The Butcher’s Daughter by Florence Grende

In this memoir, Florence Grende traces her family’s past, hiding in the Polish forests to escape Nazis, then finding brief reprieve in Heidelberg, Germany, and finally settling in the Bronx.  Alongside her family’s story, pieced together from memories, her imagination, as well as research at the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw, she narrates her own struggles with the smoldering beasts, the dead ever present in her household, who inform her inner life.  Her tale becomes a talisman, like the shoe she takes from the Majdenak work camp and donates to her synagogue for teaching purposes.  She begins writing her story after attending a symposium sponsored by One by One which fosters dialogue between descendants of those on opposite sides of WWII.  Speaking and writing allow her to encase the past in words.  Reading this work, told in short chapters that jump back and forth in time, mirrors the jarring experience of growing up as the child of survivors.  But through metaphors like the dragon who stands for Dee Melchombe [The War] and her vivid descriptions of her cleaver-wielding father, taciturn mother, non-violent brother and her own freedom-seeking self, Grende invites us to see beauty and discover healing in her endeavor.             the book’s fb page

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Niromi Kawakami

Like the characters who run it, the Nakano Thrift Shop starts off a messy jumble of cast offs.  And, like these characters, it transforms into The Nakano, more put together – a narrative – over time.  Each chapter is named for an item (paperweight, letter opener, dress, sewing machine, gin, jug…) and contains its backstory, mixed in with the story going on in the shop around it.  Mr Nakano, shop owner, tries to woo a mistress and Masayo, his sister and helper, mourns a lost lover.  Hiromi and Takeo, the two college-aged shop attendants, grope to get each other’s attention.  The items in the shop express, in their very simplicity and solidity, graceful truths that their keepers have difficulty expressing.  Mr Nakano says, “you know what I mean” without meaning to.  Takeo apologizes out of habit.  Masayo and Hiromi miss chances to say, “I love you.”  But “the bottom of the gin jug… reflected a dusky and beautiful radiance,” (206) in her cheeks, and that says all that needs to be said at the moment.  Put together, the characters and their things communicate a delicate, timeless, and familiar beauty, a to which we can all relate. Europa Editions

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

“Oh… always that telling detail,” (28) the one that makes you stop and take notice, that says it all.  Lucy becomes the telling detail in her own story, one woven together with her mother, her daughters, husband, friends, lovers neighbors and fellow writers.  Per her husband’s request, Lucy’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in decades, comes to “babysit” while Lucy’s in the hospital for nine weeks following complications from surgery.  The five days of her mother’s visit are the setting for Lucy’s memories of her impoverished childhood and her steady march toward success as a writer.  Her mother comes across as more than a mother; but as Lucy’s muse.  She feeds her stories of people in their Midwest town.  Lucy’s reactions to her mother inspire further inquiries into what makes her the person she is.  In tone, this work reminds me of Lila by Marilyn Robinson, spare and light-filled, playing with themes of deception and honesty, acting and authenticity.  By the end of the book, the chapters are shorter, shifting more abruptly between time frames, saying less to say more – Oh.      

The Itching Scars by Mohy Omar

Three stories with death as a common thread.  In the first story, death is a fair-skinned, black-clad lover.  In the second story, set in a future dystopia, with overtones of the Biblical story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, a God-loving father wishes his own death would unburden his unbelieving son in a “free-thinking” world.  In the final story, caught between a therapist and a demon, John comes to terms with a murder he commits.  Mohy Omar gives us a taste of John’s mindset by using disjointed tenses and flashing between moods.  Not unlike Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History, death here is complex, as vibrant as any other character.  He (or she) is as much a part of life as sex, and, according to Mohy, just as tender or as violent.  Readers, beware of graphic content.  The author plans more Scar stories. Author’s amazon page

The Merchant of Oria by David Wiley

After two weeks of travel, Firion is about to fulfill his dream of buying and selling in the dwarf town of Oria, but something is horribly amiss there.  Eyes staring at him from the shadows, shrunken dwarves not acting their usual garrulous selves, the merchant hall deserted except for the serpent with whom he finally makes a trade.  The serpent’s companion, Melody’s sweet (though bearded) visage gives him insight into Oria.  Oria needs saving from whatever illusion it is cast under.  Like most of us readers, lowly Firion doubts he has it in him to overcome his fear and be strong enough to save Melody and perhaps the rest of Oria.  Is that what a hero does?  “No, a true hero steps up and does the right thing because he sees a problem needing to be solved,” his mentor Tyron tells him.  We can guess that Firion plays the part of hero, but how he goes about it is worth the read.  David Wiley believes in his characters and makes fantastical figures come to life.      Author website

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorothe Nors

 

What do driving lessons, massage, crime novels and an uncommunicative sister have in common?  They are like the displaced stones in Sonja’s inner ears, causing her dizziness.  Like this inner ear condition, she can’t override all these components of her life; she has to manage them.  Sonja manages two driving instructors who each give her a different set of challenges. Meanwhile, the crime novels she translates from Swedish to Danish remind her that the dark underworld is not for her.  Massage relieves her stress but presents her with yet more expectations.  Despite her aspirations to earn her living via the life of the mind, among other thinkers and dreamers in the city (Copenhagen), her rural home and family draw her as the seat of her true longing.  Overlapping present and past, dream and reality, humor and drama, not unlike Virginia Woolf, Dorothe Nors leads us through Sonja’s transition from student-driver to navigator of her own destiny, “to take what was dragging her down in one place and transform it into something that raised her up in the other” (153).  This book is shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.      

Didn’t Get Frazzled by David Z Hirsch

Seth Levine didn’t get frazzled – not during first year medical school parts-naming exam, nor while examining his own professor’s vulva for a second year OB/GYN class, nor during rounds with a nemesis intern his third year.  Or, maybe he’s just covering up how frazzled he is inside, as he and his girlfriend break up.  Well-supported by a spectrum of friends — ranging from uptight Fran and competitive Margaret, to detached Sujay and laid-back Jeff and Bea, to sexy Michelle and, finally, effervescent Abby — Seth learns to receive as well as give care.  He admits to a patient-cum-confidant, “we always expect our patients to thanks us because we work hard to help them, but this works both ways.  You helped me every bit as much as I helped you.  Probably a whole lot more.  I wish there was more we could do for you, more I could do for you,” (289).  After a climactic scene in an infamous club soon following this sincere encounter, Seth begins to get to the heart of his love-life struggles.  He applies his good rapport with patients to himself.  Laugh with him, cry with him, sling hammers with him; Seth will keep you busy and entertained during this 332 page New York City adventure.author site