House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

We arrive in the blizzard of 1993, coming from rice paddies, mango trees, and the sun to February in the Empire State.

Ly Tran has written an incredibly moving memoir about her family’s move from war-torn Vietnam to a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The sickness from turbulence and three weeks of travel they endured was a precursor to the culture shock of their new lives in America. At three years old, Ly Tran was “vaguely conscious of the world around me”. As the youngest of four children, her memories of the journey and her homeland are fragmented, gaps filled in by her parents and older siblings alongside flashes of feelings. For her, adjusting to their new reality is easier, the past soon fading. In time, she is torn between two cultures, two worlds. Her family lived along the Mekong river, one can imagine the alien feeling, the rupture of leaving nature and all it’s glorious colors, rhythms for the hustle and bustle of a gritty, gray, American city. Before they are even settled, the family is in debt to their sponsor. With a language barrier alone, despite being a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army (and a POW for a decade), jobs that can support their family of six aren’t easy to attain. To ‘make ends meet’, Ly and her siblings help their parents with sewing, forming their own little production line on the living room floor of their two-bedroom railroad apartment. Unlike other American children, there isn’t time for play, delicious candy and tv binging. In the Buddhist tradition, one honors parents and family above all else, but as the years pass and Ly struggles at school, honoring thy father isn’t such an easy faith to follow.

Grateful for their place in this new world, though awake to harsh realities, Ly’s parents cling to their faith and work ethics. They know they will be okay, despite the mountains of obstacles before them. Life tests them, people deceive, take advantage, threaten. Carrying fear in his heart from the horrors he left behind, Ly’s father doesn’t want to make waves, stand out. The children come up with American names for each other, proudly, but is that enough to make roots in this new land? Their father’s fears manifest in strange behaviors and irrational decisions exacerbating Ly’s school struggles. Worse, her parents demands that, like her brothers before her, she leave behind a legacy of academic excellence make her feel anxious. It is not so easy when socially awkward, and struggling with vision issues! When she speaks her truth, that she cannot see well enough in school to learn math, her father’s reaction isn’t the fatherly wisdom she was hoping for. Maybe she really is just stupid, maybe glasses are a government conspiracy, but his truth clashes with her own reality. Despite his rants, she cannot see, it’s a stubborn fact one cannot ignore and here she is meant to swallow her truth. This is just one of many impenetrable walls she will face within her family.

Nothing beats elevating one’s place in life, no matter the hours of toil it takes. Why else did her parents bring their children to this country, if not to earn a full education, the only ladder to that high place in life? But in this land of dreams, for girls, sometimes there are violations. When one learns to endure, sometimes they learn to submit when they should fight. Watching her mother humiliated when working as a manicurist at a Brooklyn salon puts a bitter seed in Ly’s soul. Ly often works beside her, and yet this becomes just another place her mother refuses to stand up for herself, just like in the family home when facing Ly’s irrational father. Love and resentment, her father’s overbearing will makes home hell. Things get worse when a helpful teacher gets involved, threatening their House of Sticks.

Ly’s coming of age is an intimate look at trying to fit in while trapped between two cultures. Her guilt for feeling ashamed and perplexed by her odd father. Feeling abandoned by her larger than life brothers, her mother’s acceptance of the ugly world both infuriating and confusing. Confusing because she longs to protect her. Wanting to just be a normal American girl, not feeling like a failure who can’t live up to her father’s expectations. It is an intimate window into loyalty, faith, family and the inheritance the brutality of war leaves for the next generation. It takes years for Ly to come to terms with her father’s fragility, to understand why her mother more often than not sides with her husband, despite the cost. Becoming American doesn’t erase her father’s years of suffering, imprisonment, labor, indoctrination while forced into a “re-education camp”. From a place of freedom, how can Ly fully comprehend everything her mother and father had been through, had given up to provide their children with a better future? In turn, how can they understand the weight their daughter carries in her heart searching for a place for herself, trying to feel like an American with the traditions of the culture they left behind shadowing her every move? A place where she is a dutiful daughter but also a free person, able to use her voice, speak her truth and create a future that feels right for her?

There are funny moments and harsh ones. It is a heavy duty, one’s heritage. Can she honor the past, and yet build her own future, free of the hooks of familial expectations? An emotional journey and a beautiful memoir. Add it to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Scribner

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

We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day: A Novel by Ivana Bodrožić, Translation by Ellen-Elias Bursac

“The worst part is realizing you can’t open the door from the inside,” was the first thing she said.

