After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning: A Memoir by Helaine Hovitz

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Release Date:
September 5, 2016
Carrel Books
Pages: 480
Reviewed by:

“Hovitz had the grit, determination and resources to pull herself out of the morass of PTSD. What about the rest of her generation growing up in this post-September 11 world?”

Author Helaina Hovitz in her book After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning provides us with a timely account of the seen and unseen damage searing experiences and memories shape.

In the book Hovitz shares her memories of that dread filled morning on September 11, 2001, when a neighbor, Ann, collected her children and then 12-year old Hovitz from their middle school as it was evacuated.

“’Don’t look up, don’t look back, just keep going!’’ Hovitz writes: “I was tiny so I had to fight my way through walls of people. . . . Before it was fun. An adventure. Now, it suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe, and maybe I couldn’t. In fact, I felt like I was going to faint. . . . ‘Oh my God, they’re jumping!’ Ann said . . . I kept hearing more sounds. Some reminded me of the crashing and grinding of garbage trucks, others of a heavy box suddenly dropped on the ground, others, still, hail hitting a window, only heavier, like a giant bag full of nails, creaking, slamming, booming.”

How does anyone survive psychologically intact from such horror experienced at the onset of adolescence—or at any age? But millions of New Yorkers have had to cope with PTSD to a greater or lesser degree after September 11 and so have many hundreds of millions of Americans, and indeed people from around the globe. Our world changed that day, and we are still dealing with the seismic aftershocks.

Helaina Hovitz, in understated prose, takes us with her on her path away from PTSD. She does not shy away from nor minimize the effects of her trauma. Years of therapy and counseling, growth into adulthood with not so deeply buried horrific memories that threaten to overcome her at any moment, panic attacks, her descent into sexual acting out, and alcoholism are all vividly laid out for us.

For Helaina, a university graduate, the path ends more or less happily at “This.”  “’This’ would be finalizing a book. ‘This’ would be attempting, with no prior business whatsoever to start-up a news service exclusively focused on inspiring and hopeful stories about people who are trying to make the future better.’ ‘This’ was dealing with chronic pain, for almost a ten years by then, trying tons of doctors and medications and therapies and getting nowhere.’ ‘This’ was doing it all stone-cold sober.’”

Hovitz had the grit, determination and resources to pull herself out of the morass of PTSD. What about the rest of her generation growing up in this post-September 11 world? How many of them have a shot at new beginnings akin to Helaina’s?

Recently on August 17, 2016, we were reminded of the devastating effects of such trauma when we saw the infinitely tragic image of Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy sitting in an ambulance seat in Aleppo, his hair, face and body covered in ash and blood. Since 9/11 so many hundreds of thousands of children have suffered death or grievous physical and psychological trauma in the Middle East and other conflicts. We read and see their stories daily in the media.

Throughout history witness-bearers through their stories provide personal glimpses into historic events that can otherwise become dates and place names and statistics. Hovitz’s book opens a window on one person’s journey in the aftermath of September 11. She has rendered a valuable service in adding her voice to the memory of this momentous interstice in world history.


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Reviewed by:

“Relativity is a wonderful read . . . well written, sometimes lyrically so, well plotted and not afraid to enter some of the grittier territory of complex human relationships.”

Relativity by Antonia Hayes is a wonderful read. Hayes deserves a wide audience for this book. Relativity is Hayes debut novel, well written, sometimes lyrically so, well plotted and not afraid to enter some of the grittier territory of complex human relationships. One of Hayes’ singular achievements in this work is her non-judgmental stance and balanced voice.

For protagonists, 12-year-old Ethan, his biological father, Mark, and his single mom, Claire, sometimes explosive, sometimes tender, often hard-to-read shifting points of view have the ring of truth. Indeed they should, for as author Hayes says in interviews the novel’s impetus is largely based on autobiographical fact but the characters and evolving plot are fictional. The novel is set in Sydney Australia, Hayes’ hometown although she now lives in San Francisco.

