Tag Archives: isolation

Debut novel illuminates the boundaries of community, connectedness, and identity

The Other Side of Everything: A Novel, by Lauren Doyle Owens. Touchstone. 272 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Lauren Doyle Owens, who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area and has set her first novel there, is someone to watch. She has written a stunning literary murder mystery that is at once a nailbiter and a brilliantly nuanced evocation of how communities work and don’t work. How proximity to others does not create a neighborhood, how aging in place can foster a misery of isolation as contemporaries pass away and new neighbors remain strangers. 

Ms. Owens builds her novel around three major characters whose situations and perspective rotate through the novel. Bernard White, about to turn eighty, has lived in the suburban community called Seven Springs for decades and witnessed its socio-economic changes. Since his wife’s death, he has become increasingly withdrawn. When he sees smoke rising from his neighbor’s house, he calls 911 and awaits the firemen, police, and paramedics. The fire seems to have covered a murder. But why Adel? Who really knows her, anyway?

Bernard feels helpless in the situation, somehow responsible for what happened. The tragedy wakes up the neighborhood, leading Bernard to begin a tentative re-engagement.

Lauren Doyle Owens / photo by Summer Weinstein

Amy Unger, a cancer survivor, spots the fire on her way home. Once a promising artist, she thought briefly of photographing or sketching the scene. But she is not yet ready. She is still cowed by her husband’s disdain for her avocation. The marriage has gone cold, and Pete’s business trips are far too frequent and extended.

Maddie Lowe, fifteen and suffering from her mother having abandoned the family, works in a restaurant near school and home. She attempts to take care of her brother, and she attempts friendship with a homeless man, Charlie, who comes into the restaurant regularly. Her need for respectful attention is met in part by a neighborhood college student whose advances flatter her. However, her sexual awakening has a raw edge to it. She is a child being pushed into adulthood way to fast and yet meeting her challenges with a surprising degree of effectiveness.

Murders of elderly women in the neighborhood continue. These are not random. The killer has an agenda. What’s his motive? Is he an outsider, or someone in their midst? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 17, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Owens.

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“Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories,” by Blume Lempel

Translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.  Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95; Trade paperback $16.95.

These spare, skillful tales are both introspective and illuminating.

oedipus-coverDoes it make sense to talk about a writer’s voice when responding to a translated work? In the case of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a book with two translators, a distinctive English voice — a blend of attitudes, mannerisms, and rhythms — rises off the page. In what ways is it true to the Yiddish original? This reviewer will never know. Still, the voice tests boundaries between the private and the public self, intimacy and isolation, confidence and insecurity.

Presented as works of fiction, these stories — many of them brief vignettes — have the ring and the stance of polished journal entries or memoir. These memories, meditations, and musings, which inhabit the same settings that author Blume Lempel lived in or visited, are at once introspective and filled with sensory detail. The searching soul often moves by association, turning many corners.

A good many of these pieces are inner portraits of the narrator, just as many are the narrator’s exploration of one other character — a person who is important to her life and to her understanding of it.

Lempel moves us back and forth among the sights, sites, and sounds of Jewish Poland, intriguing Paris, multilingual Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Long Island’s Long Beach, and a handful of other places. Different phases of the narrator’s life — childhood, young womanhood, motherhood, spousal dynamics — are braided into each other beyond the simple, single thread of neat chronology.  2-lempel_blume-older

Lempel’s story titles, as translated, most often contain the name of a character: “Pachysandra,” “My Friend Ben,” “Yosele,” “Cousin Claude,” and “The Bag Lady of Seventh Avenue” are among the tales bearing such sparse, straightforward titles. Though the stories usually show the title characters in relationships (and Lempel has a fine ear for creating compelling dialogue), a recurrent sense of isolation nonetheless permeates the collection.

It springs out vividly in “The Little Red Umbrella,” when Janet Silver, out on a blind date, misplaces the umbrella that was meant to identify her for the poet she intended to meet. Janet seeks a relationship, though she has reveled in her independence. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by the realization that freedom does not have the meaning it had in her younger days: “Now it meant free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo.”

In “Neighbors over the Fence,” Jewish Betty tells the time by noting the routines of her neighbor, Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian widow. The women bond over their appreciation of horticulture. Mrs. Zagretti becomes a mentor to Betty, whom she considers a much better companion than her son’s wife, even though Mrs. Zagretti has long ignored her Jewish neighbor.

Feeling isolated from her son and daughter-in-law, she leans on this unexpected connection with Betty. She even confides her desperation: “Can you imagine feeling close to a fly?” She confesses that a fly’s death has shaken her: “I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”

Here and elsewhere, Lempel connects this sense of aloneness to the Jewish condition. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories | Washington Independent Review of Books

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