopilot, as young people hungry for love and attention do. Terrible things happen because of her trusting naivete. Her parents didn’t shelter her from all the adult situations were tangled i, and it costs her. We are shaped in childhood, but it doesn’t have to be our ruin. There is love between T Kira and her father, but the confusion of living in the storms of his moods, his violence  towards her mother, threatening her as well, wrecks her home. In his absence her mother destroys herself with drugs, and her father abandons them, leaving T Kira to be the caregiver, addiction in a parent a force someone so young shouldn’t have to contend with. Children are meant to be the needy ones. It wasn’t always nightmarish, she has sweet memories of her father taking her to her first baseball game, their trip to Vegas when she was five, but there is so much distance between them. She tells us at seventeen of New York “I’ve moved here to be closer to my dad. I want to walk his streets, eat his favorite pastrami, try on a new relationship with him.”  She loses her father, every remnant of him is ash, except the memories.

“Ghosts are better than nothing. Ghosts move. They want things. To haunt each other, then, is a way for my mother and I to keep him. He is more than a voice in the walls., a Ouija board movement, an iridescent cloud in the dark; he can exist here, inside us, through possession. We do our best to play the roles. Our bodies are not big enough.” 

     Falling in love with someone, I think, is at least like that.”

 

An innocuous Christmas present after her father’s death pries her mother’s past open wide. There may be more love out there than T Kira could have ever hoped for. The end of the memoir was moving and heartbreaking. It’s an unfinished story, because T Kira has so much living left, and so the family grows. It’s not just about the ache of missing ones father while he is alive and dead, her mother is a larger than life presence too, especially in the later years.

Others have called this gritty, and it is, it has its funny moments, particularly in her blind youth, because no matter how cool people claim they were, there was an awkward desperate phase we can all relate to. You want to jump into the pages and stop her from embarrassing herself as much as save T Kira from dangerous decisions.  Rich doesn’t mean happy, being wealthy isn’t protection against the dirt of the adult world. It is a story of surviving your childhood, and coming to terms with your parents flaws while also recognizing they were people before they had you, people who made immense sacrifices and mistakes. It is holding on to the love you find in the memories, even those we revise.

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

 

Mother Winter: A Memoir by Sophia Shalmiyev

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Hall of Fame. Hall of Shame. That’s Motherhood…

This is a memoir of longing and love for one’s absent mother, as if when Sophia Shalmiyev left her native Russia in the 1980’s for America a decade later, in her  Azerbaijani father’s care whom she called a ‘benevolent dictator’, she too was forced to divorce her mother. “It was too risky to ask for her and be denied so I didn’t say her name much.” Yet for so long, she had ‘no body’ without her mother. Who grounds us in our bodies more? While Sophia was still in her homeland, her mother was already failing at motherhood, certainly in the Hall of Shame category more than Hall of Fame. Women are forgiven nothing, especially in the 1980’s Soviet Union she spent her childhood, where her alcoholic mother was ‘pickled in the brain’, is judged far more inferior to any man who struggles with alcoholism. Of course her father gets to keep her. A father, who tries to ‘heal’ his little girl when she comes home from boarding school on weekends, who has an inconsolable need for her absent mother, the body hungry for her loving touch and nurturing.  Stuck at that school so that she’ll be safe from the threat of that very mother showing up, she deals with bullying, unkempt as she is standing out like an outcast and many ailments. Her body as undernourished as her hungry heart. Sophia ruminates over the state of motherlessness, and explores feminism through time, reminding us of how the blame always falls to the mother, even if she does everything ‘right’ by societal standards.  That women, even those we admire for their boundless talent are still caving into men, letting their bodies betray their intelligence. How she was unable to fill the space her mother’s absence occupied until she herself was a mother and could give them all that love she never got to feel. Yet her mother’s blood courses through her still, that urge to flee and trickles into her own babies, just like eye-color and height.

For Shalmiyev, she chases her mother through time, a woman who may be dead, how would she even know? A mother who one time demanded to know her young daughter’s  whereabouts but was denied because another man, her ex husband’s brother, decided she be ‘kept in the dark’ because she was in a bad place, wasn’t sober, judged and found wanting. Men, making decisions for women without one thought for their own wants and needs. A mother that has been smudged, remnants of her appearing only in the mirror as Sophia grows up, looking at her reflection.

“I would like to wear an equivalent of a medical alert bracelet: I lost my mother and I cannot find her- née Danilova.

This is poignant, “why can’t it be both ways? Why do mothers have to be forgotten or brave like soldiers?” Her mother is erased, for being a drunken mess, a failed mother and in that erasure a life is shaped, a motherless future for Sophia. The days in Russia are vastly different from her next life, coming of age in America where standing out and being ‘special’ is praised, not like in the Soviet Union where everyone is meant to be the same, where choices are limited. But before that, as a preteen refugee in Italy she loses so much of  her innocence.  Her father fails her too.

In America there is Luda, a stand-in mother of sorts, one of her father’s Ukranian girlfriend’s that comes to join them from Russia. Only 12 years older she is in between being a mother and a sister for Sophia. There is love and rivalry between them, another person who doesn’t want to hear tell of Sophia’s mother, whom in Luda’s eyes is nothing but trash, whorish. Of course as her sole female role model, she wants to be the only mother in Sophia’s heart, jealous even of the longing she feels.

Later there will be work at a peep show in her twenties,  hanging out in the music and art scene in Seattle, as hostility settles over her, gifted at leaving her body when she needs to and being present when she chooses, something she mastered far sooner than anyone should. She is in danger of becoming her mother for a while, until she finds a life in New York and a career.

Jumping time lines do not always work but when they’re done intelligently it flows and isn’t a disruption. I think it’s just right here! The flashbacks in time feed into the future and situations trigger memories of the past. I like that it’s not just a sad memoir about wishing for one’s mother, that Shalmiyev confronts the world women and young girls live in. The flashbacks of her childhood in the Soviet Union are eye-opening, I find myself devouring stories about that world, so foreign to my own childhood. Against her father’s wishes she eventually goes back to Russia to find her mother.

There are tales of abuse in here, and it’s gut-wrenching not just for the act itself but for the simplicity of such a life-altering transgression. Abuses on women and children are so casual in our world, aren’t they? Sometimes when you re-evaluate the past, things that you never questioned with your child’s mind send alarm bells all throughout your adult soul. Certainly what happened to her during her short time in Italy is haunting. This was an engaging memoir. Dislocation isn’t always about the physical body, it can be the soul and in Sophia Shalmiyev’s case it’s both. Her mother is her phantom limb that causes a constant ache. How do you make peace trying to understand mother as an archetype and compare you own, so deeply flawed, a crumbling cold statue on the pedestal of your memory? How is a woman meant to define herself, carve a self out of the discarded parts of her own mother when she was off limits to her? In the end, do we ever have closure, solid answers when chasing a ghost?

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Simon & Schuster