Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust

The story of Edith Hahn Beer proves that life is harder and weirder than anything anyone of us could make up.  Edith, is an Austrian Jew, whose family lives through the “Nazification” of Austria in the period immediately before and during the Second World War. As was the Nazi way, she and her family are stripped of their rights…typewriters and radios had to be handed in to the authorities, law degrees (or any professional designations) were no longer recognized, people were removed from their homes, their work, her mother, friends and neighbours were deported to work camps in the east. By the time people realized these measures weren’t just a passing fad it was too late to get out.

Forced to quit school, Hahn is sent to a farm labour camp in Germany where she works under backbreaking conditions. She finally manages to return home where she realizes she can’t stay without risk of deportation and she escapes back to Munich, Germany with a new identity – Grete Denner. There she meets a Nazi Officer whom she marries and with whom she has a child. Even though her husband realizes she is Jewish, she lives in constant danger of everyone around her. She is a refugee inside her own skin.

This is a story that most of us know quite well. It’s the story of how 6 million people were murdered and how an entire political structure supported their murder. Complicity was everywhere and this personal journey shows the impact of the laws of a madman and his followers (these people are everywhere) on the life of a single woman, a survivor of this horrific regime. Along the way she meets a few unexpectedly kind people, but cowardice, cruelty and prejudice are her companions every step of the way.

 

 

 

 

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The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante

It took me more than a year (possibly two) but I finished all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Normally I can’t do that but each one of these books is compelling on its own and it leaves you wondering…what ever happens to the complicated friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. And off I would go to get the next book…until finally at last I finished it with the last book in the series The Story of the Lost Child which still leaves you wondering.

By way of background the novels are set in Naples, Italy and they span the lifetime of two young girls who grow up together in the rough and tumble Naples of the 50s. Both are bright young girls but only Elena is able to continue her education through university. The beautiful, street smart and equally intelligent Lila stops going to school by grade 5 and survives by building a business for herself.

The novel is about friendship of course, and all the difficulties and the beauty that come with it. But the sprawling novels are also about social change, politics, violence, domestic violence and how staying ahead, even of those we love, is an act of survival. The competitive nature of the friendship between Elena and Lila is also about poverty and what happens when you have to fight for every scrap of recognition in a world that is hard for everyone. And yet it is friendship that binds.

In the end the novel(s) don’t offer any answers… what happened to Lila, what happened to her daughter, what was she writing, why did she disappear? Here is a woman who devoted herself to fighting gangsters in her unruly neighbourhood, who devoted herself in the end to learning everything about Naples…understanding her city inside and out and then leaving.

These books are less linear narrative then they are impressionistic art…paint thrown on a canvas of love, hatred, political structures, friendship, family…and the result is an ode to Naples. Lila Cerullo represents beauty, intelligence, history, politics, rough and tumble love, and a deep sense of right and wrong in a hard world.

I loved these books. You’ start with one not be able to stop until you’ve finished all four!

 

 

 

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Poem of the Week: In the Middle of This Century, by Yehuda Amichai via Poetry Mistress Alison McGhee

This poem hurts, its so beautiful.

 

In the Middle of This Century, by Yehuda Amichai (translated by Assia Gutmann)

In the middle of this century we turned to each other
with half faces and full eyes
like an ancient Egyptian picture
and for a short while.

I stroked your hair
in the opposite direction to your journey,
we called to each other,
like calling out the names of towns
where nobody stops
along the route.

Lovely is the world rising early to evil,
lovely is the world falling asleep to sin and pity,
in the mingling of ourselves, you and I,
lovely is the world.

The earth drinks men and their loves
like wine,
to forget.
It can’t.
And like the contours of the Judean hills,
we shall never find peace.

In the middle of this century we turned to each other,
I saw your body, throwing shade, waiting for me,

the leather straps for a long journey
already tightening across my chest.
I spoke in praise of your mortal hips,
you spoke in praise of my passing face,
I stroked your hair in the direction of your journey,
I touched your flesh, prophet of your end,
I touched your hand which has never slept,
I touched your mouth which may yet sing.

Dust from the desert covered the table
at which we did not eat
but with my finger I wrote on it
the letters of your name

 Thanks to Alison McGhee for sharing these beautiful poems.

*Transliterated Mandarin is not pronounced the way it looks in English. Phonetically, Liu’s name is pronounced more like this: Lee-yu Shee-yow Baw. His wife’s name is pronounced more like Lee-yu Shee-yah.

​For more information on Yehuda Amichai, please click here.​
For more information on Liu Xiaobo, please click here.

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New York City Flash Fiction Contest

 

 

 

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Yikes, people. I’ve been submitting 150 word flash fiction stories to the Ad Hoc flash fiction contest in Bath, England (and I’m proud to say two flash stories have been published) BUT NOW I just registered for the NYC Flash Fiction contest which takes place this weekend and I’m officially scared. What if I can’t write one single word. I’m a serious muller. Generally I need days, weeks, hours, YEARS to mull a story. And I have no idea what genre I’ll have to write it. Wish me luck fellow writers! 1000 words here I come!

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Poem of the Week: Bargain by Alison McGhee

Bargain
     – Alison McGhee

The newspaper reports that at twilight tonight
Venus and Jupiter will conjoin
in the southwestern sky,
a fist and a half above the horizon.
They won’t come together again for seventeen years.
What the article does not say is that Mercury, the
dark planet, will also be on hand.
He’ll hover low, nearly invisible in a darkened sky.
I stare out the kitchen window toward the sunset.

Seventeen years from now, where
will I be?
Mercury, Roman god of commerce and luck,
let me propose a trade:
Auburn hair, muscles that don’t ache, and a seven-minute mile.
Here’s what I’ll give you in return:
My recipe for Brazilian seafood stew, a talent for
French-braiding, an excellent sense of smell and
the memory of having once kissed Sam W.

Then I see my girl across the room.
She stands on a stool at the sink,
washing her toy dishes and
swaying to a whispered song,
her dark curls a nimbus in the lamplight.
The planets are coming together now.
Minute by minute the time draws nigh for me to watch.
Minute by minute my child wipes dry her red
plastic knife, her miniature blue bowls.

Mercury, here’s another offer, a real one this time:
Let her be.
You can have it all in return,
the salty stew, the braids, the excellent sense of smell
and the softness of Sam’s mouth on mine.
And my life. That too.
All of it I give for this child, that seventeen years hence
she will stand in a distant kitchen, washing dishes
I cannot see, humming a tune I cannot hear.

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Poem of the Week: The Mower by Philip Larkin via Poetry Mistress Alison McGhee

The Mower, by Philip Larkin

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
a hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
is always the same; we should be careful

of each other, we should be kind
while there is still time.

For more information about Philip Larkin, please click here.

Thanks to Alison for finding and sharing these beautiful poems.

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@alisonmcghee

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Poem of the Week: Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 AM, by Ross Gay

Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 AM, by Ross Gay

It’s the shivering. When rage grows
hot as an army of red ants and forces
the mind to quiet the body, the quakes
emerge, sometimes just the knees,
but, at worst, through the hips, chest, neck
until, like a virus, slipping inside the lungs
and pulse, every ounce of strength tapped
to squeeze words from my taut lips,
his eyes scanning my car’s insides, my eyes,
my license, and as I answer the questions
3, 4, 5 times, my jaw tight as a vice,
his hand massaging the gun butt, I
imagine things I don’t want to
and inside beg this to end
before the shiver catches my
hands, and he sees,
and something happens.

Thank you Alison McGhee for posting these amazing poems.

For more information on Ross Gay, please click here.

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