Another character omnipresent in the novel is ideas created from theoretical physics and cosmology. Hayes’ writing of complex abstraction is masterful. By having, albeit a remarkable 12 year old articulate his understanding of these ideas, she makes them accessible to a wide audience.

A tattoo on Mark’s arm illustrates the interaction between science and this troubled family, ‘E=mc2’: Ethan equals Mark and Claire. Ethan, a brilliant and precocious boy fascinated by physics, Mark, a mysterious figure in Ethan’s life until he is 12, and Claire, a professional ballerina, who ends her performance career to care for her son.

No other spoilers in this review for that would mar your reading of this compulsive, compassionate, and intelligent novel. It grabs you from the jarring opening page and on the last page you gasp at the fitting paean of appreciation for the force of gravity and how Hayes links the implications of physics to the plot.

“Gravitation shapes our universe. Forms tides, heats planetary cores. It’s why fragments of gravitational matter clump together into planets and moons, why stars cluster into vast, rippling galaxies. Earth isn’t going to crash into the sun, the moon won’t collide with Earth—gravity keeps them safe in orbit. It always attracts and never repels; it brings the planets back.

Gravity is insistent. It firmly stands its ground. We never stop accelerating toward the center of the Earth at 9.8/s2. That curvature in the fabric of space-time is a phenomenon we experience every day, an invisible experience we all have in common.”

Light years from the rarified conceptual realm of scientific ideas, Ethan’s family is mired in hurt, excrutiating guilt, and a combination of hate and love not yet understood or clarified. Microcosmic and macrocosmic perceptions of human experience do not align—yet.

“Claire got dressed. Her head was full of contradictions, as though each hemisphere of her own brain were battling some civil war. Confusion left her with a strong desire for solitude, to be left alone with her conflicting thoughts. She felt completely disorientated, questioning her entire life. What if her heart had reshaped itself around a lie? Part of her was angry . . . another part of her utterly distraught.”

Ethan, a child on the cusp of adolescence, is the perfect vehicle through which the story unfolds. We learn at the same time he does the mysterious twists of family history, burial and reframing of tortured memories, a family constellation torn apart.

Gravity does not operate the same way in this family constellation as it does on a universal scale; the stars do not align, at least not on the surface. But at the quantum level gravity and relativity are present although to the untrained eye particles heave and bubble like chaos itself.

Hayes invites us to look deeper into the quantum level of her characters’ psyches. Our clue to this interpretation is Ethan’s pet rabbit named, Quark. As Hayes explains, quarks are elementary particles and fundamental constituents of matter. Quarks combine to form particles called hadrons, the components of atomic nuclei.

The matter that constitutes stars is the same matter firing neurons in our brains. At some level Ethan is already the space-time traveler he strives to be. After all, the title of the novel is Relativity.

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51LoQ8vCg9L-199x300Reviewer: Janet Levine

“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.

But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”

With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.

What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.

The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.

Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.

Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.

Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”

This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.


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Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962–1966

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“A satisfying read on many levels . . .” 

Fragrant Palm Leaves is the work of a person in his mid-thirties coming to terms with realistic acceptance of the meanings that arise from his monk’s training and leadership role in trying to reform Buddhism in his country, Vietnam. Included in these musings are the great possibilities of leadership and mission as well as significant disappointments of personal loss.

The strength of the journals lies in Hahn’s honesty in his writing. The journal entries are not private musings but poignant and often powerful reflections, inspirational messages directed at his followers. A controversial figure in Vietnam as he went into to exile (for the first time) in May 1966, he wrote that he doubted if the collection would pass the censors. “If it can’t be published, I hope my friends will circulate it among themselves.”

The memoir opens in 1962 in mid-winter at Columbia University in Manhattan and at Princeton University in New Jersey. Thay is in exile from Vietnam for his controversial challenges of the government and the traditional Buddhist hierarchy in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his eighties now, is a Zen Buddhist master, a peace activist and the founder of global Communities of Mindfulness. He has written scores of books and is known affectionately by followers as “Thay” (teacher in Vietnamese).