War, displacement, emigration, ethnic cleansing… Vukovar, a city in Croatia, saw one of the biggest battles since 1945 in Europe with the siege by the (JNA) with support by paramilitary from Serbia. Croatian soldiers and citizens were outnumbered but defended against the Serbians, the battle was bloody and ended in people being killed or thrown out of Vukovar. You can go further back in history with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, the tensions didn’t simply begin with the Yugoslav Wars. Ivana Bodrožić was born in Vukovar, lived there until her own father disappeared then she and her family moved to a refugee hotel in Kumrovec. Though this is a fictional story of an unnamed city, the events within are based on actual historical events that touched the author’s own life. I asked my father, who escaped his homeland of Hungary as a young child during communist occupation, a lot of questions about the creation and history of Yugoslavia. He knows a lot more than me about the division between people there than I can even comprehend. This novel deals with the aftermath from nationalism and those who wanted independence, the splitting apart of Yugoslavia and how it effected the next generation. It is what remains after children grew up segregated, Serbian and Croatian, what happened during ‘peaceful reintegration’ when the rubble was cleared away and what clearly remains are the ruins within the hearts and souls of the people. Can you simply unite after the bones of your family has been cleared away? People long for a reckoning after every horror and humiliation has been committed against them and their loved ones. The anger stays after being expelled, imprisoned… What happens to rumored criminal networks? When “gangsters gain legal footing” for their businesses? Money, blood, and power. The people were left to suffer from political and economical damage long after the war ended.

In the middle, always, are the children trying to move forward into a future where division has been set by the adults. Dejan is a perfect example of cultural identity and who you claim allegiance to.

Nora Kirin is a journalist chasing a story, and a juicy one at that, at least for those hungry for tabloid fodder. It began with a sordid affair that ended in a murder, but it is a political fire too. Kristiana is a Croatian- language teacher at the general and vocational high school working with ethnic Serbian students. Her Croat husband Ante (a war veteran, formerly in a prison camp) has been murdered by her lover, seventeen-year-old Dejan. Dejan is a Serbian, whose Grandfather was one of the Chetnik leaders. The salacious story is already making the rounds, a woman seducing a teen to kill for her, “one of theirs”. Nora would far rather expose the system, like the dirty Mayor but is resolved to do her best with her current assignment. What she wants is to tell the woman’s (now a prisoner) side of the story, not just continue to smear her. Her work and this city is taking her back to the past, remembering what she’d rather forget, like the disappearing children from her heavy youth. She must seek out people to interview, despite her discomfort moving through the city streets and every memory it evokes. In interviewing the victim mother, one can grasp the sentiment behind “one of ours” and “one of theirs” that isn’t erased, despite the push for unity, integration. When the war ended, new battles would eventually ensue amongst the people, often through political manipulations , of course. Children of all ages are divided at daycare and school by fencing, Serbs one side Croats on the other. Brigita is the high school principal with bigger ambitions also tied to Kristina’s story, the corrupt mayor and bribery. There are singers who ‘toy with politics’, a PTA president who is a ‘self-appointed guardian of ethnic identity’, a friendly taxi driver Marko-whose story about life in the city during the war engages Nora, a philosophical poet, and many people who have dabbled in the war with no “proof” of any crimes committed. Those in power do not take kindly to being publicly disgraced. The love triangle murder she is covering may well become an “interethnic conflict”. But it is the pursuit of truth, for her father, she is most concerned with.

This is a place where their entire world, for all the people involved, has collapsed even down to their very language. Nora is warned to stay away from dangerous men, who destroy everything, but she has to know why her father was murdered, who did it, regardless of her own well being. Not even the light of blossoming love can stop her from getting justice. What she doesn’t know is so much worse than she can imagine. Everyone is strangely intertwined. A turn of fate, helping someone can lead to more suffering. Unimaginable suffering. “Everything is linked to everything else,” even things that seem inconsequential and so much of it is a part of the war.

You have to pay attention, there are connections you will miss if you don’t read closely. It might help you to research about the wars in the 1990’s in what was once Yugoslavia. Some wanted to keep it a country, others wished to become separate countries. Reading different sides is truly only going to give you a basic understanding as an outsider. The line I quoted is brilliant too, ‘you can’t open the door from the inside’, because it’s hard to comprehend war at all, or even ourselves and everything that happens when we are in the midst of it. Those who are in the war have far more experience, but may not necessarily be able to make much sense of it either. A whole generation can be destroyed by bloodshed. Childhood, community, family, innocence, the future- all of it swept from beneath your feet. War makes prisoners of us all. Yet there are still things worth fighting for, aren’t there? For Nora at least.

