In the Midst of Winter: A Novel

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Well known and adored by millions of readers worldwide, Chilean-American author, Isabel Allende with her 21st novel In the Midst of Winter will please multitudes of her fans and also leave them uneasy. Uneasy because while this novel displays all the Allende hallmarks that made her famous—passages of eloquently expressed ideas, a love story set amid political turmoil, well-drawn characters—fundamentally it lacks cohesive plot tension to hold all the elements together. The novel moves in jumps and starts.

This may be because of the unwieldy structure that cuts across time periods and continents. The clichéd device of hiding a murdered, frozen body in the trunk of a stolen car never achieves the state of noir drama the author may have intended. Rather it undercuts tension and becomes the most slapstick of moments in the novel, as the young, female body lies untended in the trunk of the car while the snow falls. Yet nearby, seemingly oblivious to the corpse, and inside various more or less warmer locales, the three main characters weave and bob around one another telling their stories, until inevitably two of them have furtive sex in clumsily rearranged sleeping bags.

The novel revolves around Evelyn Ortega, a young Guatemalan born, illegal immigrant whose story of escape is harrowing and her story of survival in the United States only slightly less so. Another main character is Lucia Maraz, an older woman, Chilean born who has lived in exile in the United States and Canada for decades. Her work in academia has thrown her and Richard Bowmaster uneasily together. He is her curt landlord, and they work in the same department and university. Richard, a sixty-year-old reclusive man, seems impervious to human empathy as he moves through his almost monastic, stripped down life. Yet he carries the secrets of a disastrous marriage to a passionate Brazilian woman earlier in his life. In their life in Rio de Janiero several devastating family tragedies left him emotionally frozen and insecure.

As the novel unfolds the three are thrown together when, on a frozen and slippery road in Brooklyn, Richard rear ends the car 20-something Evelyn is driving. A minor accident that draws into the novel the murdered body in the trunk of Evelyn’s car. Richard summons Lucia to help with translating Evelyn’s panicked responses. This is where the novel goes off kilter. The events of dealing with the body have none of the power of the three life stories. The protagonists could as easily have been sitting around a campfire sharing their stories.

Evelyn’s story is among the best writing in the book. Allende uses her background in Chile and her admirable lifelong stand for human rights (evident in most of her work) in relating this story. We learn the painful truth of the escape path from Guatemala, through Mexico, to the United States border. And of the indifference of U.S. border officials who daily deal with hundreds of would-be immigrants. We also learn how illegal immigrants can simply disappear amid millions of Americans if they avoid law enforcement and institutions such as hospitals.

Early in her story, Evelyn shares how as an adolescent she was brutally raped by gang members of the notorious narco-trafficking gang (60,000 members), MS-13, as punishment for their betrayal by her older brother. He is murdered as is another brother, Andres. During the rape Evelyn witnesses Andres’ throat being cut.

After that incident Evelyn cannot or will not speak. Her grandmother takes her to a well-known healer. In one of the most memorable scenes in the book—with Allende’s evocative descriptive power at its best—the healer gives her ayahuasca tea to drink and in a hallucinatory state:

“The visions came in rapid succession. In some of them, her mother appeared as she had last seen her; others were scenes from her childhood, bathing in the river with other children, or at age five riding on the shoulders of her elder brother, a jaguar with two cubs emerged. . . . She surrenders completely to the drug and as she did so, lost all her fear. The mother jaguar returned with her cubs, and Evelyn dared to stroke her on the back. Her fur was rough, with a swamp like feel. The enormous animal accompanied her as she entered and left other visions, watching with her amber eyes, showing her the way when she got lost in abstract labyrinths, protecting her when any evil being came near.”

The healer gives Evelyn an amulet representing the power and protection of the jaguar. In the conclusion of the novel—in a scene reminiscent of Allende’s previous magical realism writing—the jaguar is invoked again.

