Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Blood Water Paint tells the story of painter Artemisia Gentileschi, today considered one of Italy's most talented artists. Artemisia's story, told in free verse is juxtaposed between the stories of the Bible's heroines Susanna and Judith. These stories are told, in prose, to Artemisia by her mother, Prudentia Montone as she lay dying from a fever after giving birth to a stillborn daughter.

Artemisia's mother died when she was twelve years old. Her father Orazio Gentileschi is a mediocre painter for whom Artemisia works as an apprentice, grinding and mixing pigments as well as painting. His shop does commissions of  "Bible tales, some portraits, ancient histories, myths." Artemisia finds it frustrating when she's taken away from her painting to cut up onions for their housekeeper Tuzia who often sends her shopping for linseed oil, and figs and fritters for her younger brothers. But Artemisia is determined to make the most of everything including a shopping trip to the Piazza di Santa Maria where she tries to notice colours and details.

Artemisia feels that her father is not able to portray feelings through his paintings. Although he attempts to lecture her on pigments and perspective, Artemisia knows more than her father is aware. To teach her about perspective, her father hires Agostino Tassi. Artemisia first meets Tassi when Tuzia lets him into the studio while Artemisia is working alone. She is overwhelmed by his large physical presence but she focuses on learning from Tassi. Signor Tassi encourages Artemisia to call him "Tino" which she does only reluctantly. He confirms to Artemisia that he has come to Rome for the Quirinal Palace commission, which Artemisia's father hopes to be involved in.

At this time Artemisia begins the preliminary sketches of Susanna. Although Artemisia needs to learn dual-point perspective before she can paint Susanna, her father wants her to focus on getting Tassi to include him in the palace commission. When Tassi at first declines based on the poor quality of Orazio's painting Artemisia offers a solution. Her father's name will appear on the works, but it will be she who will do the painting. Tassi appears interested in her proposal.

Later while working on her own painting of Susanna, Tassi stokes Artemisia's frustration over her father. She is moved by his apparent concern for her especially after he learns that she has been posing for her father. Tassi feigns concern, even questioning Artemisia as to whether her father abuses her. His concern moves Artemisia to kiss Tassi. The next day, on the way to Mass their carriage is stopped on the Via della Lungara by Tassi who insists on riding with them. His request is "a violation of the rules of decency, our code, our social order." Tuzia who is accompanying Artemisia, does nothing but Artemisia tells him he must not join them. When Tassi persists, stating that Artemisia has a chaperone, Tuzia orders Artemisia to make room for him.

Afterwards, Artemisia finds her thoughts preoccupied with Tassi. He returns to the studio the following day, "a hurricane of energy", telling Artemisia that he is falling behind on the Quirinal commission because he is captivated by her. She has a "horrid father", many responsibilities and a dreary studio. His solution is for Artemisia to come work in his studio. His offer is tempting to Artemisia because she believes she would not have to do many of the menial tasks her father makes her do, but instead might offer her other opportunities. However she also believes she would always be second in Tassi's studio too. When Tassi visits the next day he continues to press her to move to his studio; "Imagine what you would accomplish in my studio." and "...the things we could do together." To Artemisia, Tassi is speaking about marriage but Tassi has something quite different in mind. When he begins groping her, Artemisia struggles out of his way, telling him to stop.

Tassi returns to the studio, drunk, critical of Artemisia's Susanna. When he gropes her again, Artemisia orders him out of the studio. Instead Tassi, shreds the canvas and leaves, not returning for days. When he does, Artemisia tells him he is not welcome. Tassi warns her that her father is loyal to him and that payment is owed for her lessons. He rapes Artemisia in the studio, her screams are ignored by Tuzia.

Unable to paint or do much of anything after the brutal attack, Artemisia confronts Tassi when he returns the studio. Tassi acts indifferent, ignoring her orders to leave. Between his visits, Artemisia continues to suffer. Tassi again returns to the studio, attempting to win her over again, but this time, inspired by the stories of Judith and Susanna, Artemisia tells him that is going to tell her father. Tassi tells her he merely took what she offered, but Artemisia responds that he also destroyed her father's property - her painting.

Artemisia's father doesn't understand why she can't seem to focus on her work and doesn't know what it wrong with her. She tells him she will take no more lessons from Signor Tassi and when her father admonishes her for ruining their chance at the Quirinal commission, Artemisia tells her father the truth.  Despite her father's warnings about how her accusations will be perceived and how she will be treated, Artemisia insists that her father accuse Tassi. Gaining inspiration and strength from the Biblical heroines Susanna and Judith whose stories her mother told, Artemisia prepares to face a trial that she hopes will bring her justice. But what little justice she receives will come at a great price.


Blood Water Paint brings forth the story of Artemisia Gentileschi who was raped by painter Agostino Tassi. Artemisia who was born in Rome in 1593, was the eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi  and Prudentia Montone. She was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, mixing pigments, preparing canvases and painting her own works. Her mother died when she was twelve years old. Her brothers were also trained as artists but none showed promise equal to Artemisia. Her father was greatly influenced by the style of Carvaggio and this influence was passed on to Artemisia.

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi
Artemisia specialized in painting women from the Bible and ancient myths. Her first recognized work was Susanna and the Elders which she completed when she was just seventeen-years-old. Shortly after this work Artemisia was raped by her father's friend and colleague, Agostino Tassi. Tassi had been hired by Orazio to tutor his daughter and she was often left alone with Tassi and his friend Cosimo Quorlis. When Tassi did not act on his promise to marry Artemisia to restore her honour,  her father brought him to trial. Artemisia gave the judge all the required testimony indicating that what happened was in fact rape. Nevertheless she was tortured to see if her testimony was honest. Tassi was convicted but released by the judge.

After the trial, Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi, an artist from Florence. She also painted Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia and Pierantonio moved to Florence where she became a successful painter, whose patrons included the House of Medici and Charles I, King of England. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Designo. She also lived and worked in Rome, Venice, Naples and London. Her reputation as a Baroque artist eventually surpassed that of her father.

In Blood Water Paint, McCullough uses free verse to imagine the events leading up to rape of Artemisia and the trial afterwards. Interwoven throughout are the stories of Susanna and the Elders from the Book of Daniel in the Bible, and the story of Judith from the book of "the same name in the Old Testament. Artemisia's mother Prudentia begins her stories before the birth of her child. She is not well and fears she is dying. As her strength wanes  she seeks to educate her daughter in the dangers she may one day face as a young, attractive woman in a man's world.
"She knew I'd need Susanna
when I found myself
a woman in a world of men.

Girl as prey."

And so Artemisia's mother spends
"the last of her strength
to burn into my mind
the tales of women
no one else would
think to tell.

These stories
of a righteous woman,
her virtue questioned
through no fault of her own,
of a widow
with nothing left to lose..."

Prudentia tells her daughter the story of Susanna, the young, beautiful, virtuous wife of Joaquim who is accosted by two elders while bathing in the privacy of her home. Stunned and terrified, Susanna clutches at a robe to cover her nakedness. The two men  tell her "Today I am your husband. Today I tell you to lower your robe, and if you deny me, the world will hear how the faithless wife of Jaoquim cavorted in her garden with a man who was not her husband." Terrified, Susanna refuses even when they threaten her with the certainty of being stoned for adultery. "Susanna could lower her robe to these monsters who believe they can take whatever they want simply because they have the power...But if she does what they ask, she will be dead tomorrow either way. "
The elders lie about what happened in the garden and Susanna is ready to be stoned when Daniel, a respected young leader happens upon the scene. He questions the elders, determines they are lying as their stories are inconsistent and has them stoned. Susanna is freed. From Susanna's story, Artemisia learns to speak her truth, to speak out and let her voice be heard. She learns to be strong.

The other story Prudentia tells Artemisia is that of Judith, whose husband, Malachi died after being sent to investigate how close the Assyrians have come to the Jewish city of Bethulia which they have besieged. Bethulia's rulers have decided to hunker down and wait out the siege, meaning certain death for Judith and her people and rendering Malachi's death a waste. Outraged, Judith formulates a plan and with her servant Abra, travels during the night to the Assyrian camp and into the tent of Holofernes, the captain of the army. There she seduces him and then beheads him with his own sword. Judith and Abra carry Holofernes' head back to Bethulia. The Assyrian army flees, abandoning the siege and Bethulia is saved.                     

From Judith's story Artemisia learns that she is strong, despite the fact that she will be told she is "too small, too weak, too feebleminded to be of use."  Her mother counsels, "The world will tell you not to be outraged, love. They will tell you to sit quietly, be kind. Be a lady. And when they do? Be Judith instead."

