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

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 Age of Light: A Novel by Whitney Scharer

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Or Lee could tell the real story: the one where she loved a man and he loved her, but in the end they took everything from each other- who can say who was more destroyed.

Man Ray was an American visual artist who spent much of his career in Paris, France and was a part of the Dada and Surrealist movement but this is about his love affair with Lee Miller. Lee Miller was an American who began as a fashion model in the 1920’s, her passion was photography leading her to become a serious photojournalist in her own right for Vogue during World War II. Certainly photographing horrific carnage, Nazi horrors is a far cry from her days of posing nude, her wild nights of partying and lovemaking while she was working in Paris as Man Ray’s assistant and lover. Being a man’s muse wasn’t ever going to be enough for Lee, whose beauty betrayed a talent that could rival the men she worked for.  Man was seventeen years Lee Miller’s senior, photographed her obsessively, hungered to understand her beyond her flawless, ‘ideal’ beauty. Her beauty was overwhelming, blinding, a thing most people cannot look past. One must imagine she was a fascinating woman, Man Ray photographed some of the most famous people of our time and yet couldn’t get enough of Lee. Their love blazed for years, and in that time both betrayed each other in love, and in career (Man failing to credit her in famous work).

Their love seems to move in phases, sometimes he seems like her father, sometimes like her child, at other times an erotic lover hungry for all sorts of playful exploration involving pushing the edge of each other’s boundaries.  Speaking of fathers, ruminating about the relationship between Lee Miller and her own father Theodore, one can understand where the rumors of possible sexual abuse by him was born. It’s no secret she was sexually abused (raped) when she was only 7 years old while in the care of a family friend, contracting gonorrhea, a downright horrific disease for a child to suffer but that nude photos followed that event, that her own father snapped of her “as art”, can’t help but leave one feeling disturbed. Their relationship was strange, he seemed at times more a lover than a father, which comes into play in the novel when Man finally meets him. Her beauty and body didn’t belong to her in the early years, it’s hard to understand how free and open she was about nudity and sexuality after such a traumatic violation. Maybe being raised as her father’s model made her body become an instrument for her? We are the sum total of our experiences, whether we like it or not, we can let the horrible trauma we suffer be our ruin or we can decide to own our destiny. She had some serious grit! This wasn’t a woman who was going to cower in the presence of any Master.

Man Ray’s own sexuality was a curious thing for the times, rumors swirled about him, naturally he used his love of Miller as a shield. Certainly that didn’t endear him to her, nor the ways he tried to control and manage her. She was a young woman, not quite resigned to a life of staying in and playing at the ‘happy couple’ he wanted to be, she hungered for experiences that would fuel her artist’s mind. There is a line in the novel, “Their gaze made her into someone she didn’t want to be”, and Man was guilty of molding her into some ideal too. There was always a distance within her, she loves him and questions that love, sometimes you can feel a hesitation in giving all of herself to him. She has made this happen, she was the master of her own ship, famously telling him she was to be his student, mind you he wasn’t taking any students.She wasn’t a woman who waited for things to happen, she pursued her desires whether it was for flesh or photographs. Such ambition and commitment is difficult for any of us, but for a woman in the 1930’s, wildly admirable. She needed open love, needed to fall into bed with whom she pleased, separating love from sex when it came to different people. Not such an anomaly really, plenty of people are into open love, and her youth and beauty certainly provided her a smorgasbord of opportunity and temptation, is just doesn’t bode well in a relationship with a man who wants promises.  Man was possessive and jealous, he began to need her and desperation is never attractive to the young. She has her warning early in the relationship upon meeting another of his muses, a former lover Kiki (sultry performer and dancer) who causes a jealous scene. Man tells her his former relationship was simmering in jealousies.