In the first section of the journals many striking descriptions of Thay’s reminiscences of the secluded mountain monastery and retreat he built with his friends and comrades—monks and nuns—at the place they named Phuong Boi contrast with his descriptions of the stark winter beauty of an American northeastern winter. “Phuong” means “fragrant” and “boi” is a palm leaf on which the “teachings of the Buddha were written in ancient times.”

Anyone who has resonated with a “place of the heart” now lost to them will be powerfully moved by Thay’s descriptions of life at idyllic Phuong Boi and his sheer joy in the beauty he finds there. His realization that he cannot remain attached to this place is a lesson for us all. As he writes, quoting another monk, “Phuong Boi doesn’t belong to us, we belong to Phuong Boi.”

Whether it is in the starry sky in Vietnam or a winter storm in New Jersey, in any place he lives Thay finds solace and cosmic connection to nature. “I still respond to the call of the cosmos . . . with all my body, with every atom of my being, every vein, gland and nerve, I listen with awe and passion. That is how I feel when I hear the call of sky and earth.”

Among many other reflections Thay touches on the passing of youth and the permanency of truth. He shares several instances of his own growing realizations on the nature of reality and illusion. These moments contain the clarity of awakened understanding. They are illuminating and encourage us to continue in our practices knowing that we, too, can experience the conviction of Truth. “How can we continue to live if we were changeless? To live we must die every instant. We must perish in the storms that make life possible. I cannot force myself back into the shell I’ve broken out of.”

Thay returns to Vietnam in 1964 after his stint lecturing in the USA and although Phuong Boi has fallen into ruin in the tropical environment, he and his cadre of followers devise Buddhist practices in the impoverished rural village communities where they find themselves. These practices are the bedrock from which will evolve the Communities of Mindfulness that Thay will establish around the globe. Several years later Thay goes into permanent exile and settles in France where he builds Plum Village, a monastery and retreat center serving thousands of followers over many decades. There are several Communities of Mindfulness in the United States committed to serving the spiritual needs of all.

A satisfying read on many levels: a great introduction to Thay’s ideas, to the majesty of his poetic writing, and to understanding the inspiration for his spiritually based activism.

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The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

Image of The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio
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“Decisive two thumbs up for a compelling and lucid narrative of the ‘finest book in the world.’”

The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays is a prose drama in three acts with five main actors. Act One is a romp through a brief history of Will Shakespeare’s life and especially his time as an actor, playwright, poet, and businessman in Elizabethan England. Obviously he is one of the main actors in his own drama. His daily activities centered on the Globe Theater (in which he owned a share) and the obsessive work of writing, producing, and sometimes acting in his plays.

Two other main actors in this tale emerge at the end of Act One, John Hemmings and Henry Condell. Close associates of Shakespeare they were confidantes and fellow actors in the theater company, The King’s Men.

During his lifetime and after his death Shakespeare was not regarded any more or less highly than many of his contemporaries. He was destined for the ash heap of history had not Hemmings and Condell, recognizing his genius, collected 36 of his plays and published them. They handed this significant task to William Jaggard, a London printer, who in 1623 produced an edition of 750 copies of what became known as the First Folio.

Act Two introduces our fourth leading actor Henry Clay Folger and details his rise from modest beginnings to great wealth. A lawyer and oil industrialist, Folger rose to be president and chairman of Standard Oil, the flagship enterprise of the Gilded Age.

As a protégée, then friend and golfing partner of his employer, J. D. Rockefeller, Folger became a wealthy man. From his early student days at Amherst College he displayed a love of Shakespearean works and lore. He watered the seeds of his embryonic bibliophilic mania by buying Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays even when he could scarcely afford to do so. Soon he focused his obsession on all things Shakespearean but especially copies of the First Folio. His wife, Emily Jordan Folger, and companion in every way but especially in abetting Folger’s pursuit of this treasure, must surely win the prize for best supporting role.

