Neshama’s Choices for August 28th

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The Guest by Emma Cline   

Alex, in her early 20s, is staying with much older Simon on Long Island’s beachfront. He’s a very new boyfriend. He has no idea she’s fled the city where she owes sinister Dom money and owes back rent but is counting on Simon’s hospitality to protect her for a while. But she wears out her welcome fast and is now back on the loose, trying to find another place to stay. She’s light-fingered, which helps to provide cash and drugs, and an accomplished liar. She infiltrates a country club, annexes herself to a beach party with hotel lodgings, and eventually falls in with Jake, a disturbed 17-year-old. Alex is a mess, and we know it won’t end well but I found myself mesmerized by her wiles, her denial, and the contrast between the cosseted surroundings and her desperate vulnerability.   


Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton   

Mira refers to her underground organization named Birnam Wood  as “breaking good;” she and her cohorts plant crops wherever they can, legal or not. A farm on the outskirts of a national park in New Zealand presents a promising opportunity. Robert, an eccentric billionaire, provides funding that will launch the foundering enterprise into solvency. But it’s actually a shell game, a diversion from Robert’s sinister, environmentally nightmarish doings inside the park itself. Shelly is Mira’s good friend and second-in-command. As things start to break badly, we learn more about their relationship, which is as compromised as the larger picture. Scary as all get-out, and riveting.   


Weyward by Emilia Hart   

Weyward Cottage is where the contemporary protagonist Kate fetches up, fleeing her abusive husband. She inherited it from her great-aunt Violet (2nd protagonist, circa 1942) who has an equally dark story. And back in 1619, there was Altha who lived on the grounds where the cottage is located; she was accused of witchcraft. Jumping back and forth from era to era, we discover the powers these women possess. The spells they invoke are supposed to be used primarily for good but when push comes to shove, survival trumps this edict. Very atmospheric and appropriately spellbinding.   


Kantika by Elizabeth Graver   

From Istanbul in 1907 to Barcelona in 1929 to Astoria in 1934, we trace the journey of Rebecca through two marriages, three children, heartbreak, and determination in equal measure.  Her Sephardic family faces antisemitism, economic woes, and relationship compromises but comes through mostly because Rebecca keeps the kantika (song in Ladino) alive in her as she faces setback after setback. One fascinating aspect: her stepdaughter Luna who has cerebral palsy; Rebecca has to fight family patterns and Luna’s own resistance to bring her to full functioning. Based in part on the author’s family history, with photographs. I loved the exposure to Ladino, and this book provides a fine example of how to weave language and translation seamlessly