Tags Posts tagged with "novel"

novel

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

We saw from a distance the open truck with children. Marta was standing next to me with her twin girls, who were five years old. The Gestapo was looking for more children. The girls screamed to Marta, “Mama, the takeaway men are coming, they’re going to take us away!” And they scooped up my little nieces, and the truck — loaded with children — drove off, and we never saw them again.

Author Meryl Ain

This vivid and disturbing description will come back to haunt Aron, a Holocaust survivor, in a very different way.  

Meryl Ain’s The Takeaway Men (SparkPress) is an exceptional and vibrant first novel. It is the story of Aron and Edyta Lubinsky and their twin daughters Bronka and Johanna. It is a tale of painful secrets and complicated histories. It shows the shift in the United States and in the free world from the desire to find justice for the victims of the Nazi’s genocide to the paranoia surrounding the Red Scare during the Cold War. But The Takeaway Men is also a portrait of the power of love and the ability of family to embrace and heal.

The prologue takes place in Poland, 1942, at the threshold of the Holocaust’s darkest hours. It then briefly jumps to the displaced persons camp outside of Munich, where the twins are born on July 4, 1947. Finally, the main portion of the book begins in 1951, settling into Bellerose, Queens, where it plays out for the next eleven years. Here the Lubinski family is taken in by their only living relatives, Izzy and Faye. In 1908, at age twenty, Izzy had left Poland to escape an arranged marriage and a religious life. In America, he found a new path, opening up two bakeries, and enjoying both a more relaxed existence than he would have found as an orthodox rabbi.

And while the issues of fascism versus communism are part of the book’s political core, The Takeaway Men is truly a celebration of America. There is a deep appreciation of the United States as a country that welcomes refugees and it shares the message without preaching. It embraces the wonder of a free democracy to give hope to those fleeing tyranny and seeking a new life:

“You know,” [Aron] told Izzy, “in Europe, people think the streets are paved with gold.”

“Yes, I heard that rumor before I came here too,” Izzy said with a laugh. “America accepts people like us and gives us the chance to get ahead on our own merit — that’s what’s golden about it …”

But even here in America, Aron continues to be haunted by his past. When the neighbor Lenore is arrested by men in suits, he sees the shadow of the Gestapo. Lenore’s daughter cries: “The take-away men took Mommy away.  When is she coming back?”

What is revealed is Lenore had a vague connection to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were arrested, convicted, and then executed for espionage. The plight of the Rosenbergs is one of the many historical elements that are subtly introduced throughout the story’s arc.

The Lubinskis remain with Izzy and Faye as the girls grow up. Aron has actively chosen not to reveal his nor Edyta’s history to the girls.  But several incidents, including a fascinating scene in which a Hebrew school teacher shares what she feels is necessary knowledge, the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as a suspected Nazi working in the neighborhood, force some painful and startling revelations.  

In addition to the central characters, the book is populated by characters richly drawn in all their human complexity. Izzy and Faye’s mentally troubled daughter, Becky, returns to the fold, introducing someone who has a capacity for great love but is chased by demons of her own. 

Jakob Zilberman, a gregarious friend, survived as a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers and the crematorium. Unlike Aron, he is compelled to speak out on his experience. He is another man plagued by not only what he witnessed but by his own actions: “I would prefer to tell you another story, one in which I look brave and fearless. I would prefer a story where I was a hero and saved people. But that wasn’t possible in those circumstances, and I wouldn’t be honest if I embellished what really happened to make myself look better.” Ain gives us more than a hero:  she gives us a human being.   

And, at the novel’s heart are the twins, Bronka and Johanna, as they grow up and grow apart but never lose their bond in this every changing world.

Many of the characters struggle with their religious and ethnic identities. Izzy and Faye’s son has married outside the faith and it is a fascinating study of conflict to see the parents try to find a way to accept this without losing their own cultural commitment. The issue of what it is to straddle the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds is addressed without judgment. The question of how to belong and yet not lose one’s sense of self is raised in all its contradictions.   “It was easier to be a Jew in America than in Poland, but it still wasn’t easy … when you’re a Jewish immigrant in Bellerose, you don’t quite fit in, no matter how many Christmas carols you know.”

There is a refrain in the book that references the biblical Ruth. Ruth, who was not Jewish but married an Israelite, in widowhood remains with her mother-in-law. The idea that “whither thou goest, I will go” resonates throughout.

Ultimately, The Takeaway Men is not just about family — it is about a neighborhood and a community. It is about the choice to survive even if you must make great sacrifices in the process. But finally, it is about finding that acceptance comes from understanding and understanding is what can make one whole. 

Available Aug. 4, The Takeaway Men may be pre-ordered at BookRevue.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Anthony Sciarratta’s The Letter (Post Hill Press) is a romance that examines both the power of faith and the strength of love. 