As with any love, the cracks begin to appear. Lee’s fresh ideas are in contrast to Man’s own lack thereof, then comes their perfecting a technique called solarization, based on her discovery, but it is the bell jar photo series that is at the heart of their relationship’s decline. Masters can’t let their students eclipse them completely, right? It’s his studio, his name… Throughout the novel he wants to possess and consume her, crack her skull open, know all her secrets and dissect her because he never seems to reach the center. Man becomes a vulnerable mess, a beggar, desperate that she never leaves him. He loves her, they have fierce passion for each other, but sometimes love that starts as a fire can fizzle out, and all that’s left is ash, smoke.

The story flows between the past and the future where Lee Miller is working as a photojournalist for Vogue, where some of her most famous, shocking  work was produced, during the Second World War. The woman she became seems nothing like the beautiful muse of the past, but she was always there inside, waiting to break free. Then she reinvented herself into a wife, Lady Penrose. The attic becomes the keeper of her past. What a hell of a story! I am going to read her son’s (Antony Penrose) memoir about his ‘unconventional’ mother, The Lives of Lee Miller.

This book has quite a bit of sexuality, of course it does, this is Paris in the 1930’s following a Bohemian set. It’s all sex, art, and libération! Much of Man Ray and Lee Miller’s relationship was about their sexual need for each other as much as their creative life together, it is said Man couldn’t get enough of her. This really is a brilliant book!

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

A Woman, In Bed by Anne Finger

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Simone had a knack for falling in love: if she had been an actress, she would have been said to be a quick study. (Fortunately she also had a knack for falling out of love.)

A Woman, In Bed is not quite what I expected. It’s about a woman giving in to her lusty nature during World War I and II. At the start she is filled with romantic notions, but I liked her far better when she was old and no longer had the sand of youthful sleep in her eyes. “What was in store for Simone? She had as little sense as that wambling goose, only a premonition that nature was up to no good.” One wonders how different her life would have been had she repressed her desires and stuck through her first marriage to Luc. Probably just as much mental torment in the repression as in embracing her selfish wants. We find her at the start of the novel, infant son Marcel in tow, at her Mother’s boarding house. Her husband remains in Istanbul, where the threat of fevers and illness made it vital for her to leave during her pregnancy. Her son has not yet met their newborn child. She spends her days bored by caring for her child, and longing for letters from her husband, who though she doesn’t love, certainly likes the admiration and passion, love he feels for her. A vanity of sorts. As a mother, she is disinterested, even if she tenderly cares for her son when he returns from war many years later. Likely the only emotionally charged moment that her son holds dear, after-all, she kept him alive. But that is later, first there is her lover and Marcel is still an infant. She meets Jacques Melville when he stays at her mother’s boarding house, and does all things improper. To say she is wanton is an understatement, in fact her husband notes that his wife won’t be the faithful sort early in the story. So begins their love affair, but then he leaves, letters pass between the two until  husband Luc’s thick letter with steamship tickets arrive and she is to return to Istanbul. It isn’t long before she is pregnant again and all to happy to abandon her husband for her ‘parturition’, happy to know she will once again be close to her lover, Jacques, even while fat with pregnancy. She finds a letter waiting for her from her lover, and immediately writes him. After she gives birth to Odette, she decides early on to wean her daughter within weeks, saving her body for her beloved alone.

Before long he has booked a visit and seduces her with a book of poetry, together again she cannot hide her desire and love, visiting a poet with her lover she has, with her very own hands, ‘cast herself outside the bounds of decency.’ She experiences all manner of debauchery by his side, even morphine. If she longs for love, to crawl inside of Jacques and know him to the very core of his being, she will spend decades trying to understand this closed off man. It is years before he finally discards his wife and children to marry Simone. The reader learns the ghosts of his own past, the time he spent in Madagascar, how his first wife Sala seduced him, how they came to be married. He is of a nature that will not be tamed, that resents the responsibilities and demands of marriage, of the silly notions of love. He blanches at Simone’s blatant adoration, while also welcoming all the indiscretions.

