What You Can See From Here: A Novel by Mariana Leky

“Love and death,” I said.

“That one’s easy, too,” the optician said. “You can’t practice for either one and you can’t escape them- both will befall you.”

“What’s befall?” I asked.

“When something bowls you over,” Selma explained.

An omen bowls over the villagers in a Western German town, the form it takes is that of an animal vision. Selma and her okapi dreams foretell death, for it has happened three times that when she has dreamed of the strange animal, death has opened its eyes and taken from them. They know that in the next twenty-four hours, someone will depart. Even if the least superstitious of them, the optician, attempts logic to shrug off this ‘loose’ connection to the dark angel, deep down he knows the reaper is only biding its time. Her ten-year-old granddaughter, Luisa, takes the premonition seriously and confides in her best friend, future weight lifting champion- Martin. Together, the two wonder who in the village will survive.

They are not backwards people who put stock in unfounded fears, and yet suddenly Luisa witnesses they unsettled energy surrounding them all. With the end snapping at their heels collectively, now is the time to ‘ward off death’, though uncertain whom it has come to call. They have seen first hand a death before, after one of Selma’s unwanted dreams, and have no intention of being chosen. Maybe if they throw their secrets to the wind, speak their truths, then death can be dodged? Some secrets are full of yearning and burn close to home. Other villagers visit Elsbeth’s shop for trinkets to ward off their unwelcome end. Who better than the person who has protection that wards off illnesses and deceased souls to help them hide from death? Sad Marlies is too bad tempered to be worried, living at the edge of the village in a cloud of negativity, visiting her is a chore for Martin and Luisa. Old before her time, she wishes death were coming for her, surely this fact makes her immune. Selma expects Luisa to behave as if it’s any other day, you can’t stop time, being afraid of her dream will accomplish nothing.

Luisa knows life is full of danger, like Martin’s cruel father, Palm. If only her busy mother could focus, listen to her woes instead of burying herself in her flower shop. Who needs to be afraid of dark things waiting to pounce on you when your Martin’s own father could snuff his lights out? At least Luisa can depend on her grandmother Selma, that her strength will put Palm in his place! She knew him before he soured, the person he once was almost sounds like a fiction to her young ears. Luisa’s own father wants them to ‘let more of the world in’ and calls her dreams “nonsense”, her mother struggles making a decision whether or not to leave him, and everything that is coming will teach Luisa about love and death.

It’s a wonderful cast of characters, there is lightness and love but it takes a turn, as life often does, into shocking grief. People come and go, out into ‘the creaking world’, desperate to escape the village not realizing the pain they cause, the beauty they leave behind but promising to come back. Luckily, Martin is always there to lift Luisa up! Unbalanced floors, drunks, hours watched by the suspicious eyes of villagers, the vastness of love, unbearable pain, regrets, illumination, and the wisdom of Buddhism. This novel encompasses life, how love and death will always invite itself in, welcome or not, and bowl us over. Nothing can be deflected, nor arranged, certainly not matters of the heart or mind. It’s the sort of tale that lingers, an unbearable ache. Beautiful and gut wrenching, yes read it!

Publication Date: June 22, 2021

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Under the Spell: A Novel by Benjamin Hedin

Jealousy, she told herself, was not something she had a right to feel. Not anymore. When Dale had died his passions died with him.

𝘜𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘱𝘦𝘭𝘭 is a novel about grief and confronting the walls death puts in place. Sandra’s husband Dale dies unexpectedly, leaving behind loose ends in business and finances that give her no choice but to sort through his email. She stumbles upon a name, Ryan Whitehurst- someone she knew nothing about. Owed an explanation, what better way to discover what their relationship entailed than to write to Ryan as if she is Dale. Let him live on, engage the young seductress. She uncovers intimacies, and soon is sharing her own with a clueless Ryan, who doesn’t know Dale no longer walks the earth. How much truth can she handle? How can she confront or rave at a dead man? What is she looking for by deceiving his other woman? Will she gain closure or open her own wounds deeper? Jealousy? Can you feel jealousy over a dead man?

As a distraction she begins helping a single mother, whom she meets by chance at Best Day, a clinic she goes to hoping to find help for her own grief vertigo. Lee takes to her and has entrusted her to care for Tina, her little girl. Before long, Sandra is ensnared by the tangled mess of their life. Despite having something besides Dale’s death and betrayal to focus on, Sandra is still having panic attacks wondering how much of their life together was true and how much was a lie. Nothing is any clearer and even with Tina she can’t stop playing make believe, pretending Dale is still alive.