Author Anthony Sciarratta

Victor Esposito is a novelist who came to success in this thirties with each work featuring a very distinct female protagonist. His readers are unaware that she is not solely (or wholly) a creation of fiction: She is based on Eva Abrams, a vibrant and quirky individual he met by chance at concert just over a decade before. Eva, married with three children, was as drawn to Victor as he is to her. The two embarked on an intense but painfully platonic affair that lasted about year. “How could you see someone you know is perfect for you and never act on your feelings?”

After meeting two and three times a week, Eva broke it off with no explanation. During the ensuing years, the two had no contact. But she continued to be his muse, fueling his creative process: “To write a book about someone, to capture every groove of their face, curve of their body, and thought in their head, takes a great deal of studying … It was a special bond they shared that no person would ever come to understand.”  

Now in his forties, Victor is a successful writer living in a luxurious Manhattan apartment. One night, he is shot during a bodega hold-up while saving a mother and child, resulting in his ending up in a coma. When Eva learns of this, she immediately leaves her Long Island home to be at his bedside. His mother, Barbara, immediately recognizes who this woman must be: “Victor has no children, no wife. You’re the only mark he left on this world. His life’s work is because of you.”

While sitting vigil, Eva examines the choices that have brought her to this juncture. Coming from an abusive and unstable childhood, Eva gave up her dreams of being a musician for the constancy of domestic life, married to the steady but disconnected Stanley. While being a mother gave her great joy, the marriage was never fulfilling resulting in a gnawing sense of loss.  

Meanwhile, Victor does not regain consciousness. He is transported to a limbo where he, too, examines his life choices, in particular his brief relationship with Eva that motivated the change in his career from carpenter to writer. In this netherworld, he is guided by the enigmatic Benedict, who turns out to be someone from Victor’s earlier life.  This half-world becomes populated with important figures of his and Eva’s histories.

Throughout, the characters are revealed in all their humanity, wearing their scars just below the surface. Sciarratta is not afraid to show confrontation or petty jealousies. These moments lend further dimension and texture.  

The cover of ‘The Letter’

Also present is the shadowy figure of Louis, who appears just before the bodega incident, and then returns in the book’s final chapters. He is the dark angel that lurks in the mind’s shadows: “I bet you have a lot of regrets now. You had everything: Money, health, and a great career. Being a good guy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, huh, buddy?” He is a chilling figure that offers temptation and relief. This emissary of worst fears adds further conflict to the final road in Victor’s journey.  

While the book is primarily a romance, it has elements of mystery as Sciarratta unravels his lead characters narratives.  

His lovers’ consummation is unusual — if not unique — in its setting. It is both ardent and detailed.  However, this does not in any way obscure the romantic force of the novel. Eva is his “North Star, guiding him through a depression by showing him what unconditional love feels like. She had looked past his sadness, despair, and anger to find a man with a beautiful soul …” A pair of socks given at a candlelit lunch in the park become a particularly compelling totem, representing a deeper caring than even the most fervid caress can show.

The story also nods to the solace drawn from belief: “Eva protected those she loved with a shroud of prayer, hoping that God would bless the lives that meant so much to her.” It is this mix of the spiritual and the visceral that are the foundations of both the story and the relationship. Whether drawn from religion or from nature, they find their way. In a touching episode, Victor sees himself in a wounded bird that he gently cradles in his hands; knowing that it wants to live but also accepting that death is part of the plane of human existence.  

Ultimately, The Letter addresses the issue of soul mates. This is seeded at the outset and blooms in its epilogue. It is about the alchemy of love and its power to heal wounds, whether psychological or physical. It is a bold statement in a book that tells its story with straightforward passion and wide-eyed honesty.  

The Letter is available at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

Vietnam-born Hakin Lienghot, the subject of Eileen Davenport's first novel, was 'adopted' by Three Village community

Eileen Davenport, on right, is writing a novel about Hakin Lienghot, on left, who was adopted by the Three Village community following his immigration to the United States from Vietnam. Hank Boerner, at center, worked for American Airlines and helped the then-13-year-old get a flight to his new home. Photo from Eileen Davenport

Eileen Davenport has embarked on a writing journey, and she’s hoping local residents will join her on a trip down memory lane. The Setauket resident is working on a book about Hakin Lienghot, better known as Kin, a young man adopted by Three Village community members when he immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1967. She is reaching out to the community asking for stories involving her longtime friend.

Davenport said Lienghot, who now lives in Rhode Island, was a Montagnard child from Da Me in the Central Highlands of Vietnam whose people were mistreated by their fellow Vietnamese. When James Turpin, an American doctor, visited his village with the independent relief organization Project Concern, he met Lienghot and discovered the teenager dreamed of one day going to college. When the doctor returned to the United States, he addressed the members of the Three Village Jaycees, a junior chamber of commerce where members were between 18 and 35 years old. He asked the community to help him bring the young man to the states.