These examples of strong women help Artemisia find her voice to accuse Signor Tassi and to endure a trial in the hopes of achieving justice. Like Susanna, Artemisia's story is not believed. Instead, she is tortured to determine if her testimony is true. Her hands are her life, but Artemisia submits to having thumb screws applied, severely wounding her hands, so determined is she to obtain justice for the rape.

Blood Water Paint is Joy McCullough's tenth novel. It began as a play which was eventually performed in 2015. As she was working on the play over the years, Mc Cullough began to see the possibility of it as a novel that might be of interest to teens.

In light of the recent #metoo movement, Blood Water Paint is a timely novel that asks the reader to consider the many issues surrounding rape and sexual harassment. These include victim blaming, sexual objectification and the trivializing of rape. McCullough also explores how social attitudes about sexuality and gender influence how rape is perceived and how it is treated by the courts and by society in general.

During the trial, Artemisia is treated by the court as though she is the one who has committed a crime. The trial drags on for months with Tassi showing up in court in "showy costumes", his story changing daily. Agostino testifies that she is a whore, "My studio is less for painting than for vulgar rendezvous", love letters are produced, despite the fact that Artemisia cannot write and a list of lovers given - including her father! The judge orders Artemisia examined by midwives for proof that her "pudenda" which in Latin is translated as "parts to be ashamed of" shows that she is not a virgin. The painful examination causes panic in Artemisia who feels like she is being raped again.
"My integrity must be tested
while Agostino smirks,
a man who raped
his wife,
her sister,
possibly even
had them killed."

McCullough, in her retelling of Susanna's story, has her appear ungrateful towards Daniel, questioning him as to what he would have done had the two elders stories not conflicted. Her point is that her testimony of what happened was never considered to be enough to prove her innocence. In the same way, Artemisia's account of what happened was also not considered sufficient. It was only accepted after she maintained her testimony was true under the pain of torture.
"...when I cried out
in the courtroom
like a child.

It's true.
It's true.
It's true."

The theme of contrasting perspectives is developed throughout the novel. The word "perspective" has two meanings, for the artist it is a way of portraying depth and distance but it can also mean  an attitude or point of view about something. McCullough incorporates both meanings into her story. At first Artemisia mentions single point perspective, "one vanishing point. The place where all lines parallel to the view converge"' This is a foreshadowing of the violent convergence of Artemisia and Signor Tassi's lives.
Although Artemisia knows single point perspective, Signor Tassi is engaged to teach her dual point perspective, something she needs to paint Susanna. Artemisia's paintings of Susanna demonstrate this perspective but there is also another meaning - the dual or two points of view of the events the artwork portrays - that of Susanna and that of the evil Elders intent on raping her.

McCullough contrasts Artemisia's perspective of painting the attempted rape of Susanna with that of men such as her father. Artemisia knows that her father cannot paint Susanna in the same way she can.
"Father's made attempts at Susanna,
just like the other painters - men-
who think they have the right
to tell the story of a woman
always watched.

But one can't truly tell a story
unless they've lived it in their heart."

His version of Susanna is that of a girl welcoming the attentions of the men who have watched her bathe.
"It doesn't matter.
He never listened
to my mother's stories, never bothered
to notice the fear of women.
He'll tell Susanna
just like all the others."
Like the other masters before him who painted this scene, Artemisia's father cannot comprehend "a woman's feelings in that moment."
Their paintings do not reflect the reality of a woman's experience, the feelings that only a woman can know.

"...The way the masters paint her,
the men are monstrous,
creeping, loathsome beasts,
obvious villains.
Yet Susanna wears
a smile that says
she welcomes their attentions."
The masters are perpetuating the myth that a woman who has been raped enjoyed it and indeed may have even encouraged it. Ironically this is exactly the perspective Signor Tassi, a rapist, takes. His "perspective" later on is to question Artemisia, "What was wrong with taking what you offered?"

Blood Water Paint is an interesting blend of poetry and prose, and of storytelling and painting. Fans of historical fiction will find this novel an engaging read while those interested in the social issues surrounding rape, especially from a historical perspective will find McCullough's novel has much to offer. There are many themes, some of which have been touched on here to further explore.

Book Details:

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
New York: Dutton Books     2018
292 pp.

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Troubled Peace by L. M. Elliott

A Troubled Peace is the sequel to Under A War Torn Sky and tells what happens to Henry Forester when he returns to the United States after serving as pilot, being shot down, travelling through war torn Europe with the help of the French resistance, being captured and tortured by the Gestapo, escaping in an attempt to return to America.

Henry is back home in Tidewater, Virginia and all is not well. He is struggling with nightmares, flashbacks, restlessness and insomnia. He is often angry and does strange things. Anything can trigger a flashback that leads to him doing something strange. A shot by his father Clayton at a fox triggered Henry into believing he was being hunted by the Gestapo, resulting in him running for miles across the county. "He wanted the war in his soul to be over. He was home. Why couldn't he get back to normal? And why wouldn't Patsy marry him?" Henry had  planned a perfect proposal, dancing at the tony John Marshall Hotel in Richmond. However, Patsy turned him down telling Henry that he seems angry and scares her.

Henry worries about the fate of those who saved  him and relives events to save those who died along the way. "Henry was not quite twenty and already he carried an old man's worth of regret and mourning." All of this causes Henry to get up every night and walk the lane of the farm so his nightmares won't distress his mother. Everything comes to a crisis one night while Henry is out for a walk with his dog Speed and thinking about the blind loyalty of German troops and the stubbornness of the Nazis as they fight a hopeless battle against the Allies. Remembering his own experiences and how the Allies are now "responding to Hitler's unyielding stance with their own brutality, desperate to hasten the war's end." only increases Henry's internal conflict. Although he starts out walking and whistling a tune, soon Henry is running fast. Unable to outrun his memories he decides flying might help him distance himself from those memories and bring him closer to God.

This leads Henry to steal Old Man Newcomb's Curtiss Jenny, an open-cockpit, World War I biplane. "In Newcomb's Jenny, he'd leave his nightmares in the dust...No bombs, no flak, no fighters, no worries."  In the air, "Henry's soul rang with a long-forgotten joy." Henry, mesmerized by the stars and the Milky Way attempts to take the little Jenny higher and higher until suddenly the engine stalls out. The plane begins plummeting to earth with Henry not reacting to the danger. At the last minute, believing he hears Dan's voice telling him to pull up, Henry manages to save himself, and land the plane, but unable to stop it crashes into the trees. Henry is knocked out, Newcomb's plane is badly damaged and Henry's father Clayton is furious.

Henry finally admits to his mother and father and Patsy that he "can't forget France. My friends who died. All those missions where I rained death on people, on civilian. All the people who helped me and may have been tortured and killed because of it...because of me. And that little boy Ma. Pierre. I keep worrying about where he is. If anyone is helping him." Although he tries to explain what happened with the plane, Henry knows his father doesn't understand. Nevertheless he accepts that what he did was wrong and the fact that he must pay for the damage done to Newcomb's plane.

Henry's mother Lilly understands and advises him that sometimes healing is brought about by helping others. She tells him, "But I don't think you'll rest easy until you know about that little boy. Maybe...maybe you need to go back to France and find Pierre?"

After three weeks at sea, Henry disembarks in Marseille, France. Patsy discovered a way over to Europe for Henry after he was unable to return to the Air Force due to being too thin and too battle fatigued. The newly organized United Nations was providing relief in the form of food, clothing, medicine and livestock to Europe. Henry became a "sea cowboy" shoveling manure, feeding and watering livestock and helping to birth foals on a merchant boat bringing over livestock to Europe. The livestock boat docked in Trieste, Italy but without the proper papers to enter the country, Henry had jumped ship and hired onto a boat sailing to Marseille. Now in France with cartons of cigarettes , tins of Spam and some cash, Henry sets out on a journey to find Pierre and in so doing, finds himself.


A Troubled Peace is another finely crafted work of historical fiction by L.M. Elliott that provides readers with considerable insight into life in Europe - specifically France, during the post liberation period of 1944-45 and just prior to the end of World War II. Where A Troubled Peace excels is in portraying the effects of war both on a personal level and a national scope.

The tragic effects of war on individuals are ably demonstrated through the characters of Henry, Pierre, Claudette and Madame Gaulloise. For those who fought, it is best shown through the character of Henry Forester who returns to America suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, although during the 1940's this was largely unrecognized. Recently returned to the States, Henry is unable to settle back into farm life. His traumatic experiences from the war have left him a completely changed man. At first Henry doesn't realize what is happening to him and he attempts to pick up where he left off before enlisting by asking Patsy to marry him. Henry believes that "marrying Patsy was the way back, back to the life he'd planned before the war, before the missions, before all the killing."But Patsy tells him, "You seem so haunted. I worry that you think getting married will stop all that somehow. But what if I'm not enough? I don't think I can fix all that. It scares me Henry...You scare me."