She discovers there is money, but he couldn’t have planned his own death, of course not, was this guilt money, a prelude to divorce? Was he planning on leaving her, to take up with Ryan? Will she ever really know? Does Ryan have any answers? How can you deal with the pain of lies after death? As she believes, when Dale died, his passions died with him. But was Sandra ever a passion of his too?

The novel drives home the fact that love is unbalanced, that we never know for sure how those in our lives feel about us. We can only be sure of our own feelings, if even that. Does interest in another, whether acted upon or not, erase everything that we have shared with our spouse? Make our love a lie? It was an ok read, nothing riveting but it’s meant to be about grief and betrayal. I think maybe the introduction of Lee into the story was a bit of an obstacle even though I understand it was distraction from Sandra’s very solid pain. A quiet tale.

Publication Date: June 15, 2021

Northwestern University Press

Like Wind Against Rock: A Novel by Nancy Kim

“It’s not that I want you to suffer forever. I just want you to mourn, for a little while. You don’t even seem to miss Appa.”

Alice Chang never imagined herself living with her widowed, Korean mother “Ahma” at the age of thirty-nine. Alice’s husband Louis has filed for divorce, the apartment she has been living in during their separation is no longer an option, now that the landlord is converting them into a condominium and she never told her parents they were living apart. She and Louis will not be reunited, it really is over, despite her wishes for the contrary. When her Ahma offers her the chance to save money by living with her “for a bit”, she accepts, and has to tell her mom she hasn’t been living with Lois. It’s just a necessary yet small lie, telling Ahma that they are just ‘taking a break’. As a bookkeeper, Alice isn’t swimming in money, there isn’t any other option that is good for her meager budget. Still, sharing a home with Ahma, watching her rebirth is a shock to Alice’s system. On the heels of her father’s unexpected death, she is stunned by her mother’s ‘transformation’ from devoted housewife to a sexy single, and one who is suddenly speaking English all the time, moving up in real estate work. She has come into her own in a big way! Being the widow of a dentist she certainly doesn’t need the money, and why the rush with dating? The cherry on top, her sixty-two year old mother is dating much younger men! Didn’t she love Appa, Alice’s father? Weren’t they happy? Where are the tears? Worse, she seems to want to clean out every trace of him. When she is asked to dispose of her father’s things, Alice keeps his notebook written in Korean, desperate to translate it yet fearful of handing private thoughts over to a stranger. For now, she keeps it hidden from her mother, who is sure if he had something to tell, he would have told his daughter in life. Living in her old bedroom, hiding things, she feels she is regressing. Her mother is like a rising sun, full of energy, happiness and light. Why dos this sting Alice so?

If only Alice could know how her father felt, surely he loved his daughter? His little family of three? Her mother is blooming while she is flailing after her long marriage and trying to come to terms with her emotionally distant father’s death. He was solid, dependable, a good man if not demonstrative and as involved as her Ahma. Troubled that her mother seems to be on a quest to “catch up on the life she missed”, when she seemed happy enough, even if she was the one always showing the affection, could it be there are pieces missing in her family story? Victor, a man she works for, is translating her father’s notebook, but there are dangerous secrets and burning regrets that can only hurt Alice and her mother. They aren’t the only ones. Appa’s reserve hid a lot about his internal struggles, the painful choices that haunted his heart and kept his marriage distant and cold. Is Alice ready to unearth the truth? One thing is certain, her mother is a person too, one that longed for more than pleasing her husband and mothering her beloved daughter.

It’s a complex family tale, one that exposes the traps of marriage and the shame of yearning as well as the limit of choices. Cultural expectations, young hearts, and the hope for those who have a second chance at a different life. Alice has to see her parents and their marriage with adult eyes, a transition that isn’t easy when marred by regrets. Where does she fit in all of this? How can she move forward now and let go of the plans she made with Lois? What does her late father’s words have to do with her own future? Engaging and moving.

Publication Date: June 1, 2021 Out Now

Lake Union Publishing

Tears of Amber: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Translated by Simon Bruni

She was tired of wanting the madness to end; tired of life in a country that could feel so much repulsion for a human being, for a child, for her child. She was exhausted from so much fear of the war- fear of losing it, fear of winning it. She knew that her little family wouldn’t win under any circumstances.