Allende is a masterly writer when she writes of emotions, and especially of love. “With Lucia, Richard felt as if decades had been ripped from the calendar and he was eighteen again. He had thought he was immune, and yet there he was, like a youngster prey to his hormones. . . . In those divine hours of night, he was accompanied for the first time in twenty-five years; he felt so close to her as they breathed in unison. It was very easy to sleep with her, and very complicated what was happening to him now, this mixture of happiness and terror, of anticipation and the wish to run away; the urgency of desire.”

On the final page of the novel, Richard, in response to a query from Lucia, quotes Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.”

Ultimately this is a novel of the redemptive recording of oral history and also of healing love. The murder subplot is an unnecessary add-on.


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Stolen Girls: Survivors of Boko Haram Tell Their Story

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“As Bauer writes the fight against Boko Haram is far from over. His final sentence encapsulates Nigeria’s nightmare: ‘We have fear. We have hope.’”

Stolen Girls by Wolfgang Bauer is not an easy read—gruesome and laden with horrifying details—but it is an important one.

The abduction of 267 girls from their boarding school in a rural Nigerian town called Chibok by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram on the night of April 14, 2014, drew worldwide attention.

For days and weeks international TV crews followed the mothers and other family members of the girls as they cried, rent their clothes, and organized protest marches that eventually flared globally centered on the missing girls. “Bring Back Our Girls” became a movement. Boko Haram terror haunted western Nigeria for a decade before, but the girls gave that horror an international face.

Over that decade, thousands of other women, men, and boys have been abducted by Boko Haram and taken to hideouts in swampy rain forests in western Nigeria called Sambisa. Inevitably the world’s attention left Nigeria and the abducted girls. However, German journalist Wolfgang Bauer and his brilliant photographer, Andy Spira, with this book fill the gap.

The book opens with a series of striking photographic portraits of seven of the Chibok girls and older women who were abducted and managed to escape by January 2016. The book is a transcription of the interviews Bauer conducted with a sampling of these 60 women. Bauer provides no commentary on what they say, their words speak for themselves. He asks us to listen. Below are short excerpts from several of the women.

Sadiya: They left me only my name. They took everything else. I am now someone else; I feel that. I am now someone I do not know.

Agnes: I fled from the camp with fifty other women, but made it only to a village on the savannah because I went into labor. They helped me with the baby. It was very painful, giving birth to the baby that the man made inside me. . . . I had no choice but to marry him in the forest. They killed the women who refused. I saw it happen. . . . The child the Boko Haram fighter forced me to bear in the forest is three months old. A man who helped deliver the baby was called Moussa, so he told me to name the baby Moussa. So I did. I don’t care. It’s a name like any other. Let him be Moussa. . . . I don’t love this child. . . . This baby cries much more than my other children did when they were young. I look at it a lot and think I have to feel something for it. But I feel nothing. I should have killed it.

Rabi: A fighter stopped me. “Where are you going?” he wanted to know. “I am going home to my mother,” I said. . . . He took me to a house with many women inside. I do not know how many there were anymore. They were being taught lessons from the Koran in order to be married later. They kept me for a week there. Then a man came for me. I was terrified; I thought he would kill me. But he did not hit me. He led me away from the building with the girls and then beat me at his home. He beat me cruelly. With a stick. My back bled. My skin split open. He threatened to kill my mother if I ran away again.

He is an evil man. He should be beheaded. His head should be sliced off.”

Bauer intersperses the transcriptions of the victims with a history of Boko Haram and an interpretation of their dystopian beliefs. These notes are helpful and round out the almost too painful to read testimony of the women. He ends his book with a warning “if the political structures finally collapse in Nigeria, and if no viable alternative to them is found, chaos will ensue, and various radicalized factions will clash in an attempt to create a new order and balance. The shock waves will quickly reach Europe and the Western world.”

This prediction we already know to be true about places like Libya and Syria and the mammoth refugee crisis. And as Bauer writes the fight against Boko Haram is far from over. His final sentence encapsulates Nigeria’s nightmare: “We have fear. We have hope.”