Publication Date: April 20, 2021

Seven Stories Press

Something Unbelievable: A Novel by Maria Kuznetsova

“And soon I will evaporate and you will have no story to remember.”

Time has been brutal for widowed Larissa, and now approaching her ninetieth year, living in Kiev she video conferences her granddaughter Natasha, who lives in America- which may as well be another planet altogether. Natasha’s emotional state is harried dealing with the exhaustion of caring for her newborn daughter, burdened by her husband Yuri’s friend Stas (who is currently crashing at their place) and juggling motherhood while auditioning for parts. The truth of it is, she is barely clinging to the end of her rope. The only saving grace is that Stas is great with children, her and Yuri’s baby in particular. When she asks Larissa if she will finally tell her the story of her own grandmother, the whole story about her life during World War Two, she is surprised her grandmother barely puts up a fight. Larissa wonders if her granddaughter really cares or is just using it as a distraction. Larissa admits to herself she has told it in bits and pieces, not all of it, it wears on her heart to remember. Tonya was a spoiled woman of wealth who married a banker, misfortune came to call with the Revolution in Ukraine, and the couple’s ‘fine apartment’ was seized by the Bolsheviks. It is everything that followed after, when the plan to flee their homeland with their children is altered after her husband’s death from typhus and Tonya is forced to make big decision on her own. This choice changes the course of her two sons lives. This is how Larissa’s father and uncle, as children, were sent to an orphanage. It is also how the weak, spoiled Tonya was able to maintain her lavish lifestyle.

Years later, Larissa’s mother and father meet at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev, marry and have two daughters, Larissa and her younger, achingly beautiful sister Polya. Naturally their shallow grandmother adores Polina and lavishes attention on her, which doesn’t endear the sisters to one another. Life goes on until threats of Hitler invading the Soviet Union begin to take hold and the family must evacuate by train to the remote town of Lower Turinsk. Larissa’s family tale spirals into darkness and raw brutality. They are not alone on this uncomfortable cargo train, joined by their father’s brother and his family along with another couple and their sweet little girl. Soon, they will be “as beaten down as mushrooms stocked away deep in a forest.” Hunger, fear, jealousy, desire and death shadow their flight to safety. Larissa opens up about her love for two brothers, wildly different in personality and temperament. Remembering being driven to distraction by the crying jags of her silly sister and grandmother, of being wearied even of the terrors visited upon them, tough as nails Larissa lets the memories flow despite the ache. Everything she thinks she understands about her silly sister is challenged over the years, turning her bitterness into something inexplicable. She has many regrets and is visited by the spectre of death, outliving even her own daughter, Natasha’s mother.

Natasha is ashamed, at times, of her own weakness and struggles, particularly knowing her ancestors were made of sterner stuff. Just imagining everything they lived through makes her feel like a pitiful creature. Motherhood hasn’t come as naturally as she expected it to, Yuri is no longer interested in her as a woman it seems and the only roles she fits the mold for are those of proustite or spy. Her body hasn’t felt like her own since giving birth, and the memories she’s suppressed about her dead mother and her own hidden talent has her struggling with the past. She needs to feel like herself again, to have something that is her own. She needs to work, it is acting that fills her with purpose! Can’t a mother have a life too? Though the challenges Natasha faces are nothing near as severe as war, starvation, and the horrors her grandmother Larissa confronted, there are still parallels. The telling draws them closer and the struggles of what it means being a woman with passions, while mothering a child, is a bridge to understanding the choices we make. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a choice, beautiful new stories can be born from the ruins.

As Larissa passes down this inheritance, her story, it reverberates through time. Natasha takes the tale and reshapes it to fit present day, and share the meaning, the very truth that is the beating heart of Larissa’s life. It is about being vulnerable, selfishness, love, desire, war, death, how we judge others and ourselves and all the misunderstandings in between. It is where we go with what we have when we arrive in unexpected places. It is beautiful but make no mistake, Larissa’s past is hell, one that is witness to the ugliest of humanity and still she goes on in spite of a world that tries to break her, carrying her ghosts with her.

