‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ reminds us that we inherit the pain of our ancestors

The songs in Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” are a litany of moans. The moans of a 12-year-old black boy killed after being wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. The moans of an 18-year-old black man shot by a racist because of the color of his skin.


“Sing, Unburied, Sing”
By Jesmyn Ward 
304 pp. Scribner. $26.

They haunt their loved ones who can’t get over the deaths of their son, brother, uncle, friend and in turn, their ancestors inherit their songs.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” isn’t a happy book. Ward fills it with a chorus of pain, sung through the alternating first-person viewpoints of three generations of black narrators: JoJo, a 13-year-old practically raising his three-year-old sister Michaela; Leonie, JoJo’s largely absent mother; and Richie, a ghost who knew JoJo’s grandfather and Leonie’s father Riv when he was still a slave.

These characters moan too, crying about neglectful mothers or ungrateful children or abandoning friends. JoJo learns that Leonie unintentionally kills things (like their beta fish that died from starvation). Leonie learns that her children prefer to comfort each other (her three-year-old prefers her son’s parenting over hers).

All are restless.

Even more so when JoJo and Michaela’s father, Michael, a white man who was imprisoned for drug charges, was released from prison and Leonie takes her children on an uncomfortable car ride to pick Michael up.

Through Ward’s words, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” shows us what it’s like to be black in America — to almost get shot by a police officer because they think you have a gun in your pocket, to be thought of as rude or lazy or less than by strangers who don’t even know you and don’t want to know you, and to be haunted by slavery, still.

The ghosts of racism and slavery don’t go away. They moan and sing and shout.


Why I love Mike Mills’ ’20th Century Women’

At one point in Mike Mills’ Academy Award nominated movie “20th Century Women,” one of its characters, Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), takes polaroids of all the objects she owns (which consists of bras, underwear, lipstick, shoes, birth control pills and a photograph of a photograph of her mother) as an attempt to capture a self portrait of herself.

It doesn’t quite capture the human who owns them, but these snapshots, like Mills’ film, try to capture the fleeting self-realization of a person at a moment in time.

Abbie’s artwork is described as “really beautiful” and “a little bit sad” — adjectives that also apply to what Mills has achieved with his stylized semi-autobiographical fictional film “20th Century Women.”

If the polaroids are “20th Century Women,” then Mills is Abbie — its writer and director. But whereas Abbie is trying to capture a portrait of just herself, Mills tasked himself with an even more impossible endeavor — creating a snapshot of himself and his strong, independent, witty, Depression and World War II-era, Humphrey Bogart-loving mother. 

To help him, Mills recruited Annette Bening, whose fantastic as the fictionalized version of Mills’ mother, Dorothea Fields, a 55-year-old single mother in the 1970s who wanted to give her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) the world and raise him to be a good person who’s happier than she was.

To raise her kid, she recruited a village: her tenants William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie; and Jamie’s 17-year-old best friend Julie (Elle Fanning). The women loan Jamie feminist books and punk mix tapes and try to teach him how to be a man with lessons about female orgasms, how to verbally seduce an older woman, how to say “menstruation,” how to smoke and look cool, how to like and dance to the Talking Heads and how to not get beat up by guys who don’t want to listen.

Through these “20th Century Women,” Jamie learns things they don’t explicitly tell him: he learns how to listen, how to care, how to be sensitive and vulnerable and sweet and really be there — attributes women want that are not usually associated with a man.

Who Jamie becomes is what Dorothea achieves, answering Jamie’s inquisitive questions with wisdoms like “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed”; “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world”; and “Men always feel that they have to fix things for women, but they’re not doing anything. Some things just can’t be fixed.”

Dorothea is amazing just like Mills’ mother must have been. But while words and polaroids aren’t enough to fully bring someone back to life, “20th Century Women,” Mills’ retrospective love letter to his mom, is pretty close.

“20th Century Woman” was directed and written by Mike Mills. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original  screenplay. 