War, all of it’s horror stories, full of so many sides of the same coin, where despite the repulsion and evil deeds there is sometimes goodness. Goodness is easy when it doesn’t cost us yet it’s hard to find in darkness. When we must protect our family, it’s shocking what people are capable of. This novel is about two families uprooted by war and everyone they meet on their path. Children are forced to join the effort on the front, or if too young than to remain ever watchful in their homes, or if a captured enemy, then to serve your captor as a prisoner of war. Segovia isn’t concerned about victors, because in this novel everyone loses, there are no winners just people who crawl out of the rubble half human, if they are ‘lucky’ (that word like a razor blade in the mouth). Despite what we imagine, the movies we watch, the fictional and non-fictional books we read, even the experiences our own family members share, we will never be able to comprehend what survivors endured. Your own people becoming enemies, a war that grew into a monster that went out of control devouring everyone. Separation, starvation, betrayal, death and people who have no choice. One thing spectators of the past like to do is shout how they would be brave, how they would never go along with things, they would be giants but in reality, non-compliance and rebellion was met with death or something worse- because yes, there is always something worse.

The Hahlbrock family have already survived the devastation of war, now the Führer has provided a life of order, food and a promise for a great future. When their youngest, Isle, is born they cannot imagine their Führer’s grand ambitions, nor what he has planned for his people and the rest of the world. Their darkest days are not behind them after all. The Schipper family’s youngest son, Arno, is celebrating his third birthday on the streets of Königsberg. It is this historic day, on the shoulders of his father, that Arno watches amongst a sea of people as red flags wave, slogans echo in the air, and heavy military vehicles pass in a parade of power. As a swell of voices chanting, “Heil Hitler!” dance in his head, it feels like confusion and when Hitler speaks through a loud speaker, Arno is too young to understand any of it, but it will change his entire live. Both Isle and Arno will be robbed of their childhood. As war approaches, school will drive home dangerous ideas, frightening parents, but one must keep their mouth shut and remain steadfast to the cause. Neighbors can’t be trusted, nor can soldiers. Fathers and sons are forced to either maintain their farms to feed the soldiers or join the war. When East Prussia starts to fall, Isle and her family are forced to flee. Januz, a forced laborer on her family’s farm (prisoner for all intents and purposes), dazzles young Isle with ‘tales of a besieged kingdom in the Baltic Sea from which spill the amber tears of a heartbroken queen.” Loyal to the Hahlbrock family, to the disgust of his fellow laborers, it is his mother’s stories that he uses to keep hope alive in the child’s beating heart. Something about Isle reminds him of someone he has lost, and for the first time, he feels cared for in a strange way, not much minding the hard work, now that he is no longer in danger of the wolves in the cold forest. But wolves are everywhere, and you can never trust anyone. Even when they must flee the Soviet Army, he remains steadfast, refusing to leave Isle, her mother and siblings to fend for themselves, even at his own detriment. Januz is my favorite character, and my heart was ripped out for it. As they escape, more than tears will be spilled.

Arno and his mother are going through their own dark winter of the soul, hiding in the ruins of a Königsberg mansion, with bombs falling around them, so much death from one day to the next, soon living like rats cowering in the shadows and rubble from the enemy. Neither knowing what happened to Arno’s father, or his siblings, afraid that maybe they were abandoned. His mother is losing faith and hope, weakened by her illness, unable to see the light at the end of this hell they now find themselves in. Tyrants and liberators are one in the same. Memories feel like nothing but fading lies, reality is distorted. Forced to give up their land, their very roots, each other… how is anyone to survive when bound to nothing, when loved ones are reduced to ash? Does it matter what side is winning when the world is decimated? Every character suffers invasion, and must do what they are ordered to do, so long as they have breath left within them. They must be grateful for another day, for crumbs. The war continues and they must give everything they have, including the lives of their sons and daughters. Some use stories to escape the scorched earth, but all stories must come to an end. The wind will change direction many times, and it is with a gift of an amber teardrop that will provide a future for Arno and Isle when their stories converge.

This is a painful read for every stage of life. Beautifully written despite the horrors because of the character Januz’s presence. He is able to warm the coldest heart. Yes read it!