It is a harrowing tale of war and family. Gorgeously written, I can’t wait for her next book, this one left me breathless. I really enjoyed Maria’s previous novel Oksana, Behave but this one is a punch in the gut!

Publication Date: April 31, 2021

Random House Publishing

Gerta: A Novel by Kateřina Tučková

The war was long. It began inconspicuously, with Gerta barely noticing, and then spread until by the end, it had infiltrated every corner of their lives.

After World War II, over 20,000 ethnic Germans were expelled from the city of Brno, Czechoslovakia to Austria, an expulsion known as ‘the death march’. Many of these Germans had lived in the country for centuries and were now facing death from starvation, illness (typhus and dysentery) , and execution. Women and men, elderly, children witnessing atrocities, rapes, if they survived the march they were forced into labor camps. Many never made it beyond the border. This was retaliation for German occupation, now subjected to similar treatment, inhumanity the Jews faced by the Nazis.

The novel begins with young Gerta and her best friend Janinka, their friendship slowly splintering when Gerta is forced to attend the League of German Girls, where her mother belives she’ll be brainwashed and Janinka’s family would never allow their daughter to spend time with her if they knew. With a German father, she is more blind to the Reich than one would imagine, just waiting for liberation with her dear friend Janinka, not realizing she is the enemy. Gerta has always been more like her Czech mother, as a girl her father had no plans to involve her in politics, he has her brother for that. Protected in a bubble from the brutal realities and threats brewing, she can’t imagine that the coldness that crept into her father through his support of Hitler, his shaming of all things Czech would cost her everything. Her dream of a future in art quickly becomes instead a fight for survival, a place where there is no time for dreaming. Her brother is sent to the front, her mother’s health declines and soon it is Gerta alone with her harsh, commanding, cruel father whose sole purpose seems to be indoctrinating her with blind faith for the Führer. Life is dismal…

Then she delivers a child, Barbora, “into a time of poverty” and fear, always the presence of fear. Air raids, bomb shelters and the wait, half-crazed until the arrival of the Russians. Now, she is the enemy, both German and Czech but it doesn’t matter, for all Germans living in the district of Brno (women, children- men under fourteen and over sixty, as well as those who are infirm or invalids are to be expelled from the city and may only take a few belongings (excluding jewelry and savings books). The Germans will be punished!

So begins the real heart and horror of the novel. It is survival in the bleakest of circumstances, humanity at their worst and best. Death shadows every moment of the march and long after, poisoning the future with stains of past generations. Displaced people, many enemies due to the actions of others, full of helpless rage and endless humiliations, degradation. Gerta survives with nothing but the thought to keep her child alive. As her child comes of age, so too grows a distance between them. If only her child’s future won’t be a dire one, as Gerta’s has been. How to make a child understand one can’t enjoy a life when they are just trying to survive it and later, the fear, anger, bitterness, guilt, shame and pain are ghosts that never leave?

A story about dark history and the shrouded secrets of the past, tormenting a family for generations to come. This is not a light read, it is complicated and tragic. The horrors of war (the aftermath, retribution) cannot be denied, that hearts close in or turn hard, cold is a defense mechanism for anyone lucky enough to survive. Raising her child haunted by violence, it’s no wonder she can’t speak about the things Barbora longs to know, about her family. Who can blame Barbora either for giving up on her mother? Sometimes it takes the clarity of distance, time and a third generation to understand and bridge the gap. Brace yourself, it’s a tough read.

Publication Date: February 21, 2021

Amazon Crossing

The Mermaid from Jeju: A Novel by Sumi Hahn

After she coughed the ocean out of her body, her mind cleared, leaving behind a clear picture of everything that was going to happen.

Jeju is south Korea’s ‘Island of the Gods’, but the sun has set on paradise. We begin in 1944, Goh Junja longs to be a haenyeo just like her mother and grandmother before her, women who make their living plunging into the dangerous depths of the sea, collecting it’s bountiful blessings; abalone, shells, food and pearls if they’re lucky. Their sleep is filled with sea dreams, for they are mermaids that walk the land, visiting the sea king and his maidens. On Junja’s dive, she goes too deep but the sea king spits her out alive, she is a woman now, carrying on the tradition of the haenyeo. Having survived her near-drowning she is one of them, joining the women at the shore, no longer left behind to care for her siblings at home. When her mother is worried about leaving her work of leading the women divers safely to a fellow diver who has been spooked recently, she relents and allows Junja go in her stead on her annual trip to Hallason. Tasked with delivering abalone to the pig farmer’s wife and securing their own pork (piglet) for the winter, Junja is thrilled to climb the mountain on her own. She couldn’t imagine that she would meet Yang Suwol and fall in love. While surrounded by the lush beauty of the mountain, visiting the shrine of the gods she and Suwol encounter a soldier, searching for communists. It’s a prelude of what’s about to come. Something terrible has happened at home, in a rush she arrives to be at the side of her dying mother. The sea will take her, but the mystery is far deeper.