‘Popular Hits of the Showa Era’: an unlikeable, nihilistic and violent black comedy

Ryu Murakami’s absurd and nihilistic black comedy “Popular Hits of the Showa Era,” which was written in 1994 and translated into English in 2011 by Ralph McCarthy, is uncomfortable, describing a torpid 20-something-year-old man “thrusting his hips to poke an unknown 30-something-year-old woman’s ass outside in broad daylight with his foremost appendage.”

Fearing her cries, he silences her, slitting her throat and bragging to his friends about it.


“Popular Hits of the Showa Era” 
By Ryu Murakami. 
192 pp. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. $13.95.

The murder was random and senseless and the man isn’t caught, but the woman’s friends kill the man in retaliation, starting a war between a group of unambitious and juvenile young men and a similar lackluster and amorphous group of older divorced or unmarried women known as Oba-san, the Japanese term for “auntie.” Besides planning revenge both groups seem to enjoy karaoke.

There aren’t any redeeming qualities about any of these characters or this forgettable 192-page farce. The characters, described as even worse than cockroaches, talk without listening to each other, laugh randomly for no reason and have no sympathy toward any other human beings.

Instead, these characters are purposely cartoonish, written for the purpose to kill and be killed, which is done through increasingly ridiculous means involving rocket launchers and homemade bombs.

Like the men and women in this book, or the meaningless pop songs they sing, Murakami’s awful novel has no merit; it merely exists. But perhaps that’s the point.

‘Red Clocks’ shows you what it’s like to be a woman

Leni Zumas “Red Clocks” is a book about cannots. How a woman cannot be published because she’s not a man. How a woman cannot finish her law degree because she became a mother. How a woman cannot become a parent because she’s not married. How a woman cannot speak about sexual or physical abuse because no one would believe her. And “how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight against the will of most of the people.”

Limiting a woman’s right to choose even further is the 28th Amendment of the United States, also known as the Personhood Amendment, which overturned Roe v. Wade, making it absolutely illegal for anyone to have an abortion.


“Red Clocks” 
By Leni Zumas. 
351 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $26.

In Zumas’ dystopian near-future, anyone caught having or aiding in an abortion would legally be tried for murder. And anyone attempting to flee to Canada to terminate an unwanted pregnancy would be returned to the United States and promptly arrested.

Because abortions are a federal crime under this Personhood Amendment, the theory was that more children would be available for adoption and that there would be no need for in-vitro fertilization.

Public Law 116-72, also known as Every Child Needs Two, would prohibit single parents from adopting a child; only married couples would be permitted to legally adopt.

To show what this world looks like, Zumas braids the narratives of four unhappy woman living in the quiet fishing and whaling village of Newville, Ore.

Roberta “Ro” Stephens is a 40-something-year-old single history teacher, list maker and researcher who desperately wants to raise a child of her own despite not being able to have any.

Stay-at-home mom Susan Korsmos is trapped in a loveless marriage for the sake of her two children. She desperately wants leave her lazy husband Didier, but thinking of her children bouncing between two single parents guilts her in staying.

Matilda “Mattie” Quarles is sixteen and pregnant. Mattie desperately wants to end the clump of cells growing inside her because she knows what it’s like to be adopted and to spend every day wondering who her biological mother is. She doesn’t want her child wondering who her real mother was and why his or her mother didn’t keep her.

And Mattie’s birth mother, Gin Percival, is a hermit and suspected witch doctor who illegally heals women with herbal remedies.

These women tell you what it’s like to be a woman living in a male-dominated world  — to constantly live in doubt and fear exacerbated by laws created by men. It’s time that we listened to them.

‘Ayako’: the girl who was mostly forgotten

I inherited a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s 700-page literary manga “Ayako” from a friend and for the most part, it’s been hidden in a dark basement for about half a year.

If you’re familiar with the fate of the book’s fictional heroine, you might find a sense of situational irony in that.


By Osamu Tezuka. 
699 pp. Tezuka Productions. $24.95

Ayako Tenge happened to be a girl locked in her family’s cellar for 23 years after she saw her older brother Jiro trying to cover evidence related to a murder. For years, her only sight of the outside world was the cellar’s skylight, showing her the changing of seasons or meals being lowered into her prison. For the most part, the cellar was all she knew. Like the book in my possession, she existed out of sight and was eventually forgotten by most who knew and looked after her (she was four when she disappeared).

