"Beneath White Stars: Holocaust Profiles in Poetry", by Holly Mandelkern - Poetry Review

Not a big reader of poetry, mostly because I’m too literal to understand most of it, I picked up Beneath White Stars: Holocaust Profiles in Poetry with trepidation. Lucky for me, this book of poetry is unlike any I’ve ever read, in the best of ways.

 While the poems (as you can surmise from the book’s title) are harrowing and tragic, within them are tales of kindness, survival and redemption. Grouped together in sections somewhat like chapters, after each section, Mandelkern provides a historical back story for each poem. In her prologue, she encourages readers to read each poem, turn to the back story, and then perhaps contemplate the poem again. I did this and found the poems much more meaningful the second time around, especially for a left brained person such as I am.

Mandelkern’s poems touch on every part of the Holocaust, from the savagery of the atrocities committed by the Nazis to specifically named heroes who risked their own lives to save those of persecuted Jews. She writes of the exquisite care and lengths Jews took to document what was happening to them and to find ways to preserve those histories. She pens of the Kindertransport, rescue efforts made to get Jewish children to England out of harm’s way. And while she writes of the importance of theses escapes for the lives of the children, she captures the children’s fear and the utter heartbreak and selflessness of the parents who put their children on trains with mainly the clothes on their backs heading into the arms of strangers. She writes of a marriage consecrated out of necessity and performed in a wedding dress made out of parachutes which ultimately resulted in a seventy-year union full of love and gratitude.

 Despite all of these events happening decades ago, every time I flipped from a poem to the history portion and discovered that one of the subjects of the poem lived beyond the war, I silently cheered.

Mandelkern is Jewish and clearly has personal reasons for wanting to share her poetry, but her efforts go well beyond the personal. She is a prolific scholar of history and has traveled to many of the places and met many of the people of which she writes. She is a skilled poetess who turns page long stories into four and five stanza poems. She is judicious and economical in word choice but still brings forth all the emotion.

Just like the documentarians during the Holocaust, she, too, is a carrier of the torch for this history so devastatingly brutal but also such proof of the human instinct for survival. As we lose the last living souls that actually experienced this tortured time in our history, poets and historians like Mandelkern will carry the stories forward ensuring that, indeed, we never forget.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Almondseed Press 

Elizabeth’s rating:  4.5 stars

Two Works on the Tribulations of Scientology: "Beyond Belief" and "Perfectly Clear" - Book Reviews

A confession: I am weirdly obsessed with Scientology. And not for any positive reason but because I continue to be amazed that what is clearly a vicious cult continues to hoard literally billions of dollars of cash, skirt tax regulations, and subject its participants to what would in any other circumstance be considered slave labor all in the name of ‘religion’. I have read volumes and watched hours on the organization and one thing remains ‘clear’: they are a tough group with which to tangle.

 In the last month, I listened to Jenna Miscaviage Hill’s audiobook Beyond Belief and read Michelle LeClair’s book Perfectly Clear. Although their experiences within the church were vastly different, their criticisms are perfectly aligned with one another as well as with other defectors from the church. 

 Jenna Miscaviage Hill, although not born into Scientology, was a member from a very young age. Her parents joined and became members of the Sea Org early on. Touted as a privilege and honor to be a member of this internal ‘leadership’ group, the work is arduous and the pay is criminal. Members are expected to work 14 hour days and have family time for less than 10 hours a weekend. Parents spend virtually no time with their children. Once Jenna reached elementary school age, she was shipped off to The Ranch where she was required to do exhausting physical labor and her education consisted of primarily church related things.

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Surviving a Cult in the Memoir, "The Sound of Gravel", by Ruth Wariner - Book Review

The Sound of Gravel is a memoir from a surviving member of a polygamist Mormon cult and the author’s focus is on how the strain of the cult’s ‘religious’ tenets affected her family.

Set mostly in Mexico, Ruth Wariner recounts her family’s multi-generational membership in the Colonia LeBaron, which was originally founded by her grandfather in 1944. Though the colony started off hopeful and prosperous, by the time Ruth was born, it was in decline both in membership and sustainability.

Ruth was the fourth of her mom Kathy’s ten children. Ruth’s real dad died when Ruth was small so the only father figure in her life was Lane, her step-father. Lane had other wives with other children and despite very limited resources, Kathy and Lane continued having kids. True to her faith, Kathy believed women were on the earth to bear children for God’s kingdom and God would take care of them irrespective of the realities of their circumstances.

