Once Removed: Stories by Colette Sartor

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But it was exhilarating to be fearful, to feel something other than an endless cycle of impatience, hope, grief, rage.

Once Removed is a collection filled with moments in our lives that threaten to spill over, overwhelmed with quiet suffering, desperate need to clutch at what is falling away. Sometimes the ugly, means things we think get exposed here, but full of raw honesty. In Bandit, Hannah finds it easier to form an intimacy with a young boarder named Rune than face the desperate hope and need on her husband’s face after a stunning loss. Sometimes it’s easier to reach for strangers when what needs to be faced is a pain like swallowing glass, our shared tragedies pushing us apart. How do we just ‘move on’, there is no timeline to healing.

In Daredevil, Grace is a sad mother trying to build a new life coming out of the storm of a broken home, fractured family. Her yearning to bond with her son, wounded and fragile is upended all the more by a sickly little girl named Noreen, whom she teaches along with her son in Sunday school. “Forgive me, Grace prayed sometimes after receiving Communion, forgive me for being thankful she’s not mine.”  All Grace wants is to lift she and her son out of this pit, this pain of ‘a family in ruins’, a shame she can’t repair the landscape of her own home but she tries, lord knows she tries. Why is her eight year old son always trying to get away from her? Why is he accepting dares, doing things that are always to his own detriment, turning away from her boundless love for him? Why can’t she protect him?

These are families with insurmountable distances between them, favorites who have jumped ship and left the least admired child behind to keep parents afloat, as in Jump. The pain of comparison that is born within families, the terror of one day creating your own family, always armed to defend oneself because no one else ever has your back. Could you, dare you attempt motherhood? Carrying the dead-horse of your own childhood, fearful you just don’t have it in you to be any good at parenting. Marney juggles the viciousness of jealousy, betrayal and need for her family to be intact, but her needs are never considered. How do you chose one over another, seems her mother certainly always chose her brother Winston first. Winston who has gone away, who holds his grudge tight. Marney’s love life isn’t any easier, as she butts heads with her boyfriend’s mother, relationships feel like a continuation of one’s own family saga. How is it some escape the madhouse and others are entrapped by it?

The stories are connected and when I got to Once Removed, it was a gut punch. How did we get here, something I think a lot of us ask about the awful moments we encounter in our lives? We try to be better people than we are, wedging ourselves into stories that were playing out before we stepped in, because everyone is anchored somewhere we are an uninvited, unwelcome guest. The push of wanting to heal what life breaks, the ache and sacrifice of parenting, the strange little families we must make in lieu of tragedy. Once Removed was a lump in my throat, being afraid when challenged, longing for things that seem forever outside the boundaries of your current reality, the cruelty of fate. Too, the silence we hold just to keep our family intact, the unsaid always a bigger fissure than what we explain.

What a collection! Families, how do we survive them? How do we survive without them? Hope that feels like disease, hope demands so much of us. Mothers and daughters, the push and pull of resentment and love, loyalties and how we divide them, the ache of it. Colette Sartor is an author to watch, she writes beautifully about the intricacies of relationships, imperfect situations and everything that follows the impact of tragedies. Yes, read this collection.

Publication Date: September 15, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

 

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Feral, North Carolina, 1965 by June Sylvester Saraceno

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It’s a project I have, trying to get grown-ups to talk about things they won’t tell kids. You have to sneak up on it, come at it sideways- if you straight out ask, they’ll send you outside to play, or if it’s night time, tell you to say your prayers and get to bed. That’s true most of the time anyway.

Feral, North Carolina, 1965 is a coming of age about a little girl who is all fire and spit! She isn’t a good girl, not if it means being neat and delicate. None of your beeswax doesn’t apply to Ten-year-old Willie Mae, she is nosy and incredibly perceptive. She longs to burrow beneath the surface, to seek out every family secret, but has no qualms about spying on her neighbors either. What else is there to do but hop on your back and see what sort of fun you can rustle up? She is a child with ants in her pants, far too much spirit and lord but it sometimes seems like the very devil has her ears.