But for better or worse, her family’s story was eventually told.

The Tenges were an old Japanese family who ruled the rural town of Yodoyama for more than 500 years. Its corrupt patriarch Sukuemon was a hateful old man whose land gave him wealth. To curry favor with his father, his oldest son Ichiro allowed his father to rape his wife Su’e in order to inherit a portion of the land. His middle son Jiro was a World War II prisoner of war, who was still employed to perform occassional counter intelligence work; he lost favor with his father because Sukuemon rather see his son dead than see someone who got captured return. His daughter Naoko was in love with “a Red” and a union worker fighting for equal rights, those very people who were trying to steal away Sukemon’s land and give it away. His youngest son Shiro was too smart for his own good and wouldn’t follow orders. The only child Sukuemon truly loved was Ayako, his youngest daughter, which he fathered through his son’s wife.

Ayako is one of the few Tenges you can’t hate in this manga because of her innocence, but through clandestine family meetings and unfortunate events involving the police, it was decided that Ayako would be tragically announced dead and kept alive in a cellar — plot points that also seemed to confine Ayako’s character development. This made “Ayako” a stagnant mostly plot heavy read full of murders, family secrets and incestuous relationships. As Ayako’s life stands still, you learn how the lives of her jailers evolve.

Because of the serialization with its original release, “Ayako” felt extra long and you spend most of the manga waiting for something to happen. The ending contains nice poetic justice though, if you can wait to get there.


‘Zeitoun’: the story of how a Muslim American man saved New Orleans and how New Orleans tortured him

If you’re reading about Abdulrahman Zeitoun in 2018, 13 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and four years after Dave Eggers published his narrative nonfiction book “Zeitoun” under his independent press McSweeney’s, you know that Abdulrahman Zeitoun has become a milkshake duck for stalking his ex-wife Kathy and for other alleged abuses.

He’s since been exonerated, but that unfortunately colors your reading of Eggers’ book, which I imagine in my head as a graphic novel in the vein of other nonfiction works like Didier Lefèvre and Emmanuel Guibert’s “The Photographer” or Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.”

As portrayed in the book, the Zeitouns were a hardworking Muslim family who’ve grown a semi-successful painting and contracting business in New Orleans, banking clients including gothic writer Anne Rice. Kathy and Abdulrahman had four children, three girls who could quote “Pride and Prejudice” in their sleep and a boy who liked to disappear with friends. They were happy in their co-existance. Then Katrina hit.


By Dave Eggers. 
351 pp. McSweeney’s Books. $24.

The Zeitouns were among the people interviewed in McSweeney’s “Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath (Voice of Witness),” a project used to highlight civil right abuses through oral story telling. After listening to their story, Eggers expanded on the Zeitouns’ interviews, producing a book whose proceeds directly benefit various non-profit groups rebuilding New Orleans. 

With this lens, we begin to see Abdulrahman as a larger-than-life superhero, who stayed in New Orleans to secure his house and properties, rescued elderly women stranded in houses and fed stray dogs with meat from his freezer, but others like frightened out-of-state police mistook him for a villain, housed him in makeshift prisons and shuffled him around an unorganized FEMA-run criminal justice system. Abdulrahman spent 23 days in prison, the victim of racial profiling and civil rights abuses. His wife Kathy spent days unable to reach her husband only to find out that he was locked up in prison for suspected looting and terrorism because of his language, religion and background.

“Zeitoun’s” a good comic book story starring unlikely heroes and villains: a hardworking Syrian American family man and a government that failed its citizens. You just can’t help wondering how much of it was embellished even if you wish the story were all true.

The best episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ Season 4 ranked from worst to best

If the 1,267,800-plus Wikipedia searches for “List of ‘Black Mirror’ episodes” since Dec. 29, 2017, when season four of “Black Mirror” dropped on Netflix, is any indication of the number of people who’ve already binge-watched through the series, you probably won’t need this spoiler-free guide, but might want to talk or read about what you just saw as much as I do.