Henry describes how he feels. "Was he haunted? For sure. Every day in his mind, he walked the hills and streets of France, imagining the fate of those who'd saved him. He reflew his last bombing raid wo that Captain Dan lived. He reclimbed they Pyrenees to save his friend, Billy." Henry doesn't know how to come down from constantly being on alert. "He had entrusted his life to strangers he couldn't understand, and lived off of adrenaline and suspicion, scrounging for food, scrounging for safety, rarely finding either, day after day, week after week, for months. He couldn't figure out how to shed that kind of battle-ready wariness, that kind of split-second instinct to fight, to run. Half the time, he felt like a lunatic race-horse in a start box. Nobody had said anything in debriefing about how to shrug that off."

In an attempt to flee his memories and find some peace Henry steals a neighbour's plane. "This night was about freedom. This night was about baptism -- washing himself clean of death and regrets and disappointment and fear, the beginning life reborn, redefined." But the accident with the plane merely reinforces that something is terribly wrong. In an attempt to heal, Henry returns to France to try to locate Pierre who saved his life.

Henry's journey through France does eventually help him to begin to heal and to provide the closure he needs. He learns the shocking fate of the people of Vercors. he finds Madame Gaulloise who saved Henry and many other downed pilots from certain death, he reunites with Claudette whom Henry saved from certain capture and he eventually does find Pierre. From Madame Gaulloise, Henry learns that she survived by building "a safe fortress with my memories, an inner peace that came from knowing that I had done what had to be done." She advises Henry to read Albert Camus, a French philosopher, who "wrote that man's grandeur lies in his decision to rise above his condition. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted with scorn."  She tells Henry that "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."

While helping at the Lutetia's deportation center Henry begins to heal. "Seeing other people fight to survive, to walk away from the agonies they'd endured, was definitely prodding him to do likewise. " But it is when Henry spends time with Claudette the woman he talked out of a killing rage, that he finally understands what Madame Gaulloise was attempting to tell him. Claudette explains to him what Camus meant in his short work, Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Sisyphe was a king, condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a hill every day only to see it roll back down. Sisyphe's life should have had no meaning but instead it is his struggle that gives meaning to his life. This, Claudette tells Henry, is what he must find for himself again and the struggle to do so will help heal him. Henry comes to realize that taking Pierre back to America and helping him rebuild his life will give him a purpose. It is a beginning and one that was suggested by his mother Lilly, months ago. For Claudette, her purpose will be to rebuild her country into something better than what it was - country where women are treated as equals and where there are jobs.

The devastating effect of war on civilians is shown through the fate of some characters from Under A War Torn Sky. Henry returns to Vercors, France, the home of little Pierre and his mother. Once a vibrant country village, he is shocked at the devastation.
"Beneath him should have been a lush green cup of fields and farms, wildflowers and sleepy cattle, ruled in the center by a little village of creamy houses with cherry pink-tiled roofs that were nestled around a church --its bell ringing out the hour, clear and sweet, rejoicing in another day.
Instead there was silence. A wide field of white crosses...
And where the village should have been --alive with roosters crowing, children yawning over cups of frothy warm milk, mothers humming as they poached eggs -- was rubble...
Henry could imagine the cries, the pleas, the refusals, the machine-gun fire, flames catching hold of timber, houses collapsing."

Henry learns the villagers of Vercors were encouraged to rise up against the Nazi's with promise of reinforcements, only to be left to face them alone. The Germans dropped incendiary bombs on the towns in retaliation, and landed SS troops with orders to exterminate everyone. French paratroopers, waiting in Sicily were never deployed, the people of Vercors sacrificed in a political move by de Gaulle.

As Henry searches throughout France for Pierre, he inadvertently finds himself in Annecy, the home of Madame Gaulloise. Arriving at her house Henry is at first thrilled that she might be alive and then shocked at her condition. "The invalid, the living scarecrow, was Madame Gaulloise...Henry could see that all that was left of her dark, glossy hair were little tuffs. Sores scarred her temples." Madame Gaulloise's condition is so tenuous after months of starvation that she can eat little food and she is dying of tuberculosis. Only a day after arriving, Madame passes away.

Henry discovers that Pierre Dubois is now an orphan, his mother shot as she attempted to escape Ravensbruck. Pierre, like many abandoned children in Paris, searches the train station for his mother, while living in a cardboard box beneath a bridge near Notre Dame. These are just a few of the examples that portray how the war affected individuals.

Elliot also presents readers with a solid picture of what Paris and France was like in the aftermath of the war. Although liberation has brought relief from the oppression of the Nazi's, France is socially and economically devastated. According to Elliott in her Author's Note at the back, "France was the largest supplier of manpower and finished goods to Hitler's Germany.To win the war, the Allies had to destroy its production of ball bearings, tires and other such items used for Nazi tanks, planes, and ships." This meant bombing factories, supply depots and railways. Bombing these targets often meant significant collateral damage to civilians and left much of France in ruins. Elliot portrays the ruin of France both socially and economically; black marketers who ship meat and cheese in suitcases, empty stores, starving and orphaned children who search for parents at the train stations or at hotels, train stations filled with family and friends waiting for "absents" - that is people deported to concentration camps - to return.

Few novels deal with the immediate post-war period and Elliott's descriptions of the crowds in Paris waiting at the train station for the absents are deeply moving. "But when people recognized a ghostly figure, they burst through the crowd with both cries of joy and horror, gathering their loved one up in kiss-filled embraces. Others rushed forward and then stood woodenly, shocked, bewildered, repulsed."

Elliott also touches on the tenuous political situation in post-war France. The resistance contains many communist sympathizers and the United States government, which worked with Stalin to bring down the Nazis is now concerned that France will fall under the influence of the Soviets. The author uses Henry's arrest by French police as a suspected black marketer to portray the work of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in attempting to identify communists and even working with Nazi SS officers to do so.

Henry believes that with the war now won, and peace declared, life will go back to normal. But George Orwell tells him, "The aftermath of war is a messy, brutal elbowing among political ideologies, as different groups that survived the war battle each other for power. They will smile at one another's faces while plotting coups and spying on each other...Peace? Peace is not that easy, that finite, my boy. War ends; then it takes along time to negotiate a real truce. Many times that peace is troubled and contains the embers for the next war, smoldering, just in need of a spark..."

The title of the novel is a direct reference to Orwell's comment to Henry. It is a reference to both the struggle for peace on a personal level as Henry is experiencing and on a national and social level as France and the rest of Europe will be experiencing post war.

A Troubled Peace offers so many themes to explore, forgiveness, the concept of peace, identity, and the struggle to find mean in life. It is a novel with richly crafted characters, realistic descriptions of settings and events and superb incorporating of historical details that make the immediate post war era come alive.

Book Details:

A Troubled Peace by L.M. Elliott
New York: Katherine Tegen Books    2009
289 pp.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Interlude by Chantele Sedgwick

Interlude is a classic story of a boy and a girl thrown together unexpectedly, each struggling with their own problems but who fall in love. The novel opens with eighteen-year-old Mia Cox in her doctor's office. She's there to get tested to determine if she's a compatible match so she can donate a kidney to her younger sister Madison (Maddy). Dr. Mason discusses the risks of donating a kidney and tells Mia that she will know in two weeks.

Weeks later, Mia takes Maddy to her dialysis treatment which undergoes three times per week. Mia is very worried about her sister who is tired and withdrawn. She is in the final stages of kidney disease which is renal failure. At dinner that night Mia gets a call from the doctor's office informing her that she is not a match and therefore not suitable to donate a kidney to Maddy. Mia retreats to her bedroom, completely distraught but also determined. She pulls out an old birthday card sent by her birth mother Carmen Santalina from fifteen years earlier. Mia and Maddy's mother Carmen, abandoned them when they were three years old. Her father moved to from New York to California where he remarried.

With a plan formulating in her head, Mia questions her father as to whether Carmen still lives in New York City. However,he will only tell her that Carmen won't care, even when Mia begs him to at least call her and tell her about Maddy's illness. Furious at her father's refusal, Mia googles Carmen's name to locate her in New York. She is interrupted by Maddy who come to her bedroom and then collapses. Mia screams for her father, the paramedics are called and Maddy is rushed to hospital.