She learns that flirtations feed his fire, that her attempts at flaunting other man before him only make him hungrier for her, and so she takes many lovers, nothing to it. Other women aren’t a threat, for now. They marry, she finally has what she wished for, and as they say ‘be careful what you wish for.’ War is a rupture all throughout the novel, threatening her very son’s life. It isn’t just about her sexual revolution, she is complicit in an incident during the French Revolution. Something horrific and too real, that Jacques really doesn’t want to hear. There are many ‘animal acts’ that we civilized human beings partake of in times of war. Her hunger isn’t just sexual either, times are lean and because of war there is genuine hunger no amount of soup can fill. In time it will be her turn to be discarded now and again by her beloved Jacques for another, disgusted by her frailty, her disease. Naturally he finds some new confection of a woman, even if he does love Simone in his own strange way, he cannot remain faithful, it’s not in his nature. Some might think, ‘it’s her just deserts, for having come between he and Sala’ some will think ‘well, that’s what happens when you chose a selfish, fickle man’. What love is safe, be a woman pure or not? When she suffers a mysterious illness of her own, her passions aren’t diluted, oh no! She takes yet another lover, the stuttering, genius Pierre Laurent. There is a tenderness there, as she attempts to teach him the ways of love. Her body betrays her through life, as much as it pleases. A body that birthed children, nursed them, that welcomed many lovers and gave her much pleasure and now, a body that has a will of its own, behaving in direct defiance of its mistress. It steals her tongue, paralyses her very hands, and lucky for her she has Marie- Claire to care for her. What happens when your language is gone, and with it no way to speak your thoughts, all you have is your lonely mind?

This book isn’t for every reader, it took me a while to get into it but there is a rich story within. No, she isn’t the most admirable woman and certainly as mothering goes, cats are better mothers (couldn’t resist a Gone With the Wind quote). Simone’s life is consumed by men, make no mistake, but the real stranger (to my way of thinking) is her own heart, and her very physical body. I had to laugh a little, because even while Jacques children always kept an affinity to their mother’s side (long after she had died) they almost seem to feel Simone, the seductress, got what was coming to her but in truth their father is just as culpable, more so than Simone. If she was due a dish of punishment, wasn’t their father due a heaping serving of his own? We all suffer in love whether we earn it or not, and what of Jacques and his abhorrent treatment of the women he ‘loves?’ Somehow a woman is always to blame. There is also something very telling in his dismissive attitude when he learns of Simone and Laurent, as if her illness conjured a silly story of passion. As if once she has a ‘disability’ she is no longer capable of inspiring passions in herself, or another, since he isn’t moved to passion but revulsion towards her. As if her mind has gone to the birds, cannot connect with reality, he really does dismiss her as a feeling, living breathing human being.

I didn’t focus so much on the sexuality, though it’s an enormous character itself. I think there is a lot more happening beneath Simone’s unquenchable hunger. I flinched at the moments she thought only of herself while leaving her children behind to be with her lover, ‘Mama! Mama!’ little hands grasping air. That’s not my own nature, I was always the opposite, had to be pried from my children, I know that sounds smug, but the truth is not all mothers have that maternal warmth. Yet, the men are always absent, and why is that ‘forgivable’? Oh yes, the times… the times… It’s funny, she spends so much of her time waiting on men to notice her, to return to her and there she remains always waiting. Some have other diversions, such as new lovers, and yet another the mistress of death. She is certainly self-indulgent which may keep readers from really forming an emotional tie to her. She is needy, from the start we know she didn’t love her first husband but the attention he gave her. She never fills herself, she can’t, the maw of her soul leads to a bottomless pit that cries for more. No one will ever be enough, and she certainly doesn’t give the love her children need. I honestly don’t think she has anything to give, too busy looking for outside fulfillment. Waiting for someone else to give her meaning, satisfaction, a life.

A story that can sometimes be too wild for some readers,may be just the thing for others. The novel speaks of the impossibility of self-fulfillment, at least through lovers. Simone’s body asks so much of her in many ways she is, for a long time, a prisoner to its demands, as so many of us are.

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Cinco Puntos Press