Together for over 37 years this modest, private couple collected an enormous trove of Shakespeare’s Folios and Elizabethan memorabilia that they housed in warehouses across New York City. For all those years, childless, they lived in a rented house in Brooklyn, too small and too vulnerable to contain such riches.

Folger’s pursuit of the Sibthorp/Vincent and Bodleian First Folios are twin centerpieces in the book. Long before the end of his acquisitive frenzy, Folger earned a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most knowledgeable Shakespeare experts and collectors.

Act Three begins with Folger’s retirement around age 70, and the realization of his and Emily’s vision to build a library worthy of their collection. They chose Washington, D.C., for their library and erected a modern building with Art Deco embellishments. The building covered the length of a city block and is situated behind the current Supreme Court, and in close proximity to the Library of Congress.

Henry died at age 73 from complications of minor surgery. His wife assumed oversight of the project and two years later in 1932, she presided at the dedication of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Library itself is the fifth actor.

According to author Andrea Mays, 80 years later (2012) the vast collection still has not been thoroughly catalogued. Bona fide, international scholars may seek permission to study the abundant resources. The public is admitted to a small area of selected rooms and can attend various events several times a year.

Perhaps most significant to the perpetuation of Shakespeare’s genius and a keystone for Folger’s vision and collector’s zeal is the Shakespeare Folger Library publications and educational resources. Any school or college student anywhere who has studied a Shakespeare play most likely did so from holding and reading a Folger’s edition—a true reproduction founded on the exhaustive research conducted on the Library’s First Folios.

Henry Clay Folger helped to elevate William Shakespeare as one of humanity’s luminous giants. His Library manifests the sentiment expressed by Ben Jonson in his epitaph to the master: “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Every play has a producer; and author, Andrea Mays, in this production, can take a bow as one of the best. An economics professor and self-confessed Shakespearean fanatic, her knowledge and expertise hurtle us on a thrilling journey. Mays’ painstaking research especially into Folger’s life—his acquisitions and business dealings, personal and corporate on behalf of his collection and Standard Oil are fascinating to read. She writes in lucid, well-paced prose.

A decisive two thumbs up for a compelling narrative of the “finest book in the world:” the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 80 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio.


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Searching for Wallenberg

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Mandel Vilar Press
Reviewed by:

In Searching for Wallenberg author Alan Lelchuk chooses to work in the well-worn structure of a novel within a novel. He succeeds in breathing more life into Dartmouth College’s Manny Gellerman, history professor cum sleuth, than into the secrets of Swedish diplomat and savior of thousands of Budapest’s Jews toward the end World War Two, Raoul Wallenberg.

As we follow Gellerman on his picaresque journey he writes his own novel on Wallenberg. If this sounds confusing, at times it is, but ultimately the novel is a satisfying read.

The outline events of Raoul Wallenberg’s life are well known, but his two-year incarceration and death in a Russian prison, Lybianka, in 1947, remain a mystery. Gellerman, following leads uncovered by a graduate student he mentors through her post-graduate thesis process, provide the impetus for his search for Wallenberg.

Alarm bells sound when Gellerman, in questionable academic practice, uses the student’s research to further his own academic ends. There is leeway here, of course, for initially he suggested she research Raoul Wallenberg’s demise. His impetus to follow this trail himself arises when she surprises him by uncovering (on a sojourn in Budapest) possible evidence of Wallenberg’s mistress (possibly even wife) and granddaughter (still living) in Hungary.

Despite this worm in the Edenic apple, Lelchuk clearly evokes the pastoral idyll that is Ivy League, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (bordering on Vermont). The author himself teaches at the college and his clear-eyed exposition on the self-satisfied smugness of tenured professors who never challenge themselves rings true.

But Gellerman, divorced and fit (he walks a good deal around campus and plays tennis), in his mid-sixties, shakes up his own fretful complacency by spending the summer months in Budapest and parts of Russia searching for Wallenberg. In Budapest he meets Zsuzanna Wallenberg possibly Wallenberg’s granddaughter, and an intriguing relationship ensues.

