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

 

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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

The World That We Knew: A Novel by Alice Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publication Date: September 24, 2019

Simon & Schuster

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

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

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

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

Available from Warthog Productions

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

 

 

The Distance Between High and Low by Kaye Park Hinckley

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Peck and I were twins, too. In the darkest of watery wombs, we waited for the voice of our father, and heard silence.

In their old house in Highlow, Alabama on land that has been in their family for generations Lizzie and Peck (twins) struggle with more than just teenage angst. Their mother Lila holds the secret to who their father is, and how they long for him, no one more than sensitive Peck but how can anyone make sense of their mother’s world, what is true, what’s fiction? Peck has his beliefs, and he thinks their dad is an artist (just like their mother) living in Cincinnati, the very place Mamma once ran off to art school in her younger years! Finding a stand in daddy of sorts at the McSwain house next door, Peck hangs around Hobart (a transplant adoptee who isn’t a true native and never will be, despite how desperately he longs to fit in). Hobart has always been sweet on their mother though he has a meanness brewing inside of him and schemes. The cloud of his dark past keeps his heart in shadow, all he wants is what he feels should be his! Lila is as unreachable as the stars, holed up in her room painting portraits on her china, oblivious of her children and the rest of the world. Lila has always had a particular mental fragility that drug addiction and heartbreak exacerbated, returning home pregnant with twins years ago and broken from the wounds of the world. Pearl runs the family with the help of Half-Cheroke Indian, and protector, Izear carrying his own secret history but as much as son as can be. Lizzie and Peck want answers, they want a father but Lila is ‘deluded’, something even Hobart has known since he followed her as a young boy, even then a love-struck fool. Lizzie thinks Hobart is nothing but an intruder in their lives, but she has no idea just how deeply he is embedded in their stories.

Lizzie tolerates the presence of  seven-year old Little Benedict, sadder than all of them put together. He wants nothing more than to burrow into Lizzie and Peck’s family, for Pearl to be his own Grandma and Lila his mamma, but he already has one and she has whiskey to drink and his daddy as an enabler. The people are all watched over by Pearl’s cousin The Judge, contained in notes tracking the rich history of Highlow.  Peck discovers a secret that his family would be shocked to learn, one that forces Hobart to do his bidding and help him capture the Osprey he has been burning to own! No one is as good a hunter of wild things than Hobart. Sometimes what we desire can be our downfall.

No one will tell Lizzie anything, like who the blind man is that showed up to their open house. Peck too can’t tell her truths. Some things that are revealed do nothing but upset one’s entire world. “Knowing a circumstance and accepting it, are two distant things from each other as high is from low.” Knowledge isn’t necessarily power, more often than not it’s a burden. Lizzie will know Peck’s longing for that dangerous bird is more about filling the hole not having a daddy has made. Knowing things hurts!

Hobart has proof he belongs here, but a mean twist of fate fills him with shame and changes everything. It’s not just Pearl’s family whose desires are on loan! When tragedy consumes them all, Lizzie strikes out to fill the hole in her own heart only to learn she isn’t the only one who is devastated. Soon, she will understand her family’s history at Pearl’s telling and all the sorrowful ways history repeats itself. Everything is changing so fast, even Benedict “Benny” has a new sort of family, but there is still longing for vengeance inside of Lizzie as she watches Hobart, Mama’s answer is a gun, her way of coping! Hatred can get “pretty tiring” but forgiveness asks far too much, even if it’s Pearl’s way it seems diluted in Lila and Lizzie’s blood. So much confusion all just for the longing of a father’s love, not so easily replaced.

This is a book full of Highlow secrets, a family with a heavy history that challenges forgiveness and reminds us all that the whims of fate cannot be controlled, not even when one’s intentions are for the greater good. A sad tale.

Available Now from author Kaye Park Hinckley Finalist: William Faulkner/William Wisdom Competition. Finalist: Tuscany Prize for Fiction

Prytania Publishing

 

 

 

All That’s Bright and Gone: A Novel by Eliza Nellums

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There is a woman who is crying in the corner, real quiet. I don’t like it when grown-ups cry. Most of all I don’t like it when Mama cries.

Aoife (pronounced EE-fah, which the adults never seem to get right) is caught up in the confusion and chaos of all the grown-ups around her. She understands the meaning of gone. Gone is forever, gone is DEAD– just like her big brother Theo. She knows better than to talk about it or ask questions, he was murdered and Mama can’t stomach the grief. She has a vague memory of him, one day on the beach, she was lost and he found her, but it’s all so muddied. Luckily for Aoife, she has a constant companion, Teddy who isn’t imaginary no matter what people say! She can see him clear as she sees her best friend Hannah, so he is real! He is a bear! It isn’t smart to talk about him though, especially not to the ladies Dr. Pearlman sends from sea-pee-ess. Sea-pee-ess are government people that help families, but if you say things that seem weird they might take it the wrong way. One thing is certain, the adult world is confusing! Theo’s murder isn’t the only mystery, her whole life feels like one.

Siobhan (her Mama)  has gone away, but she isn’t gone away like Theo, she can and will return at some point. Something is wrong inside of her and it all goes back to the day she broke her own rule of talking to people who aren’t there. Mama was so angry, yelling at her dead son. The doctors just need Aoife’s help trying to understand the incident, and looking for someone to take care of her while Mama is away. There is no daddy for Aoife, she is special, she was born in the cabbage patch, it’s a fact- her Mama told her! There is an Uncle Donny, her mother’s younger brother  and he tries his best to care for her (after all, he is a single, childless bachelor) but he can’t keep Aiofe from running off with Hannah, trying to gather clues and weed out suspects of  her brother’s murder.

