A young lawyer of shifting identities is presented with a transformative case in Judith McCormack’s devastating, poetic novel The Singing Forest.
Even before WWII began in earnest, Belarusian citizens disappeared into the Minsk forest, where bullets pierced the still. Those not selected for silencing pretended not to see. Decades later, as bones push up from the bracken: their ruse is no longer concealment enough to save Drozd—a driver, confession taker, and worse who escaped to Canada, pretending to be a refugee. His host government has found him out, and they want him gone.
In Toronto, Leah is selected to build the case against Drozd. It’s no simple proposition: many potential witnesses were murdered; others have age-hazed memories. But Leah needs to prove herself—to her boss and coworkers; and to the memories of her forebearers, whose histories have been blotted quiet, too. Though she knows that “hearsay multiplied a hundred times is still hearsay,” Leah pursues Drozd’s crimes with vigor, poring over “lies, half-truths, stories painted on air.”
In the process of her investigation, and as her own memories begin to resurface and clear, Leah begins pronouncing her own Judaism. She does so to honor the aunt who helped to raise her, and who worked to weave Ashkenazi rhythms into her being, but also to defy the vitriol of those who have preserved old hates, whom she’s looking in the face for the first time. Her mother’s weaknesses, and her father’s absence, take on new and significant dimensions, too.
Through Leah, the novel interrogates the meanings, and the weight, of justice and truth. Crimes and confessions are both revealed to be mere pixels of larger stories, all of which are complicated enough to defy pat pronouncements. By its searing and ambiguous finale, this startlingly humane novel has made an indelible impression.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (October 21, 2021)
Set in Karachi, the fourteen short stories of Farah Ali’s stunning and soulful People Want to Live are tales of bumpy lives steeped in poverty, bleakness, violence, and despair.
The devastations within interior lives are highlighted in fluid prose; each story has the emotional heft of a novel. In “The Effect of Heat on Poor People,” a marriage disintegrates during the worst heat wave in forty years; hope arrives, but is fleeting. In “Heroes,” a mother holds onto the fact of her son’s drug addiction after his violent death; it is a singular truth amid sorrowful platitudes. Elsewhere, the city’s pervasive violence is the backdrop for a man’s modest but unattainable ambition to be the driver of a bulletproof bus.
Quieter stories center on people’s inabilities to weather or cushion moments of emotional turmoil. When a son visits his aging parents, the toll of a past episode of his father’s abandonment is laid bare. Mental health teeters in the balance as a mother blames herself for her own self-harming depression and neglect of her daughters. And a carer struggles to hold onto his equanimity while empathy contracts in a mental institution. In the happy ending of “Beautiful,” an orphan cobbles together a future and a semblance of family life with a rat-catcher.
There are stories told through a peremptory US visa officer, and using the wry jargon of tourist brochures, but even these refuse to exoticize Karachi, which is revealed instead through throwaway details, as of paan-stained corners, as well as within the conversational cadences of friends and married couples. In the short stories of People Want to Live, countries and ideologies may demarcate boundaries, but the heart knows none.
ELAINE CHIEW (August 27, 2021)
Book 1: From Syria to Turkey
Thrilling, contemplative, tragic, and inspirational, Hakim’s Odyssey recounts a Syrian man’s difficult journey of survival.
Hakim, a young man with a bright future in Syria as the owner of a new apartment and a thriving nursery, has his life derailed by what he calls “The Events.” In the wake of the Arab Spring, protests and calls for more freedom in Syria prompt President Assad to react with harsh measures. Despite Hakim’s efforts to avoid trouble, he’s imprisoned, tortured, and loses his business. When his brother disappears, Hakim’s parents send him away for his own safety. He travels to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey in search of work. In Turkey, he meets Najmeh, who becomes his wife; the book ends with Hakim, Najmeh, and her family moving to Istanbul in search of opportunity.