Hakin Lienghot arrives at John F. Kennedy airport and is greeted by the Fleeson family, who he stayed with over winter break. Photo from Eileen Davenport

“All these people in Three Village started to stand up and say, ‘We will help this boy to get here,’” Davenport said in a phone interview. 

She said she’s not certain of all the details, but Lienghot was offered a five-year scholarship to The Stony Brook School, and members of the Jaycees offered additional help. A clothing store owner said he would give Lienghot clothes, others said he could stay at their home during school breaks. Hank Boerner, who had just moved to Stony Brook and worked for American Airlines, offered to approach the company to arrange Lienghot’s transportation.

When the 13-year-old landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, the Jaycees, his future schoolmates, the local public school band and the Stony Brook Fire Department were there to greet him. She said the young man carried two bows and two arrows in his hand.

“His father said, ‘Here take this to your host family as a gesture to say that we are so happy and proud that they took you,’” Davenport said. “It was just this big hospitality thing.”

Lienghot said he was overwhelmed when he arrived at the airport, as he didn’t expect to be greeted by so many people, and his knowledge of English consisted basically of “yes,” “no,” and “thank you.”

“I didn’t expect anything like that so I was overwhelmed; I was frightened,” Lienghot said. “But I was cool on the outside, and I was frightened on the inside. I didn’t know how to talk to people or communicate. They had someone from the Vietnamese consulate to interpret for me.”

He remembers it snowing when the Fleeson family of Stony Brook drove him to their home where he stayed with the family until school began after winter break. He remembered that first night trying Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and not liking the  taste of it, and the next day throwing snowballs with the neighborhood children, and the Fleesons taking him to Sears in the Smithhaven Mall.

Eileen Davenport and Hakin Lienghot dance at his wedding. Photo from Eileen Davenport

He said he tried his best to fit in with the American children he met, so much so that it wasn’t until he matured that he realized the significance of his experiences here.

“I would love to hear about what people remember about me, because I was so focused on fitting in,” he said.

Lienghot, who is now a clinical social worker specializing in children with ADHD and autism has fond memories of his time in the area. He said he would walk down Quaker Path to go to West Meadow Beach and Christian Avenue into Stony Brook Village. From his walks to the village, he remembers looking out into the harbor and going to the shops, and he got his first American haircut from a Stony Brook Village barber.

He started at The Stony Brook School during a time when there were only 47 boys in the prep school, and Davenport said the students came from some of the most elite families, such as Edmund Lynch from the Merrill Lynch family.

While the original plans were for Lienghot to return home during summer vacation, circumstances in Vietnam prevented it. The Viet Cong attacked his village, and people were shot at point-blank range. In the attacks, he lost his brother-in-law and cousin as well as 36 others in his village. When he did get home in 1969, he was almost drafted when he was stopped while riding a scooter. He said he pretended to only know English, and for identification he just showed his Stony Brook School ID. After that, he knew he couldn’t return to his village again. 

The Three Village Jaycees, who already helped Lienghot with food, clothing and books, now opened up their homes to ensure he would have a place to stay during every school break and summer vacation.

“It was a collective community thing, really kind of parenting him,” the writer said.

Hakin Lienghot arrives at John F. Kennedy airport with flight attendants. Photo from Eileen Davenport

Davenport said she hopes Three Village residents can help her with the story of Lienghot, because her family only became a part of his life after he left The Stony Brook School. She said it was in the early 1970s when her father, Ed McAvoy, joined the Jaycees and was the newly elected president of the group. Lienghot was graduating from high school at the time, and her father decided to go to the graduation ceremony.

As her father was leaving, her mother Mary Ann said to him, “Just make sure he has somewhere to go.”

When Davenport’s father saw Lienghot, the young man didn’t know where he was going for the summer, and McAvoy invited him to stay at his home for the summer with his wife and four children.

While Lienghot was at the McAvoys they helped him pack for college and obtain his green card since his student visa ended. The young man had a four-year scholarship playing soccer at Barrington College and eventually went on to Boston University. Every college school break he came back to the McAvoy family, and through the decades has visited the family regularly.

“He kind of adopted us as family and we adopted him,” Davenport said.

The new author said many have told Lienghot to write a book, and but he never believed anyone would be interested in his story. She said while she has no experience in writing books, she’s an avid reader of memoirs and non-fiction inspirational stories, and she believes many would read a book about a community coming together and taking in an immigrant child during war.

The future author said to her adopted brother,  “I read stories like this all the time, and I know it’s a good story to tell.”

Those who remember Lienghot can email their stories to [email protected]