Published May 1, 2021

Amazon Crossing

Attachments: A Novel by Jeff Arch

Like everything else. Sudden or slow, ready or not. Everything ends.

Everything ends, but endings can also be the beginning for new stories or a catalyst for unfinished ones. When the Dean of a boarding school in Pennsylvania is clinging to life, he says two names, those of his former students- Piccolo (Sandy “Pick” Piccolo), and Goodman (Stewart “Goody” Goodman). To his perplexed son Chip, the association between his father and these men, one a local and the other a mystery, is lost on him. He wonders, how two men who haven’t been in his father’s life for decades could now, as grown adults, find his father so important that they would ‘jump out of their lives just because he asked.” It’s a complicated story, one that is full of secrets, betrayals and promises that not even Pick nor Goodman are fully aware of.

In 1972 Pick and Goody become unlikely best friends when they meet at boarding school in Pennsylvania. It also where they both fall in complete and total love with Laura Appleby, who is destined to come between them. The dean has been a strong presence in many students lives, but it is these three who have altered his own future. Laura decides she too will make her way to Mr. Griffin’s deathbed, unsure what it means for her own marriage. When they are all once again together, they will finally face the pain they caused each other and question the cost. Intentions, passion, regrets, it is about the secrets we keep, the paths we chose and what we destroy in the process. It is how we are present and how we disappear when those most precious to us are in need. Each carries the weight of life, for some it is lies of omission, and with sealed lips life goes on until silence becomes transgression. Henry has brought them together, it is time to confront the mountain of time between them to get at the heart of everything that happened.

Henry’s son Chip, at eighteen, is already feeling crushed by the burdensome ache of first love. Now with his father in a hospital barely alive, this new mystery has become a thread, one that if pulled may unravel what he thought he knew about his own dad. Worse, there are things Henry kept from Chip about himself. How does Laura, Goody and Pick fit into his story? How will Chip’s own broken heart help him understand the choices of veritable strangers or teach him about forgiveness and love? Each character’s voice speaks to the reader, getting to the heart of why they did the things they did, as best they themselves can understand. Laura, Pick and Goody’s turmoil about what occurred while they were young has never left them, and without unpacking those feelings openly it has grown into wounds. The tale asks us how we confront possibilities and if we chose to wreck what we have, are we happier in the end? Can there be second chances? Can we be forgiven our youthful mistakes, often made in fear or without malice, ill intent? How do we bridge time? Are we punished for our decisions? The story dips its toes in both past and present, because one cannot exist without the other. These are all the steps that have led them all to a dying man’s bedside.

It was a decent read. Who doesn’t reach a certain age and wonder how things could have been different or regretted the hurt they’ve caused? Secrets grow into beasts out of our control, a sort of snapping animal on a very short chain and you can’t ignore it forever. A tale about endings that have to happen in order for the birth of something new, even if it hurts everyone in the process.

Publication Date: May 11, 2021

SparkPress

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

I started to learn how to twist my sorrow into a joke.

Danielle Geller’s Navajo mother, Laureen “Tweety” Lee, spent the last six months of her life homeless in Florida, six months that mother and daughter didn’t speak to each other, and then Danielle was called to her mother’s bedside as she lay dying. How can she confront her emotions, when her mother no longer has breath to answer for the past? So much about her mother’s life is either fiction or a mystery. Geller’s own mind has holes to fall through, too young to remember and the things she does recall are questionable. Her mother’s ill health and death was preventable, but what caused the slow kill? Was every choice hers alone, are others to blame?

Her inheritance is her mother’s lone suitcase and it’s contents. Letters, photographs, some junk, just evidence of ‘entire lives lived apart’ from Danielle and her sister Eileen. Diaries as far back as 1987, confessions and reflections that just make her feel sad for her mother. Trained as a librarian and archivist, it is these skills that will provide Danielle the guidance in tracking her mother’s past. Is she ready for answers to the harder questions?