At the hospital Maddy is stabilized but weak and she confides to Mia that she knows she's going to die, that a donor will not be found in time. Mia tries to encourage Maddy who believes it is too late for her. Determined to save her sister Mia goes home, packs a backpack, writes her father a note, and drives to the airport where she books herself onto a flight to New York City. Her hope is to find their birth mother and convince her to donate a kidney to Maddy.

On the flight, a guy about Mia's age, with dark hair and an eyebrow piercing, is seated next to her. He is slouched down in the seat, not talkative, his earbuds in listening to music. Part way through the flight Mia notices the distinctive tattoo on his arm. When he picks up an entertainment magazine, Mai mutters about not liking the band Blue Fire and the lead singer Jaxton Scott who are featured on the cover. Mia's remark is heard by this guy who questions her as to why she doesn't like them. Mia tells him she believes they have no talent, their image is creepy with the makeup and black nail polish and piercings and that they are fakers. The conversation makes Mia curious about the article on Blue Fire. As she's reading it, a closer look at the picture of Jaxton Scott leads Mia to recognize the tattoo on his arm is the same as the one on the guy sitting next to her. To her horror Mia realizes she's sitting next to Jaxton Scott.

Mia tries to apologize but Jaxton insists he's not offended and appreciates her honesty.  Jaxton tells Mia that he is "taking a spontaneous vacation to New York. Indefinitely."  He has no gig to be at and no girlfriend, no bodyguards or groupies. When Jaxton questions Mia about her trip at first she is reluctant to tell him her reason for flying to the city, only that she is sightseeing. However Jaxton can sense that Mia is not telling him the truth and that she's running from something. He reassures her that everything she reads about him is fake, that it is all show.

Mia tells Jaxton about her sister's terminal illness and that her trip to New York is to locate their birth mother who is the only other person likely to be a match. Jaxton tells Mia he is "The screw-up who's running away from  his life." He tells her that his band formed in high school and by their junior year, they had a record contract. On tour he managed to finish his senior year of high school but there were also parties, tours and playing huge venues. Jaxton insists all he wants to do is write music. When Mia questions him as to why he's doing this if it's not what he wants, he tells her it is difficult to get out of contracts, so this trip is a break to try to figure things out by returning home to his family on Long Island.

After a lay over in Denver, Mia and Jaxton board their flight to New York. Jaxton arranges for Mia to sit next to him, and invites her to really listen to his music. When it becomes apparent that Mia has no where to stay and that she has no idea how to locate her birth mother, Jaxton insists on helping her. But Mia is reluctant to accept Jaxton's help because she really doesn't know him, so to remedy this, he spends some time telling Mia more about himself in the hopes she will feel safer. As their flight nears its destination, Jaxton offers to put Mia up in a hotel overlooking Central Park. Mia balks at this because she cannot afford it but Jaxton insists. As they spend time together, Mia knows she has to stay focused on finding her birth mother and helping save Maddy, even as her attachment to Jaxton grows.


Although Sedgwick's novel, Interlude is a predictable YA romance, it is both enjoyable and sweet, with the added bonus of a happy ending. Mia and Jaxton, from very different worlds, each dealing with very serious life problems, are inadvertently thrown together and fall in love. Jaxton has the image of a bad boy rocker in contrast to Mia's clean girl image. While Mia seems to have her life together and knows what she wants, Jaxton is struggling to deal with his rock star lifestyle.  Their time together is seen as an "interlude" in their lives.

The story is told from the point of view of Mia who astutely identifies the situation both she and Jaxton are in. "We're two people running from different things in our lives. One of us is running to save another, the other is running to save himself." Both Jaxton and Mia love music; Jaxton is a song writer and lead singer in a rock band, while Mia is an accomplished pianist. While talking on the plane about music, Jaxton mentions that he loves preludes which he describes as "...the most important part of the song, I think. It has to be distinct. Different  than everything else out there. It's like the hook. Or the tease before the masterpiece, if you will."  But Mia loves the interlude which she sees as the solo in the middle of a song, that gives a break from the lyrics. Their time spent on the plane is the interlude for both Jax and Mia, a time away from the stresses of their lives, where they can just be themselves and not deal with their worries. It is the break for Jax from his rock star life and for Mia it is a break from the worry about finding a donor for Maddy and her illness.

The themes of sisterhood and family can be found throughout the novel. Mia is devoted to her sister as evidenced by her willingness to take her sister Maddy to her dialysis treatments and to stay with her for the three hours it takes to clean her blood. Mia is determined to save her. She is willing to donate a kidney to her sister however when that becomes impossible Mia impulsively and in desperation decides to travel across the continent to find their estranged biological mother. Although this isn't successful in the way Mia planned, it does work out in the end.

Sedgwick's story stresses the importance of family. Jax tells Mia, "I talk to my mom at least once a week. My sister Jeigh, usually every day. We've always been really close. I have another sister, but she's a bit younger, so I don't hear from her as much. I love hanging out with her when I go home, though."  For Mia, despite being abandoned by her birth mother at age three, she is very close to her father and her stepmother, Trista. "I can't imagine living my life without Trista. She's been a wonderful mother to me."  Because Mia has such a strong sense of family with her father, Trista and Maddy, she is stung by her birth mother Carmen's complete rejection of herself and Maddy being "family". Carmen tells Mia that Maddy is not her daughter. "I might have been a mother to you once, and I'm sorry for all the pain I caused you, but I was never a mother to Madison. I held her once...She's a stranger to me and she has no recollection of me either. I don't owe her anything." Fortunately for Maddy, Carmen's sister Ana does not feel this way and decides to undergo testing to see if she is a possible donor.

Sedgwick admits she had to do considerable research into kidney disease and organ donation. Live donor organ donation is somewhat controversial because of the risks to the donor. However, live donor kidney donation is the most common and the most successful of all transplants.

Interlude is a light, enjoyable read, with well developed and interesting characters. Suitable for ages 13 to 18.

Book Details:

Interlude by Chantele Sedgwick
New York: Sky Pony Press    2018
275 pp.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Shooting Kabul by Naheed Hasnat Senzai

It is July 2001, and eleven-year-old Fadi Nurzai's family are fleeing their home country of Afghanistan. Fadi along with his father Habib,his mother Zafoona, his older sister Noor and younger sister Mariam are packed into a taxi hurtling across the dusty plain in the dark. Their driver is Professor Sahib, Habib's former  teacher at Kabul University. After a six hour ride from Kabul, they arrive in Jalalabad, a city in the eastern province of Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. Here they will rendezvous with a truck to take them to across the Afghan border with Pakistan to Peshawar where Zafoona's cousin and her husband will meet them at the border.

Only a month earlier, Fadi's father had told them they were leaving Afghanistan. Zafoona needed better medical care for a cold that had turned into a serious illness. But also the Taliban had tried to recruit Fadi's father in what was a thinly veiled threat. Although he had put them off for the time being, it is inevitable that they will return.

Habib was born in Afghanistan but had travelled to Madison, Wisconsin where he earned a Ph.D in Agriculture. Afterwards he returned to his homeland inspired to help rebuild Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets by the Taliban.

When he and Zafoona had returned to their homeland along with their family, the Taliban asked Habib to rid the country of the poppy fields used for opium. Gradually Habib had been successful in this endeavour, getting farmers to grow food for the country. However, the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam began creating problems as they began suppressing civil rights. Music, movies, books and photography were banned, women were forced to wear the burka, and schools for girls were closed. Fadi's father had hoped to obtain work at Kabul University in the agriculture department but it was closed because of the years of war. Instead, Habib opened a dry goods store in downtown Kabul to support his family.

Just past midnight an army truck shows up at the rendezvous point to take them to Pakistan. Habib, realizing this is their ride, orders Fadi to take Mariam, while Noor follows with their mother. As they move towards the truck, suddenly dozens of people emerge from hiding, running towards the truck. Fadi is gripping Mariam's hand tightly and tries to steer them towards his father in the back of the truck. In the chaos, with everyone scrambling to get on the truck, the Taliban arrive, creating even more panic. But as Fadi's father pulls him into the back of the truck, Mariam slips from his grip, trying to retrieve her pink Barbie, Gulmina which as fallen to the ground.

Panicked by the approach of the Taliban, the truck driver announces he is leaving. To Fadi's horror, the truck roars away, leaving six-year-old Mariam behind with many others and the Taliban in hot pursuit. Zafoona, already ill and exhausted is completely hysterical. Her pleas for the truck to return to retrieve Mariam are ignored while Habib who wants to jump out of the truck, is held down by the other men. Returning would mean capture by the Taliban and possible execution.