Uncle Donny knows Mama’s sickness is confusion sickness. He understands the deep disappointment Aoife feels, Mama promised to take her to see the fireworks this year, but if she’s away she won’t be able to go.  He also understands and says it’s okay if she doesn’t always miss Theo, but any mention of her brother is met with “let’s not talk anymore about Theo today.” No one ever seems to ever want to talk about him. Hannah gets secret messages in dreams, Hannah is older and is going to be a detective one day.  She can talk about Theo to her! Hannah even dreamed about him. Can she solve the crime still if Hannah abandons her? Soon, Aoife begins to wonder if her family really is crazy, like people say. But the church has saints and the holy ghost, that’s not crazy.

Could Mama’s friend Mac be a killer? He is sort of strange and angry. All she wants is to escape to the Secret Place that Teddy discovered. Teddy is trying to tell her something, all the time, but it doesn’t make sense. Uncle Donny is doing his best with Mama gone but he isn’t the greatest looking after her. What if the big bad man comes to drag her off to the Children’s Prison like Hannah warned her would happen?

Everything is happening fast, adults are telling her things that she can’t comprehend, the story of her family is different than what Mama has told. What if she is ill, like her mother, maybe Teddy isn’t real! Even he is starting to scare her. Is she crazy? If memory is tricky, it’s a foreign language for a six year old. In the interest of protecting the innocence of a child, adults often aim for silence, which leaves an imaginative kid like Aiofe to construct a world so far removed from reality that what she believes to be concrete fact is more painful than the truth. Mental illness swims through the story, it’s disheartening because there is no doubt Aiofe and Sibohan (her mother) love each other, but she slips away when the meds are wrong and the stresses of life are magnified when you also have to cope with your health. The world is often kinder if your illness is physical rather than mental, not to say it’s easy either way, but the stigma of mental illness is cruel when children catch wind of it. Worse, there is always the looming threat that if Sibohan can’t keep it altogether, Aiofe can be taken away! Our little Aiofe, at six, is becoming aware of what society deems normal vs. abnormal and just where her family fits. There is hope, and I think Uncle Donny beautifully explained what being sick for Sibohan means. Sure, you may not be cured, but you can be treated to live with it better. I like that, that’s reality.

I was surprised as much as Aiofe by the revelation of what happened to Theo and I felt as frustrated and confused as she did. There is this strange span of time when you’re still not fully present, your mind is just giving birth to reasoning, it’s developing and you are learning to distinguish between emotions, facts, and fantasy.  This is where Aiofe is. I especially like what happened with she and Hannah, because kids can be fair-weather friends sometimes and mean as snakes not because they’re terrible beings, but because they are immature. It made the story far more genuine. Well done, this will be released later in the year, add it to your December TBR list.

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

Turbulence: A Novel by David Szalay

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She was very aware of her failure to be equal to the needs of this moment. 

In these connected stories each character is on a journey, be it on an airplane, within memories, or flying to their future. The title isn’t lost on readers, what is life but an irregular motion disturbed not by currents but by every experience, however great or small,  one encounters? Human beings, despite their location on the planet, confront joy, sorrow, fear, hope, love, loss and death. Every story is not the same, that’s the gift of being human. We glimpse moments here, but we don’t stay long. In one story an accident resulting in the death of a young man causes Werner , on his way to the airport, to be late for work, setting off memories of his tragic past and the death of a sister. This story was as heartbreaking as Marion’s, desperate to catch a flight to Seattle where her daughter has just gone into labor. In a moment when her daughter needs her most, all Marion feels is ‘her own insufficiency as a human being’. Despite being a famous author whose writing is meaningful enough to be taught in classes as far away as Hong Kong, she doesn’t have the right words to ease her daughter’s devastating reality. It’s easy to relate to those pauses in time, when what is asked of us is impossible to translate. We sometimes fail, because we don’t know what is required, or how to give it.

There are love affairs, and the struggle of ‘do I stay or do I go?’ The kernel of truth that maybe it doesn’t make a difference, that either choice is neither solution nor problem. In DEL-COK sisterhood is interrupted by domestic violence, despite a husband who is distant, working in Qatar. The frustration that is born out of caring, the cracks that could be fixed if only others would make the effort, the right choices depresses Anita. The many ways we are tied to each other, for better or worse. We all take flight for different reasons, not all lead to happy reunions. When Shamgar lands in Doha, we learn what it means to have a ‘sponsor’, which for all intents and purposes is really an owner. Yet even here, working a garden that will never be his, something else claims his longings. The story of Ursula, and her daughter Miri’s choice of  partner with Mousa (a Muslim man) explores love with an asylum-seeker, the mistrust and suspicion that arises, warranted or not. This collection is about people around the globe, our commonalities, our differences. In the end, aren’t we all sharing the human experience? Haunted by the same things, filled with new beginnings and endings, longings, grief… just trying to make sense of the world and our own confused hearts?

Death hovers in BUD-LGW, when a young woman comes home to visit her sick father in London, accompanying him for his scans at St. Mary’s hospital. She has news of her own to share, and her father can only hope he lives long enough to see it happen. It’s a fast read but meaningful despite the slim pages. This is my first read by David Szalay, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of All That Man Is. It’s evident that Szalay is able to get to the heart of his characters, regardless of what continent they inhabit, and write of experiences we can all easily relate to. The stories don’t have an ending, they are as open to the characters as your own life remains until your last breath.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Scribner