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Books: A mother’s anxiety, a Millenial’s insecurity and a sexual seachange

Encounter a young woman emerging from a breakdown, one of our best-loved actors or a grandmother reimagined from afar in this selection of recent books.
Aviva Lowy
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Published: 12 December 2023

Last updated: 28 March 2024

The Jewish Independent

Everyone and Everything - Nadine J Cohen (Pantera Press)

In 2015, suffering from grief and depression which left her unable to work and barely able to leave her home, writer Nadine J Cohen found solace and sanctuary at Sydney’s McIver’s Ladies Baths - Australia’s only ocean pool just for women and children.

These baths form a backdrop in Everyone and Everything, Cohen’s debut novel, which is a blend of autobiography and fiction. The story follows Yael Silver, a young woman who has been on the verge of suicide, as she tries to heal from the death of her mother from breast cancer and the end of a romantic relationship.

If that sounds heavy going, don’t be daunted. Cohen’s book is full of warmth and humour, more likely to make you laugh out loud than cry.

Yael’s road to recovery, along with traditional counselling, involves being a fun auntie to her sister Liora’s children, drinking too many dairy smoothies, reading really bad erotic stories and frequenting the women’s sea baths where she meets Shirley, an older woman who becomes a special friend.

There are lots of witty observations. Yael describes her anxiety as arriving “without warning and then wouldn’t leave. Like the Kardashians”. She worries that ringing up Lifeline is like cheating on her psychiatrist. When she can’t look after her house plants, much less herself, she describes their demise as inplantacide.

If you enjoyed Jonathan Seidler’s It’s a Shame About Ray, then this is one for you.  

The Jewish Independent

How to Love Your Daughter - Hila Blum (Bloomsbury Publishing)

At the very opening of this novel, we meet the narrator, Yoella, who is standing on a suburban Dutch street at night, miles from her Israeli home. She is furtively looking into a house where she sees, for the first time, her granddaughters. We understand at once that she is estranged from their mother Leah and are left to wonder just how well-placed Yoella is to advise on How to Love Your Daughter. Clearly, she has failed in some way.

After this haunting introduction, Yoella takes us back to the start of her family story and we watch as she and husband Meir raise Leah, their adored and only child, from a baby to a young woman. Maybe we will learn what went wrong along the way.

It’s not that Yoella doesn’t love her daughter; perhaps she loves her too much. As she says, her own mother “never told me I was liable to ravage Leah with my love”. Yoella also refers to a book she once read in which the mother of two girls “loved them and, at the same time, didn’t know how to love them. And there’s the rub, the problem with love.”   

This is the second novel by Israeli author Hila Blum and it won the prestigious Sapir Prize, awarded annually for Literature written in Hebrew. Blum’s first book was shortlisted for the same prize.

Blum’s writing is beautiful and poetic, as in this description of the brief, infrequent phone calls Yoella has with Leah. “We had become experts at culling comfort from these easy conversations, these weightless light bulbs we carefully held up to illuminate us for a few moments, unwired, unconnected, powered not by electricity but by sheer will.” 

It's not surprising that Blum has invested so much heart into this affecting mother-daughter tale. In her author acknowledgments, the final dedication is to her own real-life daughter, "my precious, my sun. I love you so much".

The Jewish Independent

Everything and Nothing - Heather Mitchell (Allen & Unwin)

At this year’s Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, when one of Australia’s best loved actors, Heather Mitchell, had finished discussing her memoir, almost every question from the audience was about her recent performance as the late US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mitchell was able to pass on a bit of goss: The one-woman play, RBG: Of Many, One, was coming back for an encore season.

In her session, Mitchell was candid, unaffected and joyful. This, as it turns out, is exactly like her memoir, Everything and Nothing.

From her early childhood growing up in the outer Sydney suburb of Camden, Mitchell comes across as destined for the stage. The youngest child of Jewish mother Shirley and American Quaker father ‘Red’, she would often role play in her bedroom, imagining herself into the lives of others. When a box of plays arrives for the discussion group her mother had formed to talk about philosophy, politics, arts and the sciences, the dyslexic Mitchell is finally liberated as a reader because of the clear, easy format of the text. 