The book illuminates human beings’ many sides. There are those who take advantage of others, and those who refuse to help. But friends, family, and strangers also offer small kindnesses that make important differences to Hakim, a smart, charming person in an untenable situation. He notes that “anyone can become a ‘refugee.’ / If your country falls apart. / You fall apart with it, or you leave.” Framing sequences show Hakim in his present with his family in France, sharing how the story came to be told and providing context and perspective.
The artwork enhances the narrative through a myriad of small details while keeping the overall look clean and appealing. Hakim’s Odyssey is an engaging, personal view of refugees’ experiences.
PETER DABBENE (October 21, 2021)
Adventures at the Edge of the Map
In Life Lived Wild, outdoorsman, writer, filmmaker, and conservationist Rick Ridgeway recounts his thrilling adventures in the world’s most remote regions.
Ridgeway’s daring life is filled with newsworthy firsts. He was the first American to ascend K2; to traverse Borneo from coast to coast; and to hike 300 miles across an area of Tibet, including a section that no outsider had ever seen. He executed other expeditions just for sport, too—paddling against gale force winds in Patagonia, and trekking Bhutan in search of uncharted mountains to climb.
These experiences are covered with clear-eyed assessments of their risks and extreme mental and physical demands. Each expedition assumed self-sufficiency and required creative problem solving. Ridgeway writes of tumbling in an avalanche, suffering through a bout with typhoid, and surviving after capsizing into icy waters. He is also compassionate in recounting the stories of those who were not so lucky, and who lost their lives while adventuring.
Amid accounts of scaling Antarctic rock walls and having close encounters with big game in Africa is quiet reverence for natural beauty. Ridgeway emphasizes the importance of preserving remote places and the species that inhabit them. He tracked some such species across plains, frozen tundras, and dense jungles; rare glimpses of Chiru, pronghorn, and Beluga whales in the wild come in.
Many of Ridgeway’s feats were undertaken in the company of longtime friends who also relished their dangerous challenges. Some, but not all, are household names: conservationist Doug Tompkins, the cofounder of The North Face and Esprit; Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard; and news anchorman Tom Brokaw are among the cast. Alongside them, Ridgeway found satisfaction in undertaking adventure sports and working to save the wilderness they all love.
Complemented by stunning photographs, Life Lived Wild is a high-octane adventurer’s memoir that evinces deep respect for people and ecosystems.
WENDY HINMAN (October 21, 2021)
The skies are seductive to a young man from the French countryside in Layne Maheu’s spellbinding historical novel Man of the World.
Auguste is the son of an apple farmer, for whom days replicate in calm form, in whom thrives a thirst for romance––not just with Simone, his bright childhood friend, but among the lights and glamour of Paris. Such grand excursions seem a distant dream before a hot air balloon drops into his orchard, carrying two daredevils headed for a display of the Wright brothers’ aerial machine.
Auguste is swept up in the wonder of that witnessed flight. He’s soon ensconced as airman Hubert Latham’s apprentice. In Latham’s glitzy circles, fearless men are encouraged to break records with the dangerous flying machines—many of which remain in the early stages of development. Auguste is awed as the chattering metal and fabric contraptions take to the sky; behind the scenes, the madness of those endeavors is more apparent. And Latham’s unhealthy drive to achieve historical distinction in also witnessed by Antoinette, the waifish beauty after whom his machine is named, and for whom his desire is insatiable.
Rich, gorgeous images capture the excitement and promise of the era. These include the views from the balloon that Auguste first rises above the tilled earth in, of “an endless cloudscape [and] fleeting castles of the sky,” and of the balloon’s “shadow, rippling in and out over the chasms.” Grand parades and performances are preserved: aerialist displays in balloons meant only for show; great crowds gathering beneath World’s Fair tents and at inventor exhibitions. Latham, who’s charmed by “suicidal daydreams,” pulls Auguste through this alluring world—perhaps toward ultimate freedom; perhaps toward infamy.
The untamable sky awaits the defiant adventurers who wish to ride it in the stunning historical novel Man of the World.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2021)