On the plane to London, Fadi berates himself, feeling responsible for losing Mariam. He thinks back to when they arrived in Peshawar. Once in Peshawar, Fadi's father went back over the border in an attempt to locate Mariam, but could find no trace of her. Zafoona's cousin, Nargis promised to contact them and let them know when she heard any news. Unable to delay any longer, Fadi's family had to go to the American consulate in Peshawar to pick up the papers "arranged with the help of Habib's old college advisor in the United States." Zafoona had wanted to remain in Peshawar but Habib told her that if they did not leave their asylum papers would expire and they would have been stateless - unable to return to Afghanistan but unable to remain in Pakistan.

When they arrive in San Francisco, Fadi and his family are met at the airport by Uncle Amin, who is married to Zafoona's younger sister Khala Nilufer. Once a doctor in Kabul's main hospital, Amin and Nilufer had left Afghanistan in 1998 along with his parents Abay and Dada, a month after Fadi's parents had arrived back in the country from the United States. Uncle Amin works two jobs as a lab technician to support his family but he generously offers them to stat with him at his home in Fremont. Fadi meets his cousin, Zalmay, who is his age. While eating lunch, the adults talk about little Mariam and how UN Refugee Agency has sent out a bulletin about Mariam and how there are many people looking out for her. However, Fadi's feelings of guilt overwhelm him and he hides inside the pantry.

In August of 2001, Fadi's father and his Uncle Amin have contacted many family and friends in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, all searching on both sides of the border for Mariam. Meanwhile Habib moves his family out of Uncle Amin's house into an apartment at the Paradise Apartment Complex.

Fadi begins the school year at Brookhaven Middle School where he is in Mr. Torres' 6B class. Almost immediately he draws the attention of two bullies in his class, Felix and Ike. Fadi does a good deed by returning a classmate's wallet and she introduces herself as Anh Hong. Meanwhile at home, Fadi's family learns that Mariam may have been taken in by a family with two boys who were trying to get to Peshawar. This information upsets Zafoona and she argues with Habib telling him they should not have left Peshawar.Zafoona wants to return to Peshawar to search for Mariam but that requires money the Hurzai family does not have.

When Fadi learns about the school photography club and an upcoming contest with the chance to win tickets to India, he believes he just might have found a way to go back and help find Mariam. With the encouragement of Anh and Noor's money for the club fee, Fadi is determined to win. Meanwhile he must deal with the class bullies and his own feelings of guilt. When the contest doesn't produce the results Fadi is hoping for, he all but gives up until a remarkable meeting changes everything.


The events in Shooting Kabul bracket the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and throughout the United States. The novel provides young readers with insight into the immigrant experience during this time. Fadi's parents who returned to their homeland of Afghanistan with the hope of helping to modernize their country are now refugees in the United States. But their relief at escaping from the Taliban is marred by the loss of Mariam who was accidentally left behind in Jalalabad.

Shooting Kabul focuses primarily on the struggles of eleven-year-old Fadi as he experiences tremendous guilt and shame for not being able to hang onto his little sister Mariam when they were trying to board truck to take them out of Kabul. He is so certain of his own guilt in the matter that he is shocked to discover that each member of his family is also struggling with guilt. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Zafoona confesses her feelings of guilt to her sister Nilufer,
" 'She's my baby. I'm her mother. It's all my fault,' cried Zafoona, and, she burst into ragged sobs...
'No you don't understand,' said Zafoona. 'If I wasn't so sick, I could have looked after her. But instead everyone was looking after me. Noor and Habib were so worried about getting me on board the truck that they lost track of Fadi and Mariam. It's my fault.'"

Despite hearing this, Fadi continues to believe Mariam's situation was his fault, and he withdraws, often withdrawing from his family. In their new apartment, Fadi overhears his sister Noor confessing her responsibility for the loss of Mariam to their father. Noor states that she was responsible for caring for Fadi and Mariam; "No, I'm the oldest. I should have taken care of them...It's my fault Mariam is lost!" Fadi is shocked to overhear this admission but he thinks, "Everyone things it's their fault she's gone. But it's my fault, not anyone else's. I'm the one who doesn't deserve to belong to this family. I'm the one who's torn it apart."

Fadi then hits on the idea that he will return to Peshawar to find his sister. However without money this will be difficult so he devises a plan to travel to Pakistan. Just how deeply Fadi feels the loss of his sister is demonstrated when he sneaks into the trunk of his father's taxi to hitch a ride to the airport. His plan is to board a flight to London and then to catch a plane to Peshawar. Fortunately for Fadi, when he is unable to get out of the trunk, disaster is averted when his father opens the trunk to place a passenger's luggage inside.

Fadi then becomes determined to win the grand prize of a trip to India, in a local photography contest. Although planning to enter the photography contest gives Fadi hope his pain and guilt surface in a destructive way when the family visits a Toys R Us store.
"From both sides of the aisle hundreds of Barbies stared down at him. Fadi closed his eyes. His body felt cold and his hand went numb...His eyelids flickered open. Cowgirl Barbie gave him an accusing glare. Artist Barbie stood next to her, holding a paintbrush, sharing a conspiratorial frown with Doctor Barbie....Assembled on the bottom row stood a platoon of Barbies from around the world. Native American, Korean, Spanish, Nigerian, and Austrian Barbie were whispering to one another...whispering about Gulmina." The sight of the Barbies triggers the image of Mariam "holding out Gulmina, asking him to put her into his backpack." Fadi becomes enraged and begins destroying the Barbie display. "He knocked off a line of dolls, and they crashed to the floor. He stomped on the slender rectangular boxes, his tennis shoes making crunching sounds. He fell to his knees and ripped of the lids and pulled out Diamond Princess Barbie. He shook her with all his might and started banging her and Soccer Barbie against the concrete floor. The store manager found him, huddled on a pile of crushed boxes and Barbies, sobbing." The scene is tragic and disturbing, portraying the trauma many refugees from war-torn areas  experience.

Although both Zafoona and Noor have told someone about their guilt over Mariam, Fadi has been unable to confide in anyone, carrying his burden alone. However, after losing the photography contest and any chance of traveling to India, he confides in Ms. Bethune, telling her what happened that night in Kabul. Fadi is shocked that she does not consider him responsible and she helps him look at what happened in a different way, encouraging him not to blame himself for something he had little control over. Fadi never does tell his family about his guilt because the situation is resolved before he has the opportunity to do so.

Throughout the novel Senzai does an good job of incorporating recent Afghan history into the story so that younger readers have the background information to understand the events that occur. Readers experience the 9/11 attacks from the perspective of the Afghanistan refugees through the characters of Habib, Zafoona, Uncle Amin and others. The author also portrays how the Afghani people themselves view Osama Bin Laden, in the scene after 9/11 in the grocery shop in Little Kabul, and how they believe the events of 9/11 will impact their country. By incorporating many details about the country itself young readers from the United States and Canada are able to learn a bit about  Afghanistan's a rich heritage and diverse ethnic groups.

Shooting Kabul is another fine novel from this author and is highly recommended. Senzai states in her Author's Note at the back that "I didn't want to write this book..." because it touched many sensitive and personal issues including Islam, Afghan history and politics. Senzai's father-in-law's experiences are mirrored in those of Habib making the novel a very personal story. But it is a story well worth reading because it provides young readers the opportunity to understand Afghan history and culture separate from the American perspective presented in the media and because it also portrays the challenges refugees experience in coming to a culture vastly different from their own.

Book Details:

Shooting Kabul by Naheed Hasnat Senzai
New York: A Paula Wiseman Book      2010
273 pp.

Friday, May 11, 2018

DVD: Breathe

Breathe portrays the remarkable story of Robin Cavendish who contracted poliomyelitis in 1958 at the age of twenty-eight years old. As a result of this illness he was paralyzed from the neck down and completely reliant upon a respirator to breathe. Initially Robin wanted to die but with the support of his wife, Diana he was able to live a very full life and change the way severely disabled people were treated.

The movie opens with Robin Cavendish first noticing the beautiful Diana Blacker while playing cricket. His friends tell him he hasn't a chance with her as she is a notorious heartbreaker. But after he bats a ball into the china on a table near Diana, her interest in him is piqued. They date, fall in love and marry in 1957, despite her twin brothers Blogg and David expressing concern about the impending marriage. Marrying Robin will mean having to travel and live in Kenya, however Diana is quite agreeable to this.

