Book Review: She Matters by Susanna Sonnenberg

It took me a while to read this book, not because I couldn’t get into it, pretty much the exact opposite, just because it’s a book that can be read in installments, each chapter a story in itself, intertwined with all of the other chapter/stories to create a life in words. She Matters – A Life in Friendships is a collection of stories of Susanna Sonnenberg’s friendships that have come, gone and/or spanned a lifetime.

I had actually never heard of Susanna Sonnenberg before, and picked up She Matters one day while I was roaming around St Mark’s Bookshop for something new to read. The idea just really appealed to me, and after I had read the first chapter I wished it was the book I had thought of to write. It’s beautifully written, and a lot of the stories hit very close to home, mainly because of Sonnenberg’s complete ability to be truthful to herself and the reader. Some of the friendships she describes are balanced and go the distance; others end in tears, break-ups, or just sputter out along the way. Friendships that are built out of happenstance or a mutual interest; women who are brought together via a common cause, because they share the same classes or become roommates randomly after college. Some of the friendships have their ups and downs but settle down and become lifelong. Others last a couple of years and disappear due to neglect or distance. And others end in tears and pain, due to one or the other woman’s issues or selfishness. All are friendships that we can relate to – we have all had a Rachel, a Debra, a Louise in our lives. We have all met women with whom we have bonded immediately, women with whom we wanted to be friends no matter what, women who we disliked but then learnt to love. We have all had long-lasting and short-term friendships with women, and we have all had our hearts broken by a woman friend.

If I were to write a similar style project I think that I would not be able to only contain my work to female friendships that have shaped parts of my life, but I really love how Sonnenberg wrote and produced her work, creating a book that is both wonderfully written and so truthful as well as true to life that you don’t really want it to end. Very inspiring.

Book Review: Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

I'm still obsessed with historical fiction, and will always make a beeline to any fictional writing based in the 1930's and 40's. World War Two still holds a fascination for me that I can't explain. I go for non-fiction too, but fiction will always be my main love. There is something about the fact that it COULD be real, because the written story will be based on events that actually happened at some point in time. It helps me imagine myself in the feet of the characters, living the lives that they did, thinking that maybe they did really exist, or someone like them was alive at the same time in the same area. All that to explain that my purchase of Ghita Schwarz' Displaced Persons was yet another random buy that I happened to come across when browsing the through the new book selection at St Mark's Bookstore. WW2 + Europe + survivors? It was a no-brainer, I grabbed it and immediately started reading it.

The story starts in 1945, just after the war and follows a small group of "displaced persons", the name given to concentration camp survivors and general survivors of the Nazi murdering machine, as they randomly find each other and fight to rebuild their lives as best as they can. The main character through the book is Pavel Mandl, and the narration follows him through his life, directly post-war around the Belsen camp and then post-immigration to the US with his new family and friends. The story sometimes skips to other characters, for example Fela, Pavel's wife; Chaim, the young boy who had survived the Holocaust by pure wit and intelligence and attached himself to Fela and Pavel, and Sima, Chaim's wife. You can find a full synopsis of the novel HERE.

I like that this book was written about survivors picking up the pieces and creating new lives for themselves, after losing everything, instead of being about the actual survival during the war. The narrative is written in such a way that you can hear the Yiddish, Polish and Russian inflections in the characters' voices, but it's so well done, that you don't even notice it outright, it just seems natural. The other point that I really liked about this book is that Schwarz focuses on the characters as normal people who have gone through traumatic experiences and continue to be normal people looking to survive and move on with their lives. The fact that they are survivors does not make them into super humans, they are just normal human beings with flaws and hopes and dreams, trying to make the most of what they have, while still trying to come to terms with the tragedies they have experienced.

By the end of the novel you feel as if you have known the characters all of your life and you don't want to leave them. I applaud Schwarz for writing such an emotional and real novel. If I am not mistaken this is her fictional debut so I can't wait to see what she comes up with next! I also LOVE the fact that she added a couple of pages to the end of the novel with titles of books about the subject, as well as a small synopsis for each book. For someone like me who continues to look for WW2 fiction, this is the best thing that an author can do!

More information:
Gita Schwarz official website

Anthropology of an American Girl - review & musings

I find it very, very difficult to categorise books. There are books I liked, there are books I loved. There are books I really didn’t enjoy but forced myself through anyway. There are books that I couldn’t get into, but went back to after months, even years, and loved. There are good books that I didn’t enjoy. There are books that are not considered “good” that I really loved. I read for several reasons, the main one being because I cannot remember a day in my life when I haven’t been reading one book. The other reasons are completely self-explanatory: I read to learn, to escape and to let my imagination run away from me. I am never bored, not just because I always have something to do or to see, but mainly because I always have a book to discover, to read, to finish. I live surrounded by books, as do/did my parents and my grandparents, my sister and my brother. I read fiction and non-fiction, classics and modern fiction. I love poetry, plays and prose. I love to read poetry out loud to my cat (she prefers French literature to English, but I think that is more because of her national pride and all that). Words inspire me, reading inspires me to write and vice versa.

I read many books that inspire me, I read many good to very good books, but there are only a few times a year that I read a book that hits me so deeply that it affects my entire being for the time I am reading it, as well as afterwards. I read a review of Hilary Thayer Hamann’s first novel Anthropology of an American Girl a while ago, and tried to bookmark it in my brain, but didn’t remember about it until I was browsing the new paperbacks at St Mark’s Bookshop a few weeks ago. Once I started it I went back to the Jade I was when I was 17 and 18. It’s as if I had a direct connection with the main character, Eveline Auerbach. I am probably not the only one who feels this way, but I am not kidding when I felt I was being literally pulled into the story and became Eveline. First love, second love, heartbreak, freedom, passion, thoughts… The last years of high school, growing up in a “bohemian” household, friends who know your fears and help you through them, fragility but so much strength. But then, halfway through the book Eveline and I became separated. We went our separate ways, she took a path I could not agree with, could not really understand, while I took another path, that of personal freedom from everything.

There is a very specific break in the story, between high school graduation and the beginning of college and it was at this point that Eveline and I became friends and I no longer saw her life through her eyes, as one, but by her side, through her narration.

To understand, you must read this novel. On the outside it appears to be another coming of age novel, girl becomes woman, loves and loses, to love again, but there is so much more to this than that. The prose is wonderfully well written, so much that instead of reading you feel that you are living the story. When Eveline was sad, I cried. When Eveline was depressed, I walked around in a haze. When Eveline walked away I threw the book on the ground in anger. What I am trying to say is that Hilary Thayer Hamann did a remarkable job of writing a novel that is right up there on my favourite novels that I will read over and over again and that will never cease to make me cry list. Right up there with Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to name a few. We go through Eveline’s late teens and early twenties, follow her from East Hampton to Manhattan, watch her grow, then wither, then grow again.

We all have an Eveline, a Harrison Rourke, a Jack, a Kate, a Rob and a Mark in our lives, whether we are male or female, they all exist. I know who they are in my life. At first I thought I could be Eveline, it appeared that I am not, but I still love her as a person. Person or character? Although the main character is female, the story is for everyone. Be prepared to be punched in the stomach and in the face, to bawl your eyes out and to want to run to the ocean and watch the waves. Just read this book – you won’t regret it.

(When I bought the book I thought I was giving myself a break and that this was going to be some fun, light reading. I was so wrong! I didn’t realize exactly how much it had affected me until I found myself crying at everything this week, even for my crying average it was over the top. For some reason this story just hit me right in the core).

“Everywhere there are angels.”