Family has been both the hope and the hurt in her heart. Growing up taught Danielle to be silent, stoic as the adults couldn’t keep their own lives contained. Shamed by the illogical, cruel behavior of her father, a man who never listened, who told big lies, contradictions, who made others suffer as much as himself with his addiction to alcohol, his violence against women, all of it distorted reality. Humor became the means to twist her sorrow, longing for the mother who abandoned them and was as impossible to hold on to as the wind. “Tweety’s” visits were infrequent surprises, the keeper of their Navajo roots, it was she who could teach her daughters about their origins, about the reservation and family she chose to flee at nineteen. Until her mother’s death, she remembered only visiting the reservation once when she was three. All she has to rely on are her mother’s memories, which aren’t many. Returning as an adult, the partying, drinking, and neglect is a stark reminder of her own mother’s choices. That her mother lived between two worlds, still holding tight to the superstitions and rituals of her people, is easier to dissect once Danielle is among her mother’s tribe. It is enlightening, the rituals, prayers that are a part of their people, things Danielle and her sister barely comprehended in their youth especially with their mother lighting on important things like a butterfly, never present long enough to teach them anything, having another child, going through men, in and out contact. During adolescence, their father goes through women as much as their mother shakes off men, unable to make a relationship last for long, jobs just as fleeting. It’s no wonder Danielle and her sister Eileen’s bond is weak, that as they grew up the distance between them widened, nor is it a mystery that Eileen is just as lost, restless.

With her father and sister both addicts, in and out correctional institutions, their needs are like a violence, and ties she cannot sever. Somehow she is always in the middle, having to chose, love measured by whose side she is on. All this while trying to understand her mother, and heal from the wounds of her own damaging childhood. It’s a painful read about one mother’s slippery past- heartbreaking and honest. Not everyone who runs away from an abusive upbringing escapes, sadly this was Laureen Lee’s truth. Children are always the causalities, it is a vicious cycle. What will Danielle do with everything she learns? At times it’s a disjointed read but in a sense it lends credit to the scattered history Danielle herself must sort through.

Publication Date: January 12, 2021

Random House

One World

Jubilee: A Novel by Jennifer Givhan

She’d given him everything when she was still a girl and not old enough to take care of herself, let alone anyone else. She’d come back to him empty.

Jubilee is Bianca Vogelsang’s baby, who she watches over with fierce devotion and tenderness. She is a good, loving mother to her little one, the only problem is that Jubilee is a doll. When she shows up at her brother’s house in Santa Anna, she is a broken twenty-year-old who was meant to be away at University entering her junior year, writing her own poetry collection. Instead, on this dark night, she has returned, barely a sketch of her former self, bleeding, looking more like the walking dead. Worse, as she stands at the doorstep she has a baby bundled in her arm, as he hugs her, Matty feels she is burning up with a fever. Convincing her to let him hold the baby as he leads her into the sanctuary of his house, he realizes immediately the baby isn’t alive nor even human, it’s a doll. Matty isn’t able to make sense of what is happening, in her weakened state she can’t form the words to answer him, and Matty calls for reinforcement- their mother. Once there she knows they must rush Bianca to the hospital where they discover beyond her wrecked body, her mind has lost it’s grasp. Does she really believe her doll is a real baby?

The novel flashes back to the early days of Bianca “Bee” and high school sweetheart Gabe’s relationship. Moving too fast, getting caught up in bigger secrets, she makes a painful decision for the greater good at fifteen to later be betrayed by him when he leaves for college. With Katrina their story becomes a love triangle, with ties Gabe cannot easily sever and Bee always left waiting in the wings. Gabe knows how to “handle” his women when they act out of line and with her resentment and painful memories of the choices she made, Bee is quick to challenge him. But his touch always soothes the wounds. Still, they stick to each other, despite Gabe’s habit of coming and going as he pleases. When she needs him most after a terrible loss, he is with Katrina, who has everything she had to sacrifice. Things spiral out of control until we get to the bottom of the trauma and the reason someone as intelligent, and gifted as Bianca is now clinging to a baby doll.

In present time: Bianca is living with her brother Matty and his partner Handro, enrolled in college classes and attending therapy sessions entrusting Matty with Jubliee’s care. She has met someone in her Mexican Art History class, Joshua Walker. Joshua knows all too well about hardship having grown up in the foster system, even separated from his sister Olivia. When she got tangled up in the criminal justice system he moved the moon and stars to become the main caregiver to his nephew Jayden, who for all intents and purposes is his son. When he invites Bianca, a gorgeous, articulate, intelligent woman (who can carry on a conversation about Frida Kahlo and surrealism) on a date and into he and Jayden’s structured, safe lives he doesn’t yet know about her delusion. He learns soon enough it isn’t a joke nor a test, familiar with troubled youth and patients exhibiting early signs of psychosis, he is on high alert. First and foremost in his mind is Jayden’s safety, but beyond the doll, she seems so normal, certainly doesn’t appear to be harboring dark thoughts. What has he gotten himself into? Why can’t he walk away? What is this going to mean down the road for his little family of two?