One of the author’s strengths is the creation of many interesting characters, among the most engaging his young teenage son, Josh, a cello playing prodigy, whom he calls “the boy,” and Wallenberg’s KGB interrogator, Daniel Pagliansky.

A downside for this reader is the clumsy means the writer uses for separating the strands of the novel. A solid, black line on the page between Gellerman’s writing and Lelchuk’s narrative of Gellerman is all we have. The author makes no attempt to fuse the two.

Disconcerting as well is Gellerman’s propensity to criticize and question if his fictional choices suit his academic purpose in scene after scene that he creates on his computer narrating the story of Raoul Wallenberg’s demise. Gellerman continually questions whether he is preserving Wallenberg’s legacy and furthering the historical record or adding more confusion to the mystery?

Perhaps this is the author’s (rather unsubtle) intention to keep reminding his readers of Gellerman’s premise that all history is fiction and all fiction history (a current lively debate in academia’s Humanities departments). Gellerman teaches a seminar on History through Literature and as he reflects on this course “each book presented a different problem about how history had entered fiction and, conversely, how fiction had shaped history.”

As the students discuss, “Sure, here in a novel he can interpret as much as he wants. . . . But if he were writing ‘real’ history?” Another says, “What do you mean ‘real history’? Don’t historians make their own interpretations as well?” A third posits, “Maybe we should read some of the histories as fiction then? And some of fiction as history?”

Does the appeal of this novel lie in this very ambiguity, so that the novel becomes part philosophical inquiry, part historiographical research and reading of the record, part fiction and part nonfiction.

To read this book is to take a thinking person’s journey to uncover the “truth” of a valiant but ultimately enigmatic historical figure.



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Solstice Greetings December 21, 2014

When thinking what to blog about at this juncture of the year,  the word “books” keeps coming to mind. Books, in many ways remain an anchor in my life. So, I am going to share my great pleasure in books by selecting several highlights from my reading this year.  I’ll start with my most recent “fav”.

Seems as if this past year is the season for excellent historical novels and I so enjoyed and highly recommend The Paying Guests by acclaimed British author, Sarah Waters. In 1920s London, begrimed both physically and metaphorically by the ravages of WW1, Frances Wray and Lilian Barber form a friendship that leads to unanticipated and spellbinding consequences. Shot through with undertones of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s inimitable Crime and Punishment, this exquisitely written novel hits all the high notes available to a consummate artist at the height of her powers.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, a fictional memoir written by formerly wealthy Moroccan merchant-cum-Spanish slave, Estebanico, who in 1527 accompanied his grandee master–along with 600 other Spanish conquistadors and journeymen–on the fictional recreation of a historic expedition from Hispaniola to the Gulf Coast of Florida to explore and claim La Florida territory for the Spanish crown. Only four members survived. Estebanico’s account counters the whitewash “official” version. This novel has everything: history, adventure, relationships, survival, courage, cruelty and important questions of morality, religiosity, and cultural anthropology. It is both anachronistic and perfectly attuned to contemporary issues.

The classic book on the Florida Everglades, The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, first published almost seventy years ago, remains a gripping and fascinating account of the pre-history and history of this amazing eco-system. It is a must read for anyone who loves or who is interested in this landscape. I love the Everglades and this biota is one of the main motivations for my move to southwest Florida. I’ll be forever grateful for Stoneman’s book, it is already my constant companion.

I’m honored to highlight The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published late fall 2013, an unforgettable read, a towering novel, that will remain the gold standard for dissecting the post-2001 apocalyptic world in which we find ourselves. In February 2014 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Here are several paragraphs from the concluding pages. I hope they leave you wanting more.

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

“It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance, a grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

“And—I would argue as well—all love…the play between things, both love and not-love, there and not there.”


Happy Solstice! As we (in the northern hemisphere) emerge from the dark light of December I send my love and wholehearted good wishes to my followers and readers for good health and happiness in the upcoming year, wherever you are.





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