The film then jumps to Kenya where the Cavendishs are with friends, Colin, Mary and Don who is a doctor. Robin mentions how much he loves the silence in Kenya. At a camp fire one evening, Don tells a story about sixty prisoners on Kome Island during the Mau Mau rebellion. Crammed into a small tin hut and with no possibility of being freed, the leader of the prisoners gives them permission to die. The next morning they are all found dead; Don's point being that people can will themselves to live or die. While Robin doesn't really believe the story, Diana emphatically states that she would choose to live. This scene is a foreshadowing of the coming trial Robin will face when he becomes seriously ill and must make the choice to live or die.

Shortly after this Diana reveals to Robin that she is expecting a baby and he is thrilled. The movie then jumps to the British Embassy in Nairobi in 1959. During a tennis match, Robin feels unwell and uncharacteristically loses to Colin. That night Robin becomes ill, shivering with fever and with terribly aching joints. He staggers to his friend's room and collapses. It would be the last time Robin would ever walk. He is rushed to hospital and when asked to move his arms or legs he can do neither. Soon he is struggling to breathe and is placed on a respirator. The diagnosis of polio is made with complete paralysis from the neck down. Diana is told Robin has a matter of months at most to live. When their baby, Jonathan is born, Diana places him next to Robin.

In 1960, Robin is flown home to England where he is placed in a hospital with other patients. Dr. Khan tells Diana that Robin is severely depressed and doesn't want to see her or his son Jonathan. When Blogg and David visit, Robin insists he wants to die. Dr. Entwistle who is in charge of the ward tells Diana that Robin is learning to swallow and if he can accomplish that he can learn to talk again. When he finally is able to speak, Robin challenges Diana as to why she continues to visit him. "You can't love this," he tells her, to which she responds, "Apparently I can."

Robin with his son Jonathan
In response to Robin's wish to die, Diana tells him that since the machine is breathing for him he's going to keep on living; she wants Jonathan to know him. So Robin asks her to get him out of the hospital. But when she approaches Dr. Entwistle, he refuses saying that no one with her husband's level of disability has ever left hospital care. Nevertheless, Diana purchases an old house and with the help of Dr. Khan, her brothers and a nurse, they attempt to sneak him out of the hospital. There efforts are discovered by Dr. Entwistle who orders them back, but Robin staunchly refuses. For Robin, being outside the hospital, seeing the blue sky, being around his family and friends is glorious and his mood improves immediately.

Robin is not satisfied with just being home, so with his friend Teddy Hall, an Oxford professor, they   devise a chair with a battery to power the respirator to give Robin more mobility. The first chair was built in 1962. Mobile around his home leads Robin to want to explore further and in 1965 they are able to retrofit a van so that Robin can sit in the front seat. This leads to trips across England and even into Spain where disaster almost strikes when the van's power which runs Robin's respirator is shorted out.

In the spring of 1971, Dr. Clement Aitken, Director of the Disability Research Foundation is amazed by Teddy Hall's motorized wheel chair and questions how he created it. Aitken tells Hall that he wants him to create hundreds of chairs, something that isn't possible without some kind of funding. Their first attempt at funding is refused so they seek a private donor in the form of a dowager and are able to make ten chairs for two thousand pounds. Dr. Aitken tells Robin and Diana that there are thousands of patients living their entire lives in hospital beds when they could be living a much better life.

With the encouragement of Dr. Aitken, Robin and Diana accompany him to a European conference in Germany in 1973 on Managing the Lives of the Severely Disabled. Dr. Aitken and Robin go to see Dr. Erik Langdorf who has patients in a modern, sterile environment of iron lungs. They are immobile with only their heads visible. He is shocked when he sees Robin in an upright chair with a respirator. At the conference, Dr. Aitken remarks that it is odd that at a conference on the disabled there are none in attendance and brings in Robin who asks them why they keep their disabled hidden away.Robin tells his story and tasks them to go back to their hospitals and help their patients to truly live "open the gates and set them free..."

Eventually the use of the respirator takes its toll on Robin as his lungs suffer abrasions and begin to suffer from bleeds. These bleeds he is told will only get worse and eventually they will kill him; he will drown in his own blood. Robin decides with the help of Teddy that he will euthanize himself. To this end he has a series of parties and makes arrangements to have his respirator turned off. Although Diana is at first angered, she comes to accept his decision. Robin Cavendish passes away


Breathe brings to life the extraordinary journey of Robin Cavendish, who after being stricken with the paralytic form of polio faces a shortened life confined to an institution. Instead with the determination and love of his wife, Robin is able to live a fulfilling and rich life the next thirty-six years, In that time he challenges how the medical profession and society as a whole view the severely disabled.

It was Robin and Diana's son John Cavendish, a successful British film producer who believed his father's story would make a good movie. To that end he enlisted William Nicholson who wrote the screenplay for the movies, Gladiators and Nell. Nicholson whose services would be quite costly, asked not to be paid until the film was actually made.

Robin (Andrew Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy) in Breathe
Cavendish had formed a new studio, Imaginarium Studios which specializes in motion-capture filmmaking, with motion capture actor Andy Serkis. Serkis, probably best known for his work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, was interested in making a movie and this seemed the ideal vehicle. Like Cavendish he too had a vested interest in the movie as his sister has multiple sclerosis and his mother has worked with the disabled.

Cavendish wanted to make sure the film about his father's life was not dark and depressing but uplifting. He wanted to portray the fact that his father's quality of life was good and that he led a life full of joy and adventure, sending the message that the severely disabled could have a life worth living. In this respect, Breathe is very successful. Serkis shows a very depressed Robin who is intent on dying during the period immediately following his illness. However, his wife Diana refuses to allow this but with some help, manages to remove him from the hospital setting. For Robin the choice is clear: he would rather live a fuller life with the risk of dying should his respirator fail than be bedridden in a hospital hidden away from family and friends. Once home his transformation is immediate and Robin is filled with ideas that might make his life better.

Breathe highlights the reality that the severely disabled can have a good quality of life with support from family, health care professionals and society. This is especially evident in the scenes where Robin and Dr. Aitken attend a conference in Germany in the early 1970's. The scene where Robin and Dr. Aitken are shown Dr. Langdorf's progress in treating polio victims is both shocking and heartbreaking. Breathe also serves as a reminder to a generation, which has never known the ravages of "childhood diseases" like polio, measles and whooping cough, just how dangerous these illnesses can be.

Claire Foy gives a captivating performance as Diana Cavendish; Andrew Garfield's job of portraying Robin Cavendish was much more challenging but he captures the range of emotions Robin experienced throughout the early years following his illness. The film has a solid cast of supporting actors as well.

Like The Theory of Everything which portrayed the remarkable life of Stephen Hawkings, Breathe challenges viewers to view the severely disabled differently, to recognize that though their bodies may be broken, inside are minds and hearts with dreams, desires and capabilities. We have a duty to give them the best life possible.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa Sheinmel

R.I.P. Eliza Hart is a novel that explores the pain and stigma of mental illness through the contrasting experiences of two young teens. The story is told using the dual narratives of  Ellie Sokoloff who suffers from claustrophobia and Eliza Hart who has committed suicide and is in the process of dying. When Ellie is considered a suspect in Eliza's death, she decides to investigate and uncovers a deeply buried memory that offers the key to her own illness and to the death of her beloved childhood friend. Her narratives cover the period from March 16 to March 27, as police investigate Eliza's death and her family holds her funeral.

The novel opens with Eliza describing the pain of dying. Her narratives describe her own personal journey of suffering from unipolar disorder in which she had unremitting depression and how she struggled to keep this illness a secret from everyone outside her family. Eliza reveals that she had trouble sleeping all through her childhood and her thyroid was tested when she was thirteen.

Ellie James Sokoloff has been to  eight therapists in an effort to overcome her claustrophobia, all to no avail. She's given up on the therapy but is hoping that by continuing to force herself into closets or bathrooms she might heal herself. But stuffing herself in the bathroom of the suite she shares with fellow student Sam Whitker isn't working. Ellie and Sam are students at Ventana Ranch, a boarding school located in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the California coastline. Approximately one hundred fifty high school juniors and seniors, all of whom study natural sciences. Except for Ellie who is the first liberal arts student in the school. Ellie had hoped for a fresh start at Ventana Ranch. Her claustrophobia attacks began after her parents divorced and moved from California back to the East Coast. This was after first grade when Ellie was seven-years-old and she and her mother were living in an apartment in Manhattan. Despite seeing a child psychologist, a therapist, Ellie suffered many attacks. Thinking maybe the attacks were triggered by moving from the open air of California to the urban density of New York city, Ellie decided to apply to a school in California in the hopes of curing herself.