Despite his misgivings, he and Bianca fall in love and just like her family at the advice of Bee’s doctor, allows her to work through her pain by way of Jubilee. But will she ever be able to detach from this crack in reality? What is at the heart of it? What exactly happened between she and Gabe? Joshua and Gabe are polar opposites, what violence occurred to make Gabe so repellant? Is he welcoming ruin into the only stable home Jayden has?

I went between 3 and 4 stars rating this novel, because at times I struggled with the flow of past to present, but it is an important storyline simply for the explosive relationship versus the healing one with Josh. The psychological break that is vital to Bianca coping with a bottomless loss is beautifully explored in this story. As is the fear other’s have when someone exhibits mental illness because most romantic interests would run the other way in terror. The abuses, the returning willingly to a cycle of degradation, how a childhood lacking made the things Gabe could give her so irresistible, blinding her to the uglier side. Then the sacrifice she made, far too naïve to understand the repercussions and pain that would follow. Adults get caught in the same web, having an intimate history with someone makes it hard to break free, it’s far more intensified in a teenager who lacks the experience that comes with maturity. Unlike privileged girls, for Bianca poverty is at the heart of her lack of choices, girls like her face consequences those with means never will. In the beginning, how she is defined and treated by others (Gabe’s family in particular) when the word ‘gringa’ is attributed to her, because her father is white and not Mexican like her mother, exposes another cross she has to bear. Laughter from his family when she mentions being a writer, her dearest dream, and that the true choice, in their minds is wife or career and nothing in between. This isn’t exactly support, especially for a young woman who uses poetry to keep from drowning. Writing, her one salvation.

In the betrayal of trust between she and Gabe, Katrina open fresh hurts with words like daggers about the private shamefulness of Bianca’s decision when she was fifteen, shedding light on how Bee feels about herself and the ways others judge her. As she says, girls like her are ditchwater girls… they must save themselves, and she tries, from that moment on her brother’s doorstep. It will take mountains of courage to recover.

There isn’t much room for innocence, but will she have a chance for a fresh start, a rebirth of sorts? Could Joshua and his sweet, funny son Jayden be a balm?

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Blackstone Publishing

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

An alien one day studying our collapse might well conclude: Freedom was too much for them. They would rather be slaves.

This truly is a smart book, as summarized the narrator describes “a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life.” These aren’t stories about people dying with dignity, or mothering their difficult (now adult) child with ease and flawless devotion. Characters are pissed off to be stricken with terminal cancer, or aging without grace. Let’s face it, despite commercials and stories to the contrary, age is often a lonely island, that person in the mirror, if you’re brave enough to confront them, can look like a terrifying, rotting creature. For the emotions our narrator’s friend is dealing with alone, I give this book four stars. It’s not generally like the movies, where people come to accept their cancer (or other illnesses) with grace and almost religious fervor. It is monstrously painful, some sick cosmic joke or betrayal. Come to think of it, old age too starts to feel like a horror story. Maybe it’s different if you have buckets of money to maintain your youth, I’ll never know. “What a nasty trick life had played on her”, I think that is the saddest story ever told!

People need to talk, the dam inside of us has to find its release and the writer in this book is an outlet. That we can find humor in our human suffering because “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry” can be applied to nearly everything the universe dumps on us. Life is made of beautiful things- sure but there will be disappointments, ingrates, liars, heartbreaks, affairs, illnesses, exasperating children, torment, pain and general chaos that we likely will never understand. It is almost an obligation for being alive, suffering unpredictable torments. It’s made so much worse when people with ‘good intentions’ try to make light of one’s pain, rather than just giving them the space to endure it, bitterly or not.

There are repulsive, slightly threatening encounters women tell expressing what it feels like to be a woman from being subjected to catcalls to being invisible. Beauty, ugliness, youth, age nothing holds steady, not for anyone.

When the friend from her youth makes a request, it’s bigger than she imagined, no longer can she remain the audience. It’s as if life has completed a strange circle, a conversation that began in her college years coming to fruition. It may well be an experience that “shows her the way”, a unique adventure.