In the 60’s children weren’t bombarded with knowledge with the click of a mouse. The adults didn’t barrage them with answers to every question. That naivete is long gone, children were in the dark and if they were good little darlings, they held fast that ‘mother and father know best’. If you were a feral child, you resorted to any means you could invent to uncover mysteries. Curiosity killed the cat may apply to someone like Willie Mae, but she is witty enough to realize cats have nine lives and all the fun happens in secret!

Long stretches are spent in the company of her beautiful grandmother, Birdy. Birdy who loves to talk of the past, especially about her charismatic, handsome, beloved older brother Billy until Willie comes around, as she always does, to the subject of his death. Then it’s the silence of a grave. It’s burning inside of her, to know how someone could die so young… why, why won’t Birdy tell her how he died! Sure it was a tragedy that occurred before her birth, decades  ago, in dusty olden days, but he is still family, surely she has the right to know?  Why, why won’t Willie Mae let the dead rest? Too curious for her own darn good!

Willie Mae will fight dirty when she has to, like dealing with her big brother Dare, whom everything is a competition against. She may be a girl, but she is just as strong as him, just as fast! All her mother wants is for her to act like a little lady, but that just ain’t her way! It’s all dolls and frills when she wants to be like her brother, shooting at living creatures, why do boys get to do all the fun stuff?

God fearing children do not spy on others. They sure don’t know what happens between a woman and a man. Aunt Etta wants Willie Mae and Dare to be ‘witnesses for the lord’ because it’s certainly the end of days. “Half the time I didn’t care that I was a sinner, but I kept it secret.” It’s so hard to be a perfect, good little girl when so much action calls to your soul.

Death, racism, family secrets, God, sex, and nature are just a few things that occupy Willie Mae’s thoughts. She has so many questions bubbling inside of her. Maybe Willie Mae isn’t the only free spirit ever born into her family. Maybe she isn’t the only one who had to be tolerated. This is childhood, the lull before one’s rough edges are smoothed. Ten, a time when the secrets you poke at and prod change the way you see the world, and more importantly, your family. The world spins, and it is changing too, the old folks need to get used to it!

This is a time that no longer exists, children running through the streets at play, wild little savages with scabby knees and snarls in their hair. There was an ugly side too with racial divides, children caught in the middle of the confusion. Clinging to old ways, what happens when someone is ‘different’ be it skin color or something else, something that isn’t tolerated. The bigger issues are always just above a child’s head, but they feel the wrongness of things, we see that with Willie Mae and her ever questioning mind. I enjoyed that Willie Mae sounds like a child, she can be a nasty little whip of a thing and sweet in the center, children really are neither good nor bad. Like all of us, they sway between the two.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: September 17, 2019

SFK Press

 

The Grammarians: A Novel by Cathleen Schine

 

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There was something wayward in the twins’ relationship now, a devious shift Sally sensed but could not catch in the act.

Much like their father Arthur and his brother Don ‘were like trees that had been planted too near each other”, redheaded, identical twins Laurel and Daphne Wolfe have a bond that begins with a secret shared language until even their love of words pushes them apart and the relationship feels like a confinement. As in all sibling relationships, there is always one sister/brother that rises above the other. One who rushes head first into things, the default leader. Laurel begins to long for autonomy, to resent the ‘we’ that follows Daphne’s thoughts, decisions.  Daphne’s childhood has been one spent as the second born “Laurel was older by seventeen minutes. Daphne hated those seventeen minutes” sure “I’ll never catch up” and maybe shocked when she surpasses Laurel.