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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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tumblr_oakla4rnMS1vz8wnzo1_500Image published by Huffington Post, August 10

My Thought #1  I feel pity for Donald Drumpf because now I see him for what he is—yes, you read correctly—pity and sorrow, but still despising and despairing about what he stands for and what he’s done to our country. He is a cowardly braggart, narcissist, and both ego- and megalomaniac. These are but words to describe a very sick man. He is a bull gone amok in a china shop and now that he has almost shattered everything around him; exhausted, bewildered, he remains determined to bring the whole building down around your ears and mine.

Conflagration date; during the weeks before and after November 8; if, indeed anything is left of our political process by then.

Are you reading this Donald? A wise person told me that when someone is pointing a finger of blame at another, three fingers point back at—them. Do you get it?

Doesn’t a Drumpf yuuuuuge vacation seem like a good idea right now—for his own and all our sakes?

He is simply the most out-of-control and the most dangerous, unaware, unconscious and unconscionable public persona in American history. Not our first racist bigot, not our first fascist, but our first demagogue who channels Benito Mussolini and the far lesser but equally horrifying, (his “friend”) Roger Stone. Drumpf’s name will live on in infamy.

(The Guardian August 9): Roger Stone, an informal adviser to the Trump campaign, implied last month to internet agitator Milo Yiannopoulos that the notion of discrediting the election as “illegitimate” is part of Trump’s campaign strategy.

Stone’s maladvice to Drump

“I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” Stone said. “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.’”

“If you can’t have an honest election, nothing else counts,” Stone continued. “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”

This is what I mean by “conflagration”. Come on folks, we are hearing this very script pertaining to Pennsylvania for a week already; except he is not leading in Pennsylvania.

Who can save this very sick man—and us—from all our worst nightmares manifesting? His children can, if they approach him along with his innocent grandchildren, and lead him gently out of the china shop. But Ivanka &Co, better ask him to get his foot out of his mouth first if he wants to walk and not fall and be carried out by them.


Thought #2 President Obama’s reading list is impressive in its eclecticism:

“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

“H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

I’ve only read “H is for Hawk”, an excellent book being made into a movie. Read a review






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This past weekend I volunteered at a Democratic Party phone bank in Florida calling registered Democratic voters. I made around one hundred calls. Many I reached said they are with her but about TEN PERCENT, ALL lifelong Democrats, said they are undecided. When I probed a little the resounding response was why does she lie—and continue to evade being straightforward and honest—about her use of a private email server for classified emails when she was Secretary of State. They truly wanted to vent their disappointment and doubt.

I tried to re-assure them stating that she has apologized, said she made a mistake and it won’t happen again–their response? Why does this keep happening and why can’t she come out with an authentic, from the heart, simple statement?

Well, why can’t she? I don’t know the answer to that question.

Just this past week she muddied the waters again by saying she may have “inadvertently” “short-circuited” her responses to official and unofficial investigations around this email issue. The media zeroed in on the “short-circuited” and omitted the “inadvertently”. This is what the media does and after twenty-five years in public life Hillary should have learned to choose her words more carefully…or if she has a problem talking off the cuff…simply speak truthfully from the heart. (I don’t believe she has a problem fielding questions given her debate performances, but then she’s talking policy and not miring herself deeper and deeper in personal issues. She keeps a shield between herself and her public.)

“Authenticity”, “sincerity” and “missing” are two words I heard repeatedly.

Other phone bank volunteers with me reported the same unease among people they called. We asked the paid organizers to pass this feedback up the chain, and they said they would. Other people have shared with me that at fund raising and other Democratic Party events, this remains the number one troubling concern for previous Democratic voters.

If this is a problematic issue in Florida (critical swing state) and around the country, my ten percent of responders can quickly amount to millions of votes lost for Hillary and hundreds of Democratic Party members “down-ticket” running for office–from the local to national level.

Driving home and thinking about this, I now believe supporters do trust Hillary and her experience and ability to govern but question her inability not to obfuscate.