If you haven’t seen the series (and have been living under a rock for the past seven years), think of “Black Mirror” as “Twilight Zone” without the narrator and with most episodes in the British anthology sci-fi series predicting how futuristic tech can darkly impact humanity.

“Black Mirror” is easily one of my favorite T.V. shows and I love how each almost hour-long episode lives as its own mini-movie. Here’s a guide to the episodes in season four, ranked from my least favorite to favorite. Feel free to watch them in any order:

6. “Metalhead,” directed by David Slade and written by Charlie Brooker. (41 minutes).

This is by far my least favorite episode of “Black Mirror,” but also probably the one that you end up thinking about the most because it leaves you unsatisfied — with many more questions than answers.

As the episode begins, you’re introduced to Bella (Maxine Peake), Clarke (Jake Davies) and Anthony (Clint Dyer), three humans in a post-apocalyptic world. You don’t know much about their past: just that they’re in a vehicle trying to get something from a seemingly abandoned warehouse policed by these frightening highly intelligent small metal robotic killing machines they call “dogs.” 

“Metalhead,” which was edited in black and white (perhaps to wash out the blood and gore), feels vastly different from anything else in the series, existing in a larger unknown world rather than one that sort of resembles our own.

At it’s core, it’s a short about survival, pitting robot against human. (You can probably guess who wins).

But you wonder about the larger context: how this world (and these robots) came to be.

You never find out what you really want to know, which is enough to keep you up at night.

Bonus Easter egg for “Black Mirror” fans: A postcard from vacation town San Junipero is seen on a desk. “San Junipero” is an episode in season three.

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5. “Crocodile,” directed by John Hillcoat and written by Charlie Brooker. (59 minutes).

In real life, physical memories can be recorded anywhere anytime on handheld devices most Americans sleep with under their pillows, but what happens if we willingly allow police and insurance agents access to our smartphones, which hold some of our most private thoughts?

Would you give someone else access to your phone if they promise you that “they don’t care what you do in your own time?” Or if it would help solve a accident or murder?

What if the police didn’t have to ask you if they could get access to your phone and could obtain your whereabouts through others like AT&T and Verizon? 

Privacy (and the lack of it) is the rough premise of “Crocodile,” whose misleading title is one of the most puzzling things about this moral thriller.

In “Crocodile,” physical memories can be viewed and extrapolated through a non-invasive chip that records a person’s memories on a portable monitor. Smells, sounds and intense emotions enhance the memories recorded. As you can imagine, this is a highly useful tool for insurance investigators like Shazia Akhand (Kiran Sonia Sawar), whose job is to collect voluntary memories from witnesses after an accident is reported in order to figure out how much money is owed to the victim.  

Her investigation into a recent hit-and-run accident eventually brings her to Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough), who would do anything to keep her thoughts private. 

“Crocodile” is a brilliant look at the pricy cost of privacy, but if you like happy endings, best avoid this episode.

Bonus Easter egg for “Black Mirror” fans: “Wraith Babes,” which was a major plot point in the episode “Fifteen Million Merits” from season one, makes an appearance, hinting that the world of “Black Mirror” might be connected somehow:

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4. “Arkangel,” directed by Jodie Foster and written by Charlie Brooker. (52 minutes).

Today we have the convenience of attaching tracking devices to virtually anything, but what if you had the ability to add a more invasive tracking device (beyond the “Find your iPhone” app) on your child?

That’s the rough premise of “Arkangel,” experimental new tech that allows a parent to always track and see where their child is and what their child is seeing.

After single mom Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) loses her daughter Sara (Aniya Hodge) after looking away for just a minute, she decides to have the “Arkangel” installed on her three year old.

The “Arkangel” promises peace of mind, allowing her to always know where her daughter is at all times. The “Arkangel” also allows a hover parent to apply filters that can block out violent, graphic, and profane images and sounds from what the child actually sees in everyday life.

As expected, technology changes the relationship between parent and child in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, especially as the daughter grows into a teenager (Brenna Harding) and wants to hang out with her sort of boyfriend Trick (Owen Teague).