The tone of this cult memoir varies from others due to Ruth’s prescience and objectivity from a young age. Early on, Ruth decides she will not follow in the tradition of her mother’s faith once she has the power to make her own choices. As she virtually raises most of her siblings, she recognizes that her mom’s choices are jeopardizing all of their lives. About her mom, in the end she posits, “she wasn’t a monster, she was just another human who’d gone looking for her life and somehow ended up on the wrong path.”

For Wariner, her story ends on a positive note, but it was no thanks to the circumstances in which she grew up. She prevailed over excruciating hardship and terrible tragedy – all of which could have been avoided but for the presence of the cult in her family’s life.

As most all of these books tend to be, it is a renewed reminder that cults, under the definition of “religions that are unorthodox or spurious”, should be treated with disdain and intolerance. Because the detriment to the whole of group is vastly greater than the benefit to the few at the top.  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Flatiron Books

Elizabeth’s rating: 3 stars

For Open Minds and Music Fans: "Long Way Gone", by Charles Martin - Book Review

This is a book I picked up at Book Expo, as an advance reader’s copy.  Many of the authors whose books I receive at Expo are completely unknown to me - which makes for exciting discoveries along with some disappointments. Long Way Gone fits somewhere in between.

I picked up the book from my very large “to be read” stack because of the subject matter - a teenager rejects all he knows and takes off for Nashville to begin a music career. Hardship ensues, and he takes a long, crooked path back home, which sounds a bit hackneyed, but it’s not quite a fairy tale. There were two things I did not expect about Long Way Gone - first, the depth of description and knowledge of the music industry; and second, that it’s Christian-themed. Not familiar with Charles Martin’s writing, I’d no idea what to expect, and the religious tone is not at all aggressive. What I got was a soulful and thoughtful look at and man’s intrepid life. 

Long Way Gone
By Charles Martin

Martin begins the novel in present day, with a middle-aged man, Cooper, seasoned with his life’s extreme heartache’s. As we progress, we go back in time to visit Cooper’s childhood in Leadville, Colorado; adolescence performing with his father; and the characters who confront him with opportunity - both good and bad - along the way. Cooper has a natural gift of music that affects people in transcendent ways. He’s influenced by his father, a traveling tent preacher. We experience his break with his father, journey to Nashville, discovery of the love of his life, his steep fall, and his guardian angel. Throughout the pain, we see a good man that’s made a few wrong turns - detours that make it all the more real, though the story is certainly a unique one.

All of us could probably use a little faith, and I don’t mind a message of a broken spirit, hope, and redemption wrapped in a well-chronicled story.  And I certainly enjoyed Martin’s profound grasp of music and its capacity for strong emotional reactions. Something with which I definitely connected.

Martin is a good storyteller, easy to read, and I appreciate the fact that not everything is neatly tied up in a bow. An accomplished writer with a solid fan base, a previous Martin book is being turned into a film - The Mountain Between Us - with Kate Winslet next year.  While I probably won’t read the book, count me in to see the screen version.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

Having Fun with "Troublemaker", by Leah Remini - Book Review

Fully understanding the wrath that Scientology brings down on those who speak out against the “church”, Leah Remini comes out swinging in her new book, TroubleMaker, which chronicles her life in the church as well as her departure.

She admits right up front to being a liar, a cheater and a home wrecker. She even airs her family’s dirty laundry in an effort to cut the Church of Scientology off at the pass. In her words, she did it “to save them some money” by not having to undertake a smear campaign to discredit her.

Where Going Clear by Lawrence Wright should be the assigned text for anyone who wants a true look inside the history of L. Ron Hubbard and his “religion”, TroubleMaker is the salacious gossip side of the story. Remini does a fabulous job of describing in detailing the tenets of Scientology, how it works, and what happens when you step out of line in the eyes of the leadership.

She also dishes on what we want to hear about most: Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist, his star studded wedding, and, to a lesser degree, other A-listers who are members.

Remini writes like she acts. She’s noisy, a bit crass, and somewhat defensive and insecure. But she is more prophetic in print that I’ve ever considered her to be on screen. While she has very specific personal reasons for striking out at the church, the book isn’t just a rag session.  It digs pretty deep into the soul of Scientology and how it casts a net over its members that can be virtually impossible to escape. The sheer fact that she didn’t leave sooner evidences the vice-like grip the church exercises on its members.

TroubleMaker is a survivor’s story sprinkled with humor and the type of glimpses inside the life of a show biz star that we all relish reading. It is a page-turner if not a work of literary genius. She is brave for telling her story and while I used to actively not like her (probably in large part due to her Scientology beliefs), I came away from the book not only liking her but rooting for her.   

Published: 2015
Publisher:  Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars