10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World: A Novel by Elif Shafak

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The possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilization was not as frightening as the simple realization that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us. Now that, she had always thought, was terrifying.

We begin at the end for Tequila Leila, ‘as she was known to her friends and her clients.’ Working, before her sorry death, at one of the oldest licensed brothels in Istanbul she is no longer in her apartment, now she lays dead, vanishing further away from the here and now, ‘inside a metal rubbish bin with rusty handles and flaking paint.’ How did she end up discarded like trash, less than trash? Her group of misfits and best friends  Sinan, Nalan , Zaynab , Humeyra  and Jameelah don’t know yet what has happened, they intend to find out. Her friends, nothing more than garbage themselves according to the country and times they live in, the sole family she has left-at least that will acknowledge her, are the ones left behind to care about what has happened to her, just another dead prostitute to the citizens, but so much more to them. They don’t have rights, they must find a way (of course it’s a crime) to give her a proper burial, they may be her true family, but not legally.

How did you get here Leila? The mind sticks around and soon there is an influx of memories, the earliest is her birth and through that ‘slippery passage’ the transgression that followed against her own mother is recalled. In fact, though this novel is about outcasts, and many will focus most on the transvestite Nostalgia Nalan and Zaynab the dwarf, whose stories are very engaging, it is Leila’s mother, aunt and uncle’s sordid tale that clutched at me. It is here that everything went awry, where the hope for a different sort of life, one free of ‘shame’ was made impossible. Here lies the wreckage, and how my heart broke for Lelia’s mother, all the lies that darkened the family. We learn who truly bears the mark of shame, and it isn’t in Lelia’s decomposing body.

Her first mistake was being born a girl to her father’s second wife, and what are women if not vessels to deliver cherished sons? And if they cannot, well the elders assured Leila’s father that the Qur’an allows a man to have up to four wives. What good are wives who have only miscarriages? God help you, woman, if you are a flawed. This time Binnaz (second wife) took care to heed old wives tales and superstitions, leaving nothing to chance. Yet it is the shock of how she is rewarded for her efforts that has lasting effects on Lelia, who has two mothers. What rights does a second wife have? None. She must be an obedient wife, who is she to complain? No one, nothing, just a mere woman. All Leila’s father Houran wants is for his baby girl (though he desires a perfect son) to one day make him proud, “true to your religion, true to your nation, true to your father.”  But how do you measure loyalty, pride, obedience, and chastity when others are bent on fouling the waters? Just who truly is a shame to their religion, to Allah? Rather than an example of piety, she is a challenge to her father, a thing to be cast away and disowned and surely through no fault of her own.

As her heart ceases to beat she recalls only the lonely child she was. The severity of her father, the odd behavior of her deeply trouble, sad, mentally unstable aunt and the complex relationship her mother had with her. It was a house of whispers, the women controlled by her father’s beliefs, and the simmering anger a confusion to Lelia who is sheltered from the truth.  After a terrible abuse, Leila loses both her family and love….

The streets are mean, it is in the brothels where hustlers bring her to find refuge and here Leila loses all hope of ever being a proper Muslim woman. It is also in this life where she finds her true family, and so begins their heavy stories, no lighter nor happier than Leila’s. These are the people tourists don’t see, and the ones the citizens would rather ignore or use, the disposable women. What happens to Leila is brutal, meant to expose the violence against women, but if you go back, isn’t what happened to Leila’s powerless mother just as violent in it’s own godless way? There is hypocrisy particularly in religious fervor, in the existence of these sinful places that are denied, and her friends lives are heavy, take “Osman” Nalan’s transformation, it is hard to contemplate in a time, place against women. Imagine trying to survive in her shoes.

It’s not solely those born native to the soil who face being subjugated by men. Some arrive there through trickery, as Jameelah’s story has her forced into our modern form of slavery. If you’re not forced into marriage, another brand of slavery for some as Humeyra can attest to , then you’re trafficked like Jameelah. Too, women subjugate each other as much as they uplift. We see this in the hatred between Jameelah’s stepmother and the cruelty Suzan heaps upon Binnaz, because I can’t think of a crueler thing. So while the tight bond and love Leila and her friends have, even despite death, there is shame too between women within this tale.

This is a world where fathers seek spiritual masters, where women are defeated, and being an outcast can end in brutal murder. Where unless you have family, you are buried like a pauper, trash. It’s an interesting blend of family, abuse, mental illness, politics, religion, feminism, society, poverty, wealth -there is a hell of a lot happening here. It’s hard for those of us living in the Western World to comprehend being punished for crimes against us, living in fear of religion. I hate to say this too, but in how men are teased by their elders it certainly fuels the fire, that man feels a push to punish his women… Women still have a long way to go when it comes to feminism, but in other parts of the world, you die for your dissension towards those in power. The filth upon you, put there by rape, is your fault and can never be washed clean. It’s unconscionable. These are places you do not speak up, as you see when Leila tries, look how that ends.

Her friends stories are told, and in fleeting memories Leila speaks but I was far more interested in her as a child. I felt I lost her when she grew up, however her friends fill that hole. They make up the ‘immodest sinners’ of these ‘immoral times’. Still, what they are forced to do is a freedom from where they escaped, lives among the ruins. Elif Shafak gives voice to those never heard, after-all, they don’t exist right?

Publication Date: September 24, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

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The Art of Regret: A Novel by Mary Fleming

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This meant that all the thoughts, all the feelings, all the half-remembered things stayed trapped in my brain. Like birds in an overcrowded cage, they flapped wing against wing with nowhere to go.

Trevor is an American, the United States his true home and this is the one permanent, solid fact of his childhood. Possibly the only fact he remembers correctly. It is in America that his family structure crumbles after incredible loss and from that moment on changes the meaning of home, both physically and emotionally. Silence serves to disrupt the natural process of grief, and France becomes his family’s destination all because mother had once ‘spent a fun year in Paris’. So much of his youth is buried, things never discussed, questions never posed, everything figured out on his own when he is just a boy which sadly Trevor builds his memory upon. As soon as he is all grown up, he will return to America! That is the driving force of his youth and everyone knows it. And yet…

We find him in his thirties, running a Parisian bicycle shop that he ‘inherited’ from the prior owner. Nothing about the old shop has changed, much like the rest of his life, here too Trevor is  ‘just passing through’ and has no plan to alter anything, leaving the shop much as it was when the previous owner Nigel was alive. It isn’t really his, that seems to be the one thought that pervades his life, the feeling that nothing belongs to him- not country, family, lovers nor business. The bike shop is barely surviving until he has a turn of luck when transit workers go on strike, paralyzing the train and subway system fighting for social security reform. Suddenly, his bike sales are kicking up, eviction lo longer looming but it was never his dream. Just another thing that ‘fell into his lap’, not much of a choice. He is the black sheep of his family, and when love presents itself, it’s going to be yet another threat to the shaky relationships he maintains with his brother and mother. Trevor finally feels something worth holding tight to, sordid or not, this attraction is impossible to deny and why should he? He feels electric with it!

His relationship with his brother Edward is one of punishment, rejection and regret. Wildly opposite of each other, both chose to process the tragedy of their childhood in different ways, one that distanced them as siblings and challenged loyalty (at least to Trevor’s mind). But how much of what we believe and build our morality upon is ever factual? How much do we destroy on our ‘self-righteous path’, forcing us to stop seeing our own blood as people with feelings too, doing their best to have a life? The danger in keeping the past locked up tight is how much love we push away, and all the mistaken beliefs that are given life. Trevor has always felt that his mother too is suspect, the careless whims leading them all to Paris, forcing her children into a brand new life in a foreign country, making a ghost of the family they once were, not realizing how much it will haunt Trevor into adulthood. Maybe the very things that drives him from his family began with her or at least his invention of who she is, rather than knowing the truth. It may not just be all ‘appearances’ his mother cares about, like any of us, she too has her reasons.

We often decide on our own facts within the family, and carry that into relationships we build or deny. There in lies the germ, how we invent everyone, rather than seeing them as they are and as we see with Trevor, we do it with ourselves as well. He spends so much time holed up in his own world, not wanting to let anyone in, especially his family.