So, for me it is her perceived lack of humility and grace under pressure that is bothering them at a visceral level. They are looking for an opening to support her whole-heartedly but these niggles remain.

This Monday morning’s election headlines reported that Tim Kaine, Hillary’s running mate for the presidential election on November 8 said over the weekend that Hillary and the campaign are aware of “trust” and “trustworthiness” issues with voters. He also said that when Hillary and he are in the White House there would be “total transparency.”

I am pleased to read and hear this and that his comments are so widely covered by reporters. But there is more that needs to be done. We need to hear this from her!



Produce a simple short ad with Hillary acknowledging that the email issue continues to shadow her campaign. Have her say, while sitting at a kitchen table as she did in the Convention video, all homey and casual and humble, so as to connect with all voters:

“I hear you. I know many of you are still worried about issues of the email server when I was Secretary of State. But that was more the four years ago. I’ve learned my lesson. I made a mistake. I apologize unequivocally to all of you who support us, and our causes. Here is our promise. Tim and I will strive to do our best for you and honor, explicitly, your trust.”

Then post/send this key quote to every social media and other media (print, TV) outlet and Internet tools you have. Share/blast the heck out of it!

I will continue to volunteer for Hillary—this election is too important for us to sit out.

But, it will be excellent if the campaign committee can help her help herself and all of us!

Hope you read this Donna Brazile!!



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For most of my adult life I’ve been an educator, as well as a freelance journalist and an author, an international expert on the psychology of personality, and since the age of thirteen an anti-apartheid activist in my motherland, South Africa.

Let’s start there—the racist ideological madmen whom we opposed in South Africa at least believed in something, albeit a despicable racist ideology.

Drumpf believes in nothing except himself and his brand…and that’s it. He is non-empathic and unaware of the damage his lies do to other Americans and his country. He’s a racist. He’s a psychologically impaired ego- and megalomaniac. He is in the same league as all the most infamous villains of history. That alone should disqualify him for President.

Drumpf is the most pervasive negative role model for our children and grandchildren.

I’ve written a book on parenting, I’ve taught hundreds, if not into the low thousands of highly intelligent, young people, about moral responsibility, human rights, reality and illusion, and perhaps, most importantly, how to think and write critically.

* Drumpf models that it’s perfectly acceptable to be an ill-prepared, foul-mouthed, morally blind ignoramus. As long as you can lie and lie again, and bully and browbeat, you can be President.

*Drumpf models to them that bluster and bullying, screaming obscenities at individuals and groups is acceptable —after all he’s running for President; he’s the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, he must be okay.

* Drumpf lies and double downs, contradicts himself, lies again. He is a national embarrassment. He is a vaudeville villain, a clown, a con man, a cheat, a liar, a liar, and a liar.

HE IS A PATHOLOGICAL LIAR. He models to America and the world’s children that it’s okay to lie. And lie, and lie.

* He signals to America’s allies and enemies that his word is NEVER TO BE TRUSTED.

* He signals to Americans not only that can WE NEVER TRUST HIM but the sure road ahead if he becomes President will be to upend 240 years of progress, of tearing up the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

*He is the greatest danger to America’s future and that means the international order too.

Can you imagine Drumpf trying to deal with a major catastrophe; he’ll blame the victims.

He’ll shirk responsibility. He won’t spend time in the White House; he’ll go back to his shyster business dealings. He and his wife will visit occasionally. Pence will be our president except in name…. and on and on.

My heartfelt appeal is directed to Republican leaders TO DITCH DRUMPF. Let’s put our country back on a path of sanity. He is America’s greatest failure.



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Barkskins: A Novel by Annie Proulx

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“Over 300 years the forests are raped, eco-systems destroyed, wealth generated, and the insatiable international desire and greed for wood exploited.”