Laurel clings to the interior life she can keep for herself, thoughts she doesn’t have to share, weary of her life being lived in equal measure with her twin. Daphne, on the other hand resents when her sister keeps secrets, hates change. She despises the ways Laurel distances herself from their twin-ship. They’ll always have their shared love of words though, right? The balance shifts when Laurel marries, has a child and Daphne becomes a career woman. Suddenly, Laurel no longer feels like the ‘top dog’, her days spent with her child treated as less than the work Daphne does, though ‘she knows just as much about language’. When she returns to teaching, inspiration is born. Daphne’s successfully popular career as a columnist “preserving the dignity of and elegance of Standard English” is interrupted by Laurel’s revolt of the language rules through her poetry. It is like a smack in the face of everything Daphne has worked so hard to keep pure! Really, who is Laurel fooling, just as obsessed with the proper usage of language since birth? Just like Laurel’s mission to differentiate herself through her physical features, here she goes making yet another division in a world they once shared! Anything to always come out ahead, at Daphne’s expense!

The sisters relationship comes crashing down. Their mother, who has never been as close to her girls as they are to each other, now must witness the unraveling of their bond. Then there is the dictionary which remains “the subject of bitter controversy”, an inanimate object that is also, the subject of custody. It all returns to their daddy’s gift of the biggest book imaginable, ‘an ocean of a book’, placed upon a stand like an altar, Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. It is where the sisters “two little faces pecking at the musty pages of a dead man’s discarded book” were always found, the very thing that united and divides them. Their wordy little world is precocious which can sometimes come off as annoying or exhausting in a novel, instead I was tickled. I just kept thinking ‘oh you little bluestockings you!’ Will their mother ever see the day when they come back together? There truly are far worse vices for children than an obsession with words and yet to think they could cause so much trouble!

It’s really not about the words, it’s about all the years between them, it’s about the closeness of their twin-hood that begins to feel like an incarceration of their independent selves. Perception is everything, it makes or breaks you. Even in the unsettling feeling their uncle Don feels being around them, and their mother’s jealousy of the distance she is kept at because of their congenital bond, it follows such roles become suffocating. It’s so silly, our escape routes from family. This isn’t an explosive fall out, so much of the destruction is a slow chipping away of their sisterhood, how they see themselves and each other, how roles define us, something completely different in twins. You can’t be any closer, can you? The ending is perfect, maybe their mother Sally doesn’t share their genius for words, but she sure as hell understands her children, it’s a bittersweet ending, and I like how Sally tells a story better.

There is just something about this novel that clicked with me, it’s a quiet smoldering sisterhood, all the things we say and do as much as what we hold back. That hunger for independence, to be something other than the younger, or the older sister. Just an entity unto oneself, so much harder when twined with another.

Publication Date: September 3, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books

 

 

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

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But they were not attractive children, the rest of their faces soft and undefined. They looked ratty. I hadn’t even tried to fix their cult haircuts. I feared that fixing them would only make the kids more plain.

Lillian and Madison, an unlikely pair became tight friends at Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School, hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, where all the rich people sent their daughters. Lillian, having grown up poor in the valley of the mountain with a single mother knew she just needed ambition and and a scholarship, her ticket out of a luckless life. It doesn’t matter if her mother thinks this ‘opportunity’ isn’t the golden ticket her daughter thinks it is. That you can’t just go from the pits to a palace, that reaching too high can only lead to a greater fall, bigger disappointment.

With Madison’s friendship she comes to understand true power and what loyalty costs. There is an incident and Lillian must leave the school and abandon her dream for a better future, slipping mostly out of Madison’s life too. Working now as a cashier, Lillian’s life is antithesis to her old friend’s, who is ‘famous in political circles’, living a charmed life of wealth and still glamorous in her ways, with a perfect little boy named Timothy. Humming inside of Lillian is still the attraction, the need to please Madison, the desire to be needed by her. It is a desperate plea that has returned Madison to Lillian, her husband Jasper is up for secretary of state and his other two children by his ex-wife Jane have a peculiar affliction, they burst into flames upon any sort of upset. No, it isn’t a joke! It’s untenable in the limelight, how could Jasper explain, how could he reach success with children always on the verge of combustion? Imagine the danger, the chaos! All Lillian has to do is keep the children safe, calm and really, what does she have to lose? Her life is already ash anyway, really this is her salvation to Madison’s way of thinking and it’s infuriating that she may be right.

As Lillian enters the children’s life, hoping to tame them and manage their strange illness her heart expands and this temporary world comes to feel more important than any dream she ever conjured. She understands too well Bessie and Roland’s disappointments, because that is all her life has been made of, too she understands their inability to fit in anywhere and how their strange little hearts beat so much like her own. She will come to be more of a mother than their ‘governess’ and do anything to protect them. How are families made? Sometimes our wants and desires arrive disguised as disordered worlds, as lonely, dangerous children alight with fire.

This is one of the strangest, sweetest books I’ve read all year. It put a warm little fire in this heart of mine!

Yes, read it! It will warm you up in the cold of November. Wonderful fall fiction.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

HarperCollins  Publishers

 

The Lines: A Novel by Anthony Varallo

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When the children return home from another weekend at their father’s, their mother says she has something to tell them. Great, the girl thinks. Whenever an adult tells you they have something to tell you- run. Run fast! Run fast and keep running.

It is the summer of 1979 and one family of four is splitting apart, a time when separation and divorce wasn’t quite as common as it is today. The girl seems to understand all the things that hum beneath the surface even though she is only 10 years old, things her brother, at the age 7, remains clueless about. Is this going to fix all the sorrow, this divide? How will becoming two families make life easier? It just doubles the problems doesn’t it, when you split things in half?  The boy certainly has questions about life as it’s unraveling.

Father is no longer living at home, father no longer being the man of the house isn’t there as things fall into disrepair. Is he really still a father then? Does the boy then step into daddy’s too big absent shoes and become man of the house? It’s all mass confusion. The kids are taking on the slack left behind now that mom returned to school. Then the dating, the parents are dating people! Bad enough they have to get used to two homes, two rooms, two separate lives  now doors are opening to strangers? Dad has a girlfriend, they won’t mention this to mom, and this girlfriend Sarah becomes a stand in mom when they are at their dad’s. In fact, she is often more engaged than their father, watching them at the pool.

The father had forgotten what being a bachelor means, the ‘essential’ things he can’t recall, the cooking, the food shopping and darn if he doesn’t miss his garage. Father not that good when it comes to attentiveness towards his son and daughter, hasn’t that always fallen to the mother before? Why can’t father make relationships work, even with someone new? Why must the girl be so aware of the ways her daddy falls short? There is something obscene in seeing your parents as human, with their fault lines.

“Why, the girl wonders , is life so often a matter of answering yes to things you’d rather say no to?”  Like meeting Mom’s new man. Seeing your father date is bad enough, and seeing his relationship fail is something she doesn’t wish to witness. Both parents are letting some parenting go, it’s different depending which home they are at. The summer is a bust, school feels more tempting than all this time on their hands, all this terrible change. There is a new man on the scene, Cliff. The mother’s friends are pushing her, find someone. Cliff is someone.

Cliff can fix things, make life easy, help bear the brunt. Sister is getting salty with her mother, challenging, fed up. With Cliff comes Marcus, who thinks he knows everything and is probably as clueless as the brother and sister. Everything is a crap show, the adults have all lost their senses. There is no compass, life without an anchor even Gumma tells her grandchildren their childhood is over now, coming from a broken home. It’s so sad when the adults try to make a new normal, failing time and again. The parents are terrible, according to Gumma. Everyone and their opinions, their insights! Bitter adults!

Is their marriage really over? Will their parents realign themselves and everything return to normal? One thing is certain, it’s going to be a terrible summer. All that happens is beneath the skin and mind, “There’s such a relief, the girl thinks, in knowing no one knows your thoughts.” For both the mother and the father, life full of financial demands, at least they no longer have to attend to each others bottomless need, but what to do with all this freedom? Life is still life, as a mother, as a father there will always be things and children pulling you this way and that. As the novel says, “Human misery, there’s never a shortage of it”, whether you are married or not. The children shoulder the separation and their parents failings, understanding raining upon them as heavy as the suffocating heat of the summer.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: August 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press

Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

The Beekeeper of Aleppo: A Novel by Christy Lefteri

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I am scared of my wife’s eyes. She can’t see out and no one can see in. 

Beekeeper Nuri’s wife Afra (a talented artist once full of joy, laughter like gold) is disappearing to a dark place deep inside after horrific tragedy in Allepo obliterates every speck of life they created. It’s better not too see, there is safety in blindness when you live in a world brutal, hateful, ugly. This is war, it cares nothing for the land nor it’s people.  Things are getting more dangerous, if they stay they will die, how can Nuri get the blind Afra to see this? How can Nuri convince her that emotions must be corralled, logic must be the only guide for now? How can Afra leave this land, it holds the blood, the remains of every breath of life she existed for? Leave they must, but they will take the wasteland with them, inside their hearts. For Afra isn’t the only one whose mind has been ravaged by grief, Nuri may have his vision but he sees life as a version he can stomach, as a way to keep his feet moving so he can have a dream to hitch them to.

With his cousin Mustafa waiting for him in the UK, he will do everything it takes to begin anew, but first they must live as refugees where their very lives are dependent on trusting others, proving themselves as worthy of getting to Great Britain. They will meet others just as damaged as them along the way, with broken dreams and tortured memories. “These things are in the past. They will evaporate soon, like the river..”, but the past has it’s hooks inside Afra, and Nuri too. He must be strong, for Afra’s fragile state makes her vulnerable and her heart cannot take much more.  Afra doesn’t want the past to evaporate, she doesn’t want to see the future, for it died that day in Syria.

Nuri feels he has lost Afra, and loss seems to be all he knows anymore. Their world in ruins, through the journey they will inch closer together and drift apart, can they keep their love alive, is there any hope of beginning anew, will anything give Afra the desire to heal? Maybe Afra isn’t the one who needs healing. Would that they could be like Nuri’s beloved bees, that “small paradise among chaos”. There isn’t a sanctuary from the ravages of war, it’s impossible to return to what was, the only hope is in finding something new to live for, and with memory and love keeping what was from being erased.

So many of us are protected by the happenstance of our birth, and will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We won’t have to alter our ways to fit into another country, and abandon our very culture, it’s traditions. Leave behind all the people who were a part of the landscape of our days and wonder if they are still alive. Hope for word from the very person you are running too, unsure if they are still waiting for you. We won’t be living our lives in between places, wishing for a place that is gone. If tragedy opens our doors, most of us won’t be forced to leave our homeland without family to comfort us, with time against us and the chance to grieve a luxury we can’t afford. We won’t have the barrier of language to scale. It is only through stories, films, and memoirs that we can even scratch the surface of such tragedy and yet still, I repeat, you will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We have our miseries, of course we do, but there are not enough words to express the abyss of war. We can feel compassion, but I’m not sure we have the capacity to fully comprehend it as those who live through it have no choice to.

We sometimes overlook people living in different parts of the world, it’s easy enough to do when it isn’t affecting us. We forget to see them as human beings, we do it sometimes in our own families as well, it’s human nature. This story gives life through Nuri and Afra, something to connect with, a bridge of sorts, something beyond the news that we can just gap at in horror and turn the channel, go on our merry way. There are lives beyond the headlines, people with emotions and children, partners, battles to wage. How easy it is to forget.

There is hope and love between these pages, between Nuri and Afra, despite the fear he has of his wife’s eyes. Fear of what their loss has done to her, the state it’s left her in, fear she may never come back to him and be the woman he loved with an easy, deep affection. Yet, there is no room for surrender if you want to live, it takes strength beyond measure to survive. Survive they will, but with sacrifice of immense proportions. There is beauty in moments, but it is a heavy read.

Publication Date: August 27, 2019

Random House

Ballantine Books