What happens after the fall may be the making of Trevor, finally. Can family ever mend, from the biggest betrayals? Trevor has a lot to learn, his myopic view of everyone in his life alienates him, of his own accord. Tragedy slips in again and I felt choked up, which doesn’t happen often in fiction for me. I sometimes wanted to punch Trevor as much as his brother does. It all began with his mother and ends with her too, and all I can think about is how much we destroy our families when we stubbornly decide things, based on weak assumptions. How often it is our own lack of effort at fault, we ourselves who cause so much damage to our happiness, and that of others.

For a brief time the reader lives like a true Parisian, and it’s lovely but for me it truly is a novel about the art of regret, the ways we shock ourselves with our choices, behavior. If Trevor is lucky he will make amends before it’s too late. If he could just stop seeing himself as a victim that the whole world, or more his family, is against. I read it with a heavy heart, but the city of Paris was a balm.

Publication date: October 22, 2019

She Writes Press

 

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

 

 

 

 

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok

 

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Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. 

The sadness of this novel is like ants under the skin. There are choices we make because of this enormous love we have for our children that end up tearing apart their universe. It was only meant to be a year, as Ma and Pa tried to make a place for themselves in the Beautiful Country. But New York is so much harder than they realized it would be, with their meager savings soon exhausted, and no hope for work anytime soon, it is with a heavy, shameful heart that Ma decides she will do right by Sylvie and accept the offer from her cousin Helena. With Grandma living with her cousin in Holland, caring for Helena’s young son therefore, unable to come to America and help with her baby girl, Helena has ‘kindly’ offered a place for Sylvie to live. Her mother writes her, “if you were to entrust your most precious fruit to me, perhaps it might alleviate your burden.”  After much internal struggle, and the reality of their hardships in America as immigrants who cannot even speak the language, it is decided- but it is a devastating decision.

A child in between places her entire life, at the age of nine Sylvie finally returns to live with her biological family. Unlike Amy, born after the difficult years and her parents assimilation into American culture, Sylvie feels like the cast off, a stranger. Torn from the only home she has ever known, feeling more that they wanted her back only so she can babysit her little sister (the longed for cherished daughter), she feels as unwelcome here. Thrust into yet another world where she doesn’t fit, painted as ‘other than’ for her accent alone, suffering the humiliation of a corrective eye patch that only adds more fuel to her awkwardness, hurt by the racist barbs from her peers, her mind still embedded in all things Dutch, she is the one who never truly assimilates into one culture nor one home. In both houses, in both countries she longs for the things she has been forced to abandon. All a child feels is rejection, for a child’s heart doesn’t understand the reason of the adult world, a hungry belly is nothing compared to the hunger for a mother/father’s embrace. A grown woman now, Princeton and MIT educated, a management consultant, more than surpassing her parents humble world, “how did a brilliant creature like Sylvie arise from such mundane stock as our ma and pa?” she is called back to what she feels  is her true mother’s deathbed, her grandmother. It is here where she mysteriously disappears.

It is Amy’s turn to be the brave sister, “Amy, so much like Ma, had eaten from frightened hare meat”, who Sylvie said needed to broaden her horizons.  Despite her fear, she travels to the Netherlands, her sister needs her! As Amy tells the story from her perspective, we see a different side of the mother that Sylvie feels never wanted her. Helena and Willem aren’t as warm and welcoming as she expected, cousin Lukas exudes a mixture of anger and sorrow, there are implications, accusations about Sylvie from the moment Amy lands. This isn’t the life she had imagined for her big sister, how could ma and pa have given her away, sent her to this cold “Grimm’s fairy-tale world?” She doesn’t really know her sister, Sylvie has never opened up about the heart of her childhood here, with this other family, “The enormity of the existence my Sylvie had before me yawns at my feet like an abyss.”  She must dissect Sylvie’s life, and every single person who has their part in it. Sylvie’s secretly unhappy, inner life is spilling open, even her enviable marriage to Jim was collapsing, her return to Holland a chance to ‘leave everything behind’ only forges her deeper into old family dynamics, roles her calculated Aunt Helena created. Her old wounds throb, the past revealed to the reader, no matter how much she has made of herself, she still feels like nothing. Entrusted to her aunt and grandmother, no one ever gave a thought that maybe the ‘better life’ robbed her of every happiness. Never understanding just what it is about her that rubs Helene the wrong way, wondering what has soured her aunt’s heart so much that the niece she has been entrusted to raise she treats more like a burden, beneath her contempt. This callousness burdens Sylvie with the insurmountable task of trying to prove her worth, long after she has been gone. But surely too there were brief moments of kindness? What of the distance within’ her real family? Do her ma and pa ever get her fully back? She wonders if they ever loved her at all.

This novel is incredibly heavy, of course it’s about the sister’s relationship but as we delve deeper into ma’s pain a raw side of the immigrant experience is exposed, even in the “curtain” between mother and daughters. Sylvie surpasses every expectation and in doing so the divide grows wider and wider between she and ma. Such strength and independence in a child makes ma fearful,  the inability to be a mother in a way other american women can, language an insurmountable obstacle, there is comfort in shrinking oneself but it’s a temporary one when the true cost is affection, bonding. Sylvie is gone again, but she never seemed to ever return to begin with, and it is an earth shattering reality that things would have been different, had they only kept her in the first place. Just what was her goal?

Amy doesn’t really know her sister, failed to understand how having another family entirely affected her, for better or for worse. Jim and Sylvie fought before she disappeared? Why would she run away? Helena accuses her of taking her family inheritance, but Sylvie wanted for nothing, why would she? Greed fills Helena’s heart more than concern for Sylvie who could be hurt somewhere, all alone, in need of rescue. Just how did she survive this cold woman who raised her? What does she know? What of Grandma’s ‘jewels’, who did she intend have them, if they even exist at all? Who is suspect? What is Amy missing? Maybe Sylvie isn’t the only one she didn’t really know at all.

The police don’t seem to give Amy hope, and Amy knows in her heart it’s time to ‘step up’ and be the sister Sylvie has always needed. She must shuck of her inborn cowardice. “Sylvie, where are you?” She must discover the who Sylvie is first. Every revelation gives rise to more questions. Anyone could have been involved, no one is as they seem, certainly not Sylvie’s husband Jim who has his own deep secrets and is unraveling, nor even Sylvie herself. How could so many terrible things have been happening in her big sister’s life, kept so neatly contained, that Amy didn’t see the fissures? How could two sister envy each other’s lives without understanding the pain humming beneath the surface? How did Amy miss so much of her family’s history, the bitterness?  She is navigating Sylvie’s Netherlands, hoping to feel her big sister return to her in this way, trying to uncover what chased her away. She may discover a heart that was more vulnerable than Sylvie ever let on, a woman far more fragile than her bravado implied. Love can sneak in even when hate wants to assert dominance, all of our intentions can destroy the very family we seek to protect. What about ma and pa? Surely the blame must be smeared all over them too, for ever sending Sylvie away. She must discover the one thing that has led to her sister’s mysterious vanishing, if she ever hopes to find her. But she may discover a darker family history, exposing long buried shame… will there be any love left for forgiveness.

Published June 2019  Somehow I kept putting off this review to meet with the release date, and am kicking myself for not posting it!

William Marrow

Harper Collins

 

 

 

 

 

The Years After You by Emma Woolf

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There’s something going on. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but Harry’s been acting weird all evening. And there’s something else- the house feels different.

Relationships truly are a mystery, Lily’s is that much more complicated as ‘the other woman’. Desire takes us where it will, Lily knows this better than anyone when she falls in love with her boss married Harry,  twenty years her senior. He isn’t in love with his wife anymore, she isn’t giving him what he needs anymore but isn’t it always ease to poke another person’s ‘dead’ marriage with a stick, to commiserate with your lover, doesn’t it act as a spell to ward off logic? Pippa is Harry’s wife, Pippa who is in her mid forties and feels every bit of her age, who senses what she doesn’t know, feels Harry pulling away, checked out emotionally, going through the motions.  She knows something is off but isn’t seeing the whole puzzle, not yet. Isn’t sure of her doubts, but they are growing. Inside Harry resents Pippa, posting about their ‘happy’ family on social media, his marriage feels like a web he is caught in, desperate to understand where the carefree, beautiful woman she once was went. Of course here I think, she grew older, life’s demands pull at us, in any long term relationship, married or not, it’s hard to keep things fresh, the intimacy in living together pulls us close but too, it can be very unromantic, that’s life. When you have children, of course attention is divided and time is harder to corral.