In a day, the world they’ve lived in has changed. Her dream speaks of a future far from the island, of marriage and daughters. Soldiers are taking over, American and Korean, the mountain is no longer safe and worse, her little brother and sister will no longer live with Junja and her grandmother. The old woman is acting strangely, she has befriended a constable, but she has secrets of her own and the death of her daughter has her hungry for answers. Junja is still in the dark about her family’s true history, and grandmother can’t keep her safe forever. As the threat of political unrest burns closer, it is up to grandmother’s sharp intellect to keep Junja alive but horrors and misfortune are on the horizon. It isn’t the first time, for Japanese occupation had invaded their lives before, so long ago- demanding sacrifices that grandmother carries within her. Through cunning, she will see that Junja doesn’t drown on land. But what will become of her, what will happen between she and Suwol when he is arrested and accused of working with communists?

Part Two it is 2001, we come to know Dr. Moon and learn what has become of Junja. Dr. Moon has carried ghosts and torments of his own, never imagining in his youth that he would one day raise daughters in a foreign land “American girls”, no longer holding to traditions or “superstitions”. He is mourning a great loss, and haunted by the voices of spirits demanding he ‘go back’- the dead will be honored. “There’s a space inside you waiting for the spirit, and if you do not fill it, that space will gather darkness instead.” He will return to visit Korea, much to his children’s shock. “Everything that has been forgotten about the mountain must now be remembered, what had been taken from the sea must now be returned.” Time is vast as an ocean.

Junja is naïve at the start of the novel, through no fault of her own, it’s for her protection that some truths are hidden but the ravages of war steals innocence and shallows lives whole, by part two we get to know her a little better but the strongest characters end up being her grandmother and Dr. Moon. The myths, legends and traditions of the haenyeo make for a beautiful, “magical saga”, that they are real is a nod to the power and strength of women. The bonds of family, their power and status as divers does feel magical but the story is dark as a fairy tale when those leaning toward communism go against the American troops establishing their presence on Jeju. Escape is the only option, if you can make it out alive. I went on to read about Jeju and it’s ‘independent spirit’ throughout history, it made for a richer understanding of what happened in this novel. This is quite a debut that feels magical, but the magic is smothered by the harsh brutalities of war and politics, turning it into heavier read.

Publication Date: November 10, 2020

Alcove Press

The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam

A little girl and ants share a perilous journey escaping war-torn Vietnam.

The Paper Boat is a refugee story using Lam’s signature collage art. It’s a story without words, genre ‘wordless narrative’ that allows the child and parent to experience the menacing experience of escape. As the story begins a Vietnamese little girl saves ants from a sugar water trap using a chopstick. It puts a smile on her face, but through the pages her family wear only worry on their own. Looming outside the window of their home war-tanks can be seen with the infamous Communist star on it’s side. Troops are marching, there is a war raging outside and they must use all their money and jewelry to escape. They have a small boat, not much different than the one the little girl folds for the ants she has rescued, they too will set off on the waters and their own dangerous journey. The brutal sun, illness, exhaustion, threats from the sky like deadly seabirds who want to eat them, near drowning, vicious storms and scores of ants clustered together, much like the author’s own family went through.

Once they are safe and on land, have a place to stay in a city and food to eat there is another family member, a newborn as the mother in the story was pregnant on the journey. Now they are in a place where many cultures blend, as evidenced from the artwork and different styles of dress. They are alive, no longer living in fear, a fresh start from what they knew in Vietnam… building a different life. I found an interview with the author Thao Lam on YouTube about this beautiful book and her family’s experience. It’s well worth watching. She was only 2 at the time of their escape and as you can read in the Author’s Note at the end, she has no recollection of their journey, all her questions were met with silence about the unspeakable things that happened during the Vietnam war. Her mother, however, found a way to speak about seeking asylum to a young Thao by using insects and telling ‘a magical story about ants, the only invasion before the war’. This magic was a seed planted in Thao’s memory, giving birth to this tender book.