I chuckled about the becoming a better person through yoga reflections, someone had to say it. What smacked me is the idea of a life lived in health dragging out the agony of disease. Life and it’s horrific ironies! Time that drags or speeds away, hostilities, memories, pity, and the happiness of childhood- so much to rehash, all of it rushing back towards the end.

I laughed a lot reading the stories about everyone she encounters, but I often felt a mean pinch in my heart because some of the telling is painfully sad. I wonder if I would have read this book the same if I were younger, I feel like having been wrung out in life makes it far easier to relate to the intelligence within, even when it thumbs its nose at wisdom, it manages to be wise. How is it I have never read this author’s sharp writing before? I enjoyed being her audience.

Published September 8, 2020 Available Now

Penguin Group

Riverhead Books

How to Make a Life: A Novel by Florence Reiss Kraut

In Kotovka she had been Chaya Amdur, but when the clerk asked her name she said, “Ida. Ida Amdur.” She changed her daughter’s names as well, Beilah to Bessie and Feige to Fanny. They would be Americans now.

Ida Amdur is fleeing a pogrom in Ukraine with her two daughters, Beilah and Feige in 1905. They will be Americans now, but to do so means closing the door on the abominable horrors her family suffered. It is also an end to her prosperous life, her very identity. Names may change, but it is more than tickets for the ship and a few personal belongings they bring with them to their new life. The memories are sealed tight in her eldest child’s brain, haunting even her dreams and keeps the pain Ida suffered fresh in her mind. It is the youngest, the beautiful Feige, nay Fanny, with her delicate beauty and mind untainted by the past who is her shining hope, her angel. Ida, however, doesn’t have the gift of leisure to spend her days and nights with her girls, she must toil to put food on the table and a roof over their heads in this new country. It is Bessie who must be a little mother to Fanny, feeding her in the evening and putting her to bed while Ida works. Life is coming together again but not seamlessly, and fate isn’t done with them. No matter how much she sacrifices, it never seems to be enough. The only thing she knows is, she must never look back if she is to survive. Naturally, Bessie is the daughter who carries the past into the roots of the future through her own children and everyone who follows.

The roots are stronger for growing in the darkest of years but survival comes at a cost. Bessie knows better than anyone that there is no escaping your origins. Taking on guilt, regret, shame that she didn’t ask for but must carry seems to be passed down to her children just like genes, one must wonder, does trauma, life experience travel through the blood too? What about someone’s namesake, can it too carry sorrow, joy? How else to explain her own eldest Ruby’s strange spells? The things she knows without understanding? Bessie is doing her best for her mother Ida, her husband Abe and their five children (Ruby, Morris, Irene, Jenny and Faye) but she feels so much older than her years. No matter how vigilant she is, she knows how quickly things can turn to tragedy and Ruby seems to be a catalyst for danger. As the years pass, the children come of age and find themselves tied in the knots of their family.

There is love and resentment when responsibility falls heavy on the shoulders of certain children. Despite the silence of the past, the choices they make as they fall in love and attempt to build their own futures, drudge up memories of Kotovka, Ukraine and the brutal murder of their people. Memories that Ida and Bessie have kept locked away from the delicate ears of her American children. It is as if the past is a poison, one that can vanquish any person or thing they hold dear. Yet, what people refuse to remember will always come to the surface.

The dynamics between the siblings is evidence that it isn’t only Ida and Bessie who have sacrificed. So much is out of our hands, and when mental struggles engulf one sibling, it is an undertow that takes everyone with them. In being the rock, one sister has buried her own desires, and when they awaken she can’t seem to steer them in the right direction. Sins seem to echo through time.

Once inside Ruby’s mind the reader can’t help but feel the chaos in her head and Florence Reiss Kraut’s incredible mastery of writing characters whose every emotion flows within the reader makes you feel they are your own. Each character has struggles, grudges, needs, wants, connections, and shame, so much shame- deserved or not. Sometimes we burn everything down around us through no fault of our own. Ruby and Jenny’s tangled lives evoke the bond of sisterhood but it’s not all glory and grace, anyone with a sibling knows this too well. How much should it cost to be a good sister, brother, mother, husband, wife, daughter or grandchild? What do we owe our ancestors and must history keep taking a pound of flesh for every child born?