Harry wants to be a good man, he loves his children but he feels alive again with Lily. He fell for the much younger Lily against his will, it isn’t some cheap thrill for him, and it’s taking an emotional toll. This love he has for her is enough to risk being caught, bringing her into his own home! All I could think was, does he want a confrontation, in a sense forcing Lily into solidifying her feelings, their relationship? This time they get away with it, but Harry doesn’t want to get away with it. He would give up everything for her. For Harry there must be a painful ending to reach the joyful beginning if he is to have Lily in his life, he must give up his wife, but what about his boys? Harry does torture himself, Lily soon becomes all he can feel!

Pippa is tracking Harry’s lies, people don’t lie unless there are secrets. He is no longer making an effort in their family. She has become the invisible wife, it can’t possibly be her insecurities, she sees him on the phone late at night, he is more often than not late from work, she can no longer ignore what is right in front of her face. But there is fear too in facing the ugly, brutal truth of no longer being wanted, loved. When the confrontation comes, he won’t be able to blame her, to tell her she is just ‘overeating’. Her words drift over cyberspace, her only comfort is through the followers of her blog who check on her. Just how much of her life, her marriage to Harry has been a lie? Is she to see things end? How much time does she need to get used to the idea of divorce? She isn’t the one who wants her family destroyed! She didn’t sign up for that. Should she just remain on the periphery of her own marriage hoping against hope that Harry will love her again, should she allow herself to die inside because he is unhappy and just get used to the idea?

Lily has allowed her life to revolve around her beloved Harry and stealing any time she can with him, always at his convenience, because it isn’t easy for a married father to get away. But what will happen if/when she has him fully to herself? Isn’t there safety too in a relationship that offers you freedom, the refreshing comfort of distance? What happens when you realize you don’t fully know the man you’ve entered into an affair with? That you aren’t privy to the same man as his wife is?

We stumble into love, fall in and out of it… it’s always thrilling at the start, when the dew hasn’t been wiped from our eyes, before we’ve uncovered flaws, and with affairs like Harry and Lily’s, you are not fully engaged in each other’s lives, there is protection in the bubble of your love. It’s not being tested in the way of family, friends, children and outside influences chipping away at your love for each other. Some do stay when they fall out of love in their own marriages, be it for the children, due to finances, their own inertia, their cowardice, out of loyalty and sometimes they fall back in love. Sometimes it’s not about your spouse, it’s your own funk that distorts reality.  Even if you leave for another woman/man, if it’s internal suffering, that goes with you too.

In Lily’s case, her sister tells her ‘you’re the free agent’ but in reality, that’s not true when you get entangled in another’s life, and allow them to help you. You have involved yourself, there is always the risk of it all coming crashing down when other people can be hurt.

For Harry he doesn’t see a solution, stay… leave… nothing is as it could be. He carries a heavy depression, but maybe it isn’t about Lily or Pippa maybe an affair is a catalyst. He is conflicted to the point of breakdown. His emotions are running away from him, he isn’t maintaining his calm, and there will be consequences for them all.

This is more about what remains in the aftermath of an affair. How things fall apart, or come together, what happens to those left behind to salvage whatever they can from the person they loved. It is an exploration of where we place blame and how we move on. I feel the story somehow is more about Lily, particularly towards the middle when we learn about her own abandoned family and her father Claude. Part two feels like another life entirely, and maybe that’s the point.

Can you answer the question “why do some people just pick up an leave”? Hmmm. Human beings are complicated wrecks sometimes. We often go against our better judgement and let our hearts take the lead. Love is a risk like anything else, even the best relationships can wither and die as much as the most ill advised ones can surprise us all and last a lifetime. Love can be found in the most unexpected places, even after you’ve lost hope.

Publication Date: October 8, 2019

Amberjack Publishing

 

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