Sam returns from a hike just as Ellie emerges from the bathroom in distress, telling her that someone is hacking the burls off of the redwood trees on one of the trails. Then they hear the sound of sirens and see the Coast Guard arrive.When Ellie sees them pull up a body with long blonde hair Ellie is shocked because it is Eliza Hart, once a childhood friend from kindergarten and grade one when Ellie lived in Menlo Park. Ellie was shocked to discover that Eliza was also enrolled at Ventana. Sam believes Eliza likely committed suicide but Ellie isn't so sure. Police set up floodlights around the area of the cliff where Eliza was found, leading Ellie to believe that the police are considering that Eliza might have been pushed off the cliff.

Ellie decides to walk down to the valley but on the way she overhears the Harts talking with Detective Roberts. He asks whether Eliza had depression and if there was anything strange about  her in the days prior.  While Mr. Hart is unresponsive,  Mrs. Hart assures Roberts that Eliza was normal. They are joined by Alan Carson, the dean of students as well as Julian Alvarez who tells the detective that a week earlier he saw Eliza arguing with someone outside her dorm. Although he could not identify the person, he recognized Eliza by her blond hair. As a result of Julian's information Detective Roberts wants all students to remain on campus for interviews despite it being spring break, telling Dean Carson that police will monitor who comes in and out of the campus.

The next morning Ellie awakens to students gathering outside Eliza's dorm room window. The sight of the students brings back memories of the previous months and Ellie's struggle to fit in. By Halloween, the new start that Ellie had hoped for hadn't materialized; she was isolated and unable to make friends. In January, Ellie decided to reach out to Eliza and reconnect with her. She paid a visit to the suite Eliza shared with Arden Lin and Erin Smythe but her invitation to lunch was rejected by Eliza who accused Ellie of stalking her. Completely shocked, Ellie realized that it was Eliza who spread the terrible rumours that Sam told her at Halloween; that she is a pathological liar, sent to a school back east for troubled kids and who broke up her parents marriage. Ellie has no idea why Eliza hates her.

On Friday, Sam convinces Ellie to attend the memorial service for Eliza. She's reluctant because she knows everyone knows Eliza Hart hated her. But Sam is insistent. However,  after the service, Erin and Arden confront Ellie and Sam. Erin threatens Ellie, telling her she will be telling the police about her stalking Eliza. Erin insists that it was Ellie fighting with Eliza that morning.

All of this distresses Ellie considerably. Sam tells her that the interviews will be conducted in Professor Clifton's old office which is small, meaning that Sam knows about her phobia. On Saturday the police begin interviewing students, so Sam suggests that they go for a hike as a distraction. During their hike on the Y trail, they encounter two men who are cutting the burls off of redwoods to sell. Ellie and Sam hide and listen as the men, one of whom is named Mack, talk about Eliza Hart. From their conversation it appears that they have been using Eliza's ID to gain access to the redwood forest on the campus that some of the money they earned through the sale of the burls was being split with Eliza. Ellie wants to go to the police but Sam insists that they do not have enough information.

With her police interview scheduled for 4pm that afternoon, Ellie decides that to learn more they need to follow Mack and the other man after they leave the forest. Ellie believes that learning more will help her clear her name and may help them understand what happened to Eliza. Little does Ellie know  she will uncover a clue that will open the door to her own mysterious phobia while answering many of her questions about Eliza and her death.


R.I.P. Eliza Hart begins as a murder mystery but evolves into a story focusing on mental health and the devastating effects it can have on sufferers and their families. After the body of classmate and former childhood friend, Eliza Hart is found on the cliffs adjacent to their school,  Ellie believes that she is being considered a suspect in Eliza's death and she wants to know what really happened to this girl who inexplicably hated her. When she and roommate Sam discover that Eliza had a secret boyfriend and was involved with burl-poachers, Ellie decides to tell the police in the hopes of clearing her name. However, this information is not new to the police as Ellie later learns that Mack came forward to talk with them. When Ellie and Sam are unable to discover much about the Eliza's death, Sam believes they have to focus on the clue Mack gave them, that Eliza was afraid of Ellie because she saw something that happened involving Eliza's father.
It is Ellie's encounter with Alexander McAdams (Mack) that provides her with the clue as to why her friendship with Eliza disintegrated after first grade, why Eliza spread rumours about her and ultimately reveals what really happened to Eliza. Sheinnmel is able to create considerable suspense throughout the novel by having the character of Mack not reveal what Eliza had confided to him about Ellie. Mack tells Ellie that " 'You're the one who knows about her family,' he spits. 'She told me everything. You were there the last time her dad - ' He cuts himself off, shaking his head."   At this point the novel now presents readers with two mysteries; that of Eliza's death and the mystery of what Ellie saw years ago at Eliza's home. Both of these mysteries are connected in some way. To solve the mystery of what Ellie witnessed years ago, Sam suggests they visit Eliza's home during the funeral in the hopes it will trigger Ellie's memory. This is successful as Ellie discovers why Eliza was afraid of her. "Eliza wasn't a mean girl. She was a frightened girl." The visit also leads Ellie to suspect that Eliza suffered from mental health issues in the same way her father did.

While the overarching story line is the mystery of Eliza Hart's death, both girls narratives detail serious struggles with mental health issues. Ellie Sokoloff is struggling with claustrophobia that has dominated her life since she was seven-years-old. Its effects have been to isolate her from her peers and make her prone to bullying.  Her mother sought help for her and Ellie was treated by eight therapists without much success and at great financial and emotion cost to her mother. No therapist had been able to draw out the terrible memory Ellie had of Eliza's father cutting himself and which Ellie eventually identifies as the likely cause of her phobia. Despite the lack of success, Ellie continued to see therapists and even tried to cure herself by doing her own immersion therapy where she would force herself into situations that would set off an attack. She never gave up and when she does uncover the hidden memory she tells her mother, "I want to start going to therapy again..." and she insists that she see a specialist, "Someone who knows about repressed memories and claustrophobia....I'd like to try to stay.  With therapy. See if things get better."

In contrast Eliza gives up. Eliza's chapters reveal how difficult her life was, coping not only with her father's serious mental illness but also her own. She first witnessed her father's attempt to kill himself when she was in kindergarten.His treatment was complicated with mixed results. Eliza had seen her father go "to a dozen therapists and tried more medications than a cancer patient" without getting better she is skeptical about therapy..."Most people who don't live with it think that therapy and pills will fix it. I believed that the first few times we sent Dad off to get his medication adjusted: Just a little tune-up and a little time off, and he'd be back better than ever." "It was years before I understood that treatment for mental illness isn't that simple. It's like living with cancer that goes into remission after a course of chemotherapy. It's under control, but it could still metastasize."

Eliza is unable to admit to herself that she is ill despite suffering from insomnia and depression, and being unable to feel strong emotions. Eliza is lonely, an only child like Ellie. And yet despite this, she is high functioning; a straight A student, winning swimming medals, attending class and going to parties. When her mother confronts her, Eliza tells her she's paranoid, "But I was lying. I knew what it was. I just didn't want to admit it." Even knowing she was luckier that most because her parents could afford treatment, Eliza can't go on. "How many times could they adjust my meds and try again? How many therapists' couches could I sit on, complaining about a life that seemed so good on the outside?...I'd run out of fresh starts. I'd had enough."
Her situation is tragic. The full extent of her struggle is finally revealed when Ellie and Sam go to talk with Eliza's mother. For Eliza, keeping up appearances was more important than getting the help she needed. It is during this chapter that the real tragedy of Eliza's struggle becomes apparent and it is heartwrenching.

Besides the theme of mental health, R.I.P. Eliza Hart offers readers the chance to consider the themes of self-acceptance, the meaning of friendship, and identity.

One of the best features of this novel is its cover which shows a girl in distress underwater. This image portrays Ellie's own description of her claustrophobia: "...whenever a door closes in a windowless room --an elevator, a closet, a bathroom--my lungs behave like I'm twenty thousand leagues under the sea, with no escape in sight." Ellie tells Sam, "It feels like I'm underwater. It's not the walls that are closing in, but wave after wave of water, threatening to drown me."

Overall R.I.P. Eliza Hart is a well-paced, riveting novel that blends mystery and realistic fiction and deals with the heavy issues of phobias, depression and suicide in a way that is very balanced.

Book Details:

R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa Sheinmel
New York: Scholastic Press    2017
324 pp.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

"...I dress my thoughts in the clothing of a poem."

The Poet X is about a young girl's struggle with faith and identity and trying to find her own voice. Fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in Harlem, N.Y. Xiomara means "One who is ready for war."  Unlike her older twin brother Xavier, Xiomara had to be delivered by Caesarean because she tried to enter the world feet first.