Ruby and Jenny aren’t the only siblings struggling with each other. When Ruby’s adult son Michael decides to better understand his Jewish identity, embracing his religion it too creates waves of dissension between her and his sister Abby. Can you navigate faith when way those around you live their lives against your beliefs? Do you cut them free?

It’s not all doom and gloom, every family has it’s free spirits. There is Woodstock and detours, cross-country travel, Spain, India, Israel, faith, college, marriage, divorces, children, careers, love affairs… all the joyful and disastrous events in any life. Naturally mistakes are made, some unforgivable that push the family apart, sometimes with good intentions and at other times born out of old hurts and jealousies. This was not a light read, it will break your heart and hang you out to dry but I was riveted. A heavy read for the fall. Yes, add it to your list!

Publication Date: October 13, 2020

She Writes Press

Life Events: A Novel by Karolina Waclawiak

The agony was in the waiting.

Evelyn is running on empty. Comforted by ghost towns she drives through, as she avoids confronting adulthood and the strained relationship with her husband, what she doesn’t realize is the real burned out world is the one living under her skin- worse, it’s of her own construction. Tormented by her thoughts she finds solace joining a group. Under the training of leader Bethany, thirty-seven-year old Evelyn is on her way to becoming an exit-guide; a job helping people die consciously. In this program trainees are urged to be vulnerable, honest, raw with themselves and each other. For Evelyn, who spends her waking moments avoiding confronting anything that causes her pain, it is a jarring experience. How does one face their days knowing that their loved ones, like her parents, could one day disappear? Also on the verge of death is her marriage to Bobby. Constant to nothing, Evelyn can’t seem to figure out what she should be doing, anymore than she can understand her own emotions. Could Bobby be right about her inability to stick with anything? It is her desperate hope that death can give her life definition.

It isn’t the fear of her own annihilation (death) that terrifies her but of those she loves dying around her, a permanent abandonment. But there are bigger voids within her and inertia that keeps her from making grown-up decisions about which direction to go. She discovers there are no shortcuts through grief anymore than there are shortcuts through healing. Therapy has failed to give her the introspection that this new job venture seems to be providing. One of the helpers (Nathan) has been out in the field, enriched by it, enthusiastic, giving her encouragement assuring her she would be a perfect fit but she feels she cannot open up like the others and worse, she is attracted to him. Bobby can’t relate to her decision, after-all Evelyn has nothing to grieve, unless you count the possibility of one day having something to mourn.

Can Evelyn stop being an observer in her own life? When she meets her first client, Daphne, a sixty-four year old woman with Stage 4 breast cancer and the other clients that follow, she learns that life is made up of the ‘out-of-control things’. None of the clients look or behave as she expects, in fact often look very much alive. Daniel is too young to be dying and just like with Nathan, she is drawn to him too. What will they teach her? That acceptance isn’t necessarily defeat, particularly if one can still have the freedom of choices, even through great illness and loss. Evelyn has spent too much time half-in, as if by not allowing herself to feel fully, to open up, she is staving off pain and grief.

Evelyn is a woman in crisis, troubled that she can’t feel immediate warmth and intimacy as if something is wrong with her, some deep flaw, when really she is feeling too much- fear, loneliness, guilt, desire and shame. Shame that she is nothing but a failure, suspicious of lives variables in relationships, sure that she has too often strayed from being loyal to herself, her own needs. Like most people, she struggles to define herself, to find meaning in life but is it found in roles, through other people, if so- what happens when they are no longer here? Why does Evelyn still feel like a child, unable to have her life and all it’s pieces put together?

Then there is the strain of the relationship with her alcoholic father. The ever present question- why? Why do we do the destructive things we do, to ourselves, to others and why can’t we stop? Maybe there are no revelations in life and in spite of this we must be strong enough to carry on, thrive even through the pain of our darkest days. Fear is nothing new, it is a thinking creature’s price for being alive. Evelyn’s choice of becoming an exit guide when she is terrified of losing people herself is peculiar. She is stunted but the picture becomes clearer, how she got to this point, in understanding the complicated relationship between she and her ill father. Perfect read for anyone who has ever worked themselves into hysterics contemplating life and it’s meaning, or lack thereof. Sometimes when you look too closely you miss the meaning. How can you understand yourself or others if you won’t go all in? The problem for Evelyn is… how?

Publication Date: July 28, 2020

Farrar, Straus and Giroux