Annie Proulx, the author of Barkskins is an accomplished American writer. She has achieved the status of grande dame of American letters and deservedly so. An earlier book, The Shipping News, is a stellar work, one with teeth and grit, lyricism and poignancy, dark as well as magical moments. That book remains a pioneer at the frontier of American fiction, as her protagonist, Quoyle, exists in one of the first portrayals of a single father as a heroic figure through the travails and triumphs of his small, dysfunctional family.

If readers hope for more of the same in Barkskins they will be disappointed. The book is overlong, the storylines confusing, the insertion of pages and pages of albeit interesting facts about daily life in the towering, primeval forests—the utensils, the logging tools, the clothes, the traditions, rites and rituals of all the people who meet, clash, and intermingle—are shared in almost overwhelming detail, so as to slow and even disrupt the novel. It is as if Proulx insisted on using all the detail she had accumulated in her ten years of research and writing of Barkskins. At the very moment we are engrossed in one of the story lines we are dragged back to arcane documentation.

The book opens in 1693 when two indentured Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in Canada—New France—to serve as woodcutters for an eccentric feudal lord who built a grand chateau deep in the forests for his future bride (when he finds one).

Sel is forced to marry a native Mi’kmaw woman, and his progeny, through generations, vacillate between the two worlds of their generators—French frontiersmen and native Canadians or “original people.”

Duquet escapes his servitude to gain a foothold on the wealth the territory offers through fur-trapping, trading, and later enterprising forays into timber. He founds, and his descendants (later changing their last name to Duke), now timber barons, forge an international empire.

Both families’ genealogical lines are tied to trees, natural disasters, unexpected plot twists and turns—in frontier Quebec, then Michigan and hundreds of years later in the kauri forests of New Zealand.

Over 300 years the forests are raped, eco-systems destroyed, wealth generated, and the insatiable international desire and greed for wood exploited.

Overall the writing is fluid, and as would expect of Proulx her characters are exposed to states of the human condition from veniality to love. There are too many characters and episodes to cite here, but among the most intriguing is the union of Kuntaw, one of Sel’s grandsons and Beatrix Duquet, a granddaughter of Charles, and their life near the Penobscot people, river and bay in Maine. This union (although they never married) is one where descendants of the Sel and Duquet families unknowingly for many years in the second half of the eighteenth century, amalgamated their lives. They had no offspring.

Kuntaw and Beatrix meet on the muddy banks of the river:

He stood a few yards back from the horse and looked at the girl. She was elegant, wearing a black cloak edged in red. Something about her dark-ivory face said she was part Indian.

“You like to make some money?” she asked moving close. She lifted her head and inhaled his odor of smoke, meat and pine pitch.

He shrugged. “What do?”

“Split wood of course.” She enunciated very carefully. ‘You carry an ax. Do you know how to split firewood?”

He nodded. “I know.”

“I need you, Indian man. Follow.” Beatrix Duquet turned her horse and trotted gracefully toward the big house, he had to run to keep up with her. Watching her long crinkled hair sway, the bright heels of her boots, he felt a wave of enchantment strike him like warm rain. So, in his thirtieth spring, began the strangest part of his life, as he seemed to stumble out of the knotted forest and onto a shining path.

Barkskins is an epic saga but unlike many of James Michener’s epic historical sagas or others such as The Thornbirds by Australian, Colleen McCullough, or Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, to name only a few, Barkskins does not have the sweep and flow of history that keeps one reading through the night.

Perhaps the material here would be better served as eco-nonfiction, such as John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, Bill McKibbon’s The End of Nature, or Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and influence this and successive generations to save the planet and specifically in Proulx’s case, the forests that are left on our planet before they are denuded; however, as eco-fiction it falls below Annie Proulx’s admittedly extraordinarily high standards.

Perhaps her intention all along is to write a cautionary tale about the environmental catastrophe we have already wrought.

Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go well together. —George Santayana

By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects. —Lynn White, Jr.

These epigraphs certainly suggest the reason for Annie Proulx’s book encompassing the polemical tilt toward recording so thoroughly this irreparable damage.


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