Xiomara is struggling with her Catholic faith and this is complicated by her strained relationship with her mother. After managing to dodge confirmation classes for the past two years, this year she has been signed up along with her best friend Caridad. But Xiomara doesn't really want to be confirmed. She doesn't believe she needs Jesus in her life and she feels that the church doesn't value her and that God doesn't seem to be watching out for her. However, when Xiomara objects, her mother tells her she will send her to the Dominican Republic "where the priests and nuns know how to elicit true piety."

Xiomara's mother is overly pious. This began after their birth. Her parents had given up  hope for children. Their conception and birth was considered miraculous by their friends and changed her parents; her father became more serious and her mother began to attend Mass daily. Xiomara's mother had wanted to be a nun. Instead she was forced to marry Xiomara's father in the hopes they would eventually travel to the United States.

The first confirmation class finds Xiomara more interested in talking to Caridad about boys and struggling to accept the idea of accepting Christ into her life. Caridad is the exact opposite of Xiomara; she recites Bible verses, wants to wait for marriage for sex, respects her parents. However, she's accepting of Xiomara and "tells me that she knows ...I'll figure it all out."

The first day of high school finds Xiomara liking Ms. Galiano her first period English teacher.  She's young and she pronounces Xiomara's name correctly on the first try. Xiomara is impressed with Ms. Galiano because although she is petite, she "carries herself big ...Like she's used to shouldering her way through any assumptions made about her." Their first assignment is to "write about the most impactful day of your life."  What Xiomara wants to write about is how her period came in fifth grade and she did not know what to use nor how to use the tampons. When her mother learned that she was using tampons she scolded her, telling her to skip church and to use pads. What Xiomara actually writes about is her brother gifting her a leather bound journal which she records her thoughts.

At Mass on Sunday, Xiomara doesn't want to receive Holy Communion but her mother forces her. Xiomara feels that girls are given a list of rules they cannot break. She's told to have faith in men but men harass her and make her feel small. As punishment for refusing to receive Communion, Xiomara is made to attend Mass with her mother every evening of the week. After receiving Holy Communion from Father Sean, Xiomara sacrilegiously spits out the host and hides it beneath the pew. commits a sacrilege by spitting out the host and hiding it beneath the bench.

On September 17, Xiomara discovers a poster at school for the Spoken Word Poetry Club. It is run by Ms. Galiano on Tuesdays after school, which unfortunately conflicts with her confirmation class. Xiomara knows her mother will never let her skip the class. However, that night her twin brother encourages Xiomara to join. The next day Xiomara questions Ms. Galiano before class about the club. Watching a video of a poet reciting thrills Xiomara. 

Xiomara's life begins to change when a classmate, Aman is assigned as her lab partner.  She is immediately attracted to Aman and decides she wants to get to know him. Eventually Xiomara agrees to spend time at the park with Aman listening to music even though she knows her parents will not approve.As their friendship blossoms Xiomara finds ways to spend time with Aman, sneaking to a Halloween dance and going skating. But when she's seen kissing Aman on the train Xiomara's world comes crashing down. Her mother brutally punishes her by making her kneel on rice in front of the Virgin Mary and forces her to talk to Father Sean. But Xiomara is not sorry and Father Sean believes that she should wait to be confirmed.

As the crisis between Xiomara and her mother deepens, she realizes she must either find her voice or lose herself completely.


Slam poet, Elizabeth Acevedo has crafted a powerful novel about the importance of words and finding your own voice. Her debut novel, The Poet X tackles a wide range of themes about coming of age that include identity, the role of faith, first love and independence.

In the novel the main character, fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista is struggling to figure out who she is, what she believes and to give a voice to her feelings and beliefs. Because her parents consider Xiomara and her twin brother to be a miracle, her mother zealously attends daily Mass. However, unlike her best friend Caridad and her twin brother Xavier, Xiomara feels marginalized by the Catholic faith, the church and God. Forced to attend Mass nightly in preparation for her confirmation, Xiomara repeatedly commits an act of sacrilege by receiving Holy Communion and discarding it beneath the pew, her "hands shaking less and less everytime..."

All her doubts and anger lead her to publicly confront Father Sean in confirmation class about the creation account in Genesis. Father Sean's failure to answer Xiomara simply deepens her rebellion, misunderstanding, her loss of faith and encourage her to respect him. Father Sean however does seem to understand that Xiomara's conflict is not so much one of faith but of identity. And it is Father Sean who helps Xiomara and her mother Altagracia put their broken relationship back together.

Xiomara is shown to be a deeply conflicted young woman. She is conflicted about her body which she considers a source of trouble based on how men react to her. She is by her own description, tall and well built and men are attracted to her. Her mother tells her that she'll "have to pray extra so my body didn't get me into trouble."

"And I knew the what I'd known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was a problem.
And I didn't want any of these boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all."

Xiomara's solution is to hide her body in big sweaters, "trying to turn this body into an invisible equation." Xiomara's view of her body is merely reinforced by her mother's violent over-reaction when she sees her kissing Aman. Her mother hits her, calls Xiomara a "cuero" (slut) and makes her kneel on rice in front of the Virgin Mary statue while she mother prays. Xiomara is forced to go to confession to Father Sean, whom she tells that she is not sorry. Father Sean understands some of the conflict between Xiomara and her mother and her struggle with her Catholic faith. At this point in time he is Xiomara's voice, telling her mother that she is not quite ready to be confirmed yet. It is a message Xiomara cannot tell her mother.

Xiomara's journey towards finding her own voice is gradual and painful. At first she is not even remotely interested in taking part in the poetry club even though a poetry video makes her realize that others have the same thoughts she has. Xiomara thinks
"she can't think that I,
who sits silently in her classroom,
who only speaks to get someone off my back,
will ever get onstage
and say any of the things I've written,
out loud, to anybody else."

However, Xiomara's feelings about Aman lead her to write pages of poetry, "writing pages and pages about a boy and reciting them to myself like a song, like a prayer." Still she pretends to forget about the Spoken Word Poetry Club but Ms. Galiano isn't fooled; she considers Xiomara a poet based on her assignments submitted for English and continues to encourage her to attend.

During this time, Xiomara doesn't write what she really wants to say for her English assignments, but instead gives Ms. Galiano what might be considered more acceptable. For example when she has to write the last paragraph of her biography she wants to write about becoming "the warrior she wanted to be" but instead writes about what she might be expected to accomplish; creating a nonprofit organization that helps first-generation girls date, go away to college and move out when they turn eighteen and buying her parents a house in the Dominican Republic.

At first when Xiomara is brutally punished for kissing Aman she withdraws into herself, speaking to no one. With many of her privileges withdrawn and despite the fact that her mother still expects her at confirmation class, she decides she will attend the poetry club because she now feels ready.
"...I have so much bursting to be said,
and I think I'm ready to be listened to."
It turns out Ms. Galiano was right - Xiomara finds her groove in the club. After reading her poem  she feels validated.
"I can't remember
the last time people were silent
while I spoke, actually listening...

My little words
feel important, for just a moment.
This is a feeling I could get used to."

For Xiomara, " feels like an adult has finally heard me." The poetry club changes Xiomara's attitude towards everything. She begins to answer questions in English class. Xiomara agrees to Caridad's suggestion and participates in an open mic night at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe, impressing the host who invites Xiomara to the poetry competition. Attending poetry club and reading her poems to Ms. Galiano results in Xiomara "blossoming"; she's proud of her poetry, proud how the words "connect with people" and "how they build community." Over the Christmas holidays Xiomara fills her journal with poetry about her mom, Aman and her twin brother.

The crisis between Xiomara and her mother pushes Xiomara to finally speak up.  Xiomara's mother reads her journal and angered by her daughter's poems tries to burn it. Xiomara's first reaction is to runaway from home but Ms. Galiano tells her she must talk to her mother and work out their relationship. With the help of  Father Sean Xiomara finds her voice to work with her mother "to break down some of the things that have built up between us." and to accept that this relationship will not be a typical mother-daughter relationship. With the help of Ms. Galiano, Xiomara performs at the poetry competition. Xiomara is reluctant at first because her poems are personal, but Ms. Galiano tells her that
"words give people permission
to be their fullest self. And aren't those the poems
I've most needed to hear?"

In the end Xiomara discovers that "learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light."

The Poet X - the title being a reference to the name Xiomara gives herself, is a well written novel that hits the mark. There are plenty of nuances to explore in Xiomara's relationship with mother, her brother and her friend Aman. Readers will easily identify with at least some of Xiomara's struggles. Acevedo is a National Slam Champion who placed 8th in the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam.

Book Details:

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
New York: Harper Teen    2018
361 pp.