But this book is more than the tale of a life on the stage: We learn much about Mitchell’s personal story, the heartaches and the happiness, all told without affectation. When you finish reading, you’ll feel like an intimate, wishing you could sit down with her for a cup of tea. As one critic has said, you don’t even have to know who Mitchell is to enjoy this book.  

The Jewish Independent

The Guest - Emma Cline (Random House)

As younger Jewish writers cut their teeth in the literary world, we've seen some exceptional books exploring the precarity and instability that has come to characterise Millenial life (think Temporary by Hilary Leichter or Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener). But if you really want to feel the sands shifting beneath your feet, give Emma Cline's new novel The Guest a go. 

Older readers - don't roll your eyes just yet! Alex, Cline's protagonist, is no woe-is-me 20-something installed with her laptop in a New York cafe. Alex's hustle is a bit more... hands-on. 

We find her at the beginning of the story as an escort to 50-something Simon at one of those Long Island parties for the WASPY and uber rich. Alex is effortlessly charming, and seemingly has Simon wrapped around her little finger. But suddenly she finds herself on ethe outer with him, and there won’t be a chance to reconcile with Simon and his mansion. Having ripped off an ex back in the city, she realises she is temporarily homeless. 

From there, we follow Alex for a rollicking, sometimes uncomfortable, and often hilarious ride as she shape-shifts, grifts, and ingratiates her way through the next seven days, sleeping on couches, beaches and in abandoned pool houses. Skewering the ultra-rich, this is ultimately a book about insecurity - both the economic and emotional kind. 

The Jewish Independent

The Swift Dark Tide - Katia Ariel (Gazebo Books)

What happens when, in the middle of a happy heterosexual marriage, a woman falls in love with another woman?

This is the question posed on the cover of Katia Ariel’s book, the swift dark tide. In a nutshell, it sums up the underlying context for this work, but the answer is far from simple. It is painful, beautiful and beguiling. And it is erotic.

This is a highly personalised memoir which Ariel describes as, “a diary that doubled as a breathing exercise that tripled as a love letter”.

Ariel wears her heart on her sleeve. She openly addresses her feelings for another woman with her understanding husband, Noah, as they try to navigate their evolving situation and continue to care for their three children and each other. Ariel is also open with her mother about her new beloved. But it feels almost impossible that she can include all those she loves in her life without some heartbreak. She can’t be wholly Noah’s wife and give herself completely to her lover.

The book also tells the story of Ariel’s family and her early life in the Ukraine before coming to Australia with her strong independent mother. In one of the many references to the sea which weaves throughout this book, Ariel tells a story about swimming with her mother and complaining of the cold water. Her mother responds: “‘See that yellow buoy?’ she said between strokes. ‘I just focus my gaze on that and swim as close to it as possible. I never make it all the way, but that really doesn’t matter’.”

Having fixed her sights, Ariel’s course is true. 

The Jewish Independent

Bobish - Magdalena Ball (Puncher and Wattmann)

“Nothing is more permanent than something lost,” writes Magdalena Ball in Bobish, her book about her great-grandmother, Rebecca Lieberman. It’s a haunting collection of poems in which Ball weaves the few fragments of what she knows about Rebecca into a compelling story of her life.

At the age of 14, all alone, Rebecca makes the long sea voyage, in steerage, from Russia to the United States. She is sent by her desperate family who hope she will soon be able to send money for them to join her and escape the pogroms that threaten their existence. She travels with precious little, including a brass samovar, so she may read tea leaves, earning something to supplement what work she finds.

Instead of landing in a place where the streets are paved with gold, Rebecca’s experience is the familiar immigrant tale of grinding hardship. She gains employment as a seamstress in a New York sweatshop, “like a hundred other girls each from somewhere not here,” but is fortunately away from her work bench on the day the factory burns down in 1911. On that day, 146 workers died because the exit doors were locked - the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city. 

You don't have to be a poetry enthusiast to enjoy Bobish. The book reads like a traditional narrative, with each poem revealing a little more and moving the story along. Ball's evocation of Rebecca is more than just an account of a relative lost long ago. This is poetry that lives and breathes.

About the author

Aviva Lowy

Aviva Lowy started her career as a radio journalist with 2JJJ and the ABC. She has written on a broad range of subjects, from food and travel to science and health.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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