Ants rebuild, ants work together for survival, and they reflect everything Thao Lam’s family and refugees like themselves went through. Of course, a child’s understanding of what they are looking at is different dependent on age. Parents can explain what is happening, the art stands on it’s own, children generally love looking at art. The story is far more tender knowing the background. I always enjoy children’s books, both of my adult children are artists and we appreciate unique stories geared towards the young. It is a good way to teach our youth about other cultures and our own. Books are a bridge between us because stories, too, cross oceans. Lovely.

Out Now Published September 15, 2020

Owlkids Books

Misconduct of the Heart: A Novel by Cordelia Strube

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Nobody could hurt me because there was nothing left to destroy, which is why I relate to my traumatized son. In bed at night stuff comes back, just like it comes back to Pierce in his night visions- atrocities he can’t forget.

Stevie manages Chappy’s, a Corporate owned small chain restaurant placing ridiculous demands on the staff. The ‘restructuring’ of the kitchen is a mean feat for Stevie considering the non-English speaking workers, for staff who is now forced to ‘weigh’ the portions they serve, and cheap cuts that cause life threatening incidents like the accident that befalls one of Stevie’s cooks, Jesús. Her boss threatens her to ‘keep a closer eye on her staff’ or else he’ll tell Corporate, but how is she to make any of them listen when as a woman they just don’t seem to follow her instructions? With all these hassles and rules biting at her heels at work, her mission to keep the kitchen running and the staff on the job is like walking through fire. Home isn’t any better, her veteran son Pierce has come home from Afghanistan with more than a dusty cough. Suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, he assaults Stevie when his soldier’s hyper-vigilance kicks in and the body takes over.  During war, it was necessary to keep him alive, “back home he’s just nuts”.

Stevie is a recovering alcoholic who knows all too well about PTSD, but the sort of war she struggles with is homegrown and one that far too many females have the misfortune of being veterans of. Her strained relationship with her son began long before he left for service and has nothing to do with their difference of opinions about politics. Her past feels like a cancer, one that has poisoned the well of maternal tenderness. Giving birth to Pierce when she was still in high school, there are secrets she has had to maintain his entire life, painful truths that would devastate Pierce and change how he sees himself. Alcohol was her escape,  most of his childhood and upbringing was spent under the care of his grandparents Reggie and Peggy while Stevie spent years screwing up.

Reggie and Peggy are mentally declining in old age, lost in irrational thoughts. It would be funny if it wasn’t so damn sad, particularly when Peggy becomes jealous of the Filipino nurse Ducky, who is caring for frail Reggie. Mild Peggy, who spent the entirety of her marriage silent, bottling up any anger, jealousy and suspicion is now bursting with fury as her mind deteriorates. Stevie’s son isn’t the only one who goes on the attack, there is still fight left in the old gal who wants to keep that hussy away from her man, her daddy! Stevie couldn’t cope without Ducky’s nursing of her father, bad enough he and her mother may well burn down their home. Losing them to death, shameful as it is for Stevie to admit, would be a sweet relief from this madness. Her creative writing classes would be the perfect place for therapeutic release from the torment she has kept inside for so long, but that requires an honesty she isn’t ready for.

When Stevie takes an interest in fellow worker, Slovakian busboy Gyorgi, she may just make a connection and allow herself to be vulnerable. Which is a good thing as one day visiting her parents she finds “a little girl in purple sunglasses” on her parents front porch. A note informs Stevie the little girl is Trudy and may well be her own son’s child! Which means, she is a grandma! What will be born out of this new complication? Does Stevie have any love to give? Why can’t she feel the same ease Gyorgi has around children? What about Pierce, still as distant as the sun, where is he in all of this?

Stevie is bitter but enlightenment dawns on the reader as soon as the past unfolds. Her youth was stunted, it was easier to wear the mark of shame than seek help for what really happened. Life just gets away from some people, as the years collect. It was a good book but it’s hard to warm up to Stevie. She is prickly, but can you blame her? I just felt so terrible for her son, you can’t give a child his youth back anymore than she can reclaim her own innocence. This is a book about how the consequences of one moment can change the entire lives of one family, keeping them from making emotional ties. How trauma numbs a person inside and out; a parasite that feeds on a person’s soul. It shows how for many veterans war doesn’t end when they return home, and is a look into what can happen to those who fall through the cracks.

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

ECW 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