If anything, “Arkangel” plays out like a cautionary tale, exploring the dangers of filter warnings and how protecting your children too much can actually hinder their emotional growth and understanding of things like pain or death.

Bonus Easter egg for “Black Mirror” fans: This episode features footage from season three’s “Men Against Fire”:

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Also spotted: posters for Tusk, an artist featured in “Hated in the Nation.”

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3. “U.S.S. Callister,” directed by Toby Haynes and written by Charlie Brooker and William Bridges. (76 minutes).

“U.S.S. Callister,” which opens season four, feels like an ode to “Twilight Zone,” combining good old cheesy sci-fi “Star Trek” escapism with infuriating misogynistic tech bro culture. Jesse Plemons stars as U.S.S. Callister Captain Robert Daly, who along with his crew Walton (Jimmi Simpson), Shania (Michaela Coel), Elena (Milanka Brooks), Nate (Osy Ikhile), Kabir (Paul Raymond) and Nanette (Cristin Milioti), defeat monsters and save the world.

By day, the team work at Callister Inc., which invented the massively popular virtual reality space MMORPG “Infinity.” Daly’s coding and role as the company’s CTO was fundamental in “Infinity’s” success, but he feels under-appreciated and mostly ignored by his co-workers.

He deals with his fury by escaping into his “Star Fleet” universe, where he captains a space ship with the unwilling clones of his co-workers.

“U.S.S. Callister” asks us to consider what counts as humanity. Does our definition include bits of coding if they contain a human consciousness?

The answer lies somewhere in a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.

2. “Black Museum,” directed by Colm McCarthy, written by Charlie Brooker and Penn Jillette. (69 minutes).

“Black Museum” is “Black Mirror’s” magnum opus, combining everything we know about “Black Mirror” so far and housing it in a 69-minute highlight reel in a single museum. The museum is curated by Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), a man who oversaw a team that pioneered controversial neurological tech that allows men to cheat death. The bulk of his experiments have to do with consciousness — whether you can plant one person’s pain or consciousness into another brain or device (or place like San Junipero). While many of Haynes’ inventions were banned, they currently live in glass exhibits which Haynes shows off for a fee.

This show and tell is central to how “Black Museum” is structured. As Haynes recounts his past failed experiments to his visitor Nish (Letitia Wright), he’s also introducing them to his invisible audience, us.

The most interesting part of this episode is how it gives us a glimpse into how the world of “Black Mirror” works — connecting past and future episodes and putting them all on display.

Bonus Easter egg for “Black Mirror” fans: The entire episode is full of Easter eggs, featuring exhibits hinting at other “Black Mirror” episodes.

1. “Hang the D.J.,” directed by Timothy Van Patten, written by Charlie Brooker. (51 minutes). 

“Hang the D.J.” is a riff on modern app-based dating culture, providing an alternative that eliminates choice.

The premise is an Alexa-like dating coach service that promises a 99.8 percent successful match rate, pairing you up on date after date to learn more your personal preferences until the service finds your ultimate soulmate.

We follow Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) on their first date with each other and through the tedium of dating — sometimes in long awful relationships with people they don’t like, other times in meaningless short flings. (Lack of choice is just as paralyzing as too much choice.)

Part of the reason this is my favorite episode of season four is because like season three’s “San Junipero,” it’s one of those rare “Black Mirror” episodes that get a hopeful ending.

‘The English Wife’: A royal Shakespearean tragicomedy

She was an foreign actress when he first met her. He was not quite a prince, but he came from an old Dutch family with money and expectations. They came from different worlds — hers in London, his in New York. They met through a mutual acquaintance, traveled the world, got married, became controversial all-caps headlines in international tabloids with the latest as: “KNICKERBOCKER MURDERS WIFE AND KILLS HIMSELF! MURDER AND SUICIDE ON THE HUDSON!”

They were the Van Duyvils, Annabelle and Bayard, principal characters in Lauren Willig’s new novel “The English Wife,” but I can’t help imagining them as the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry of their time — gorgeous and happy with a fairy tale romance. These reminders make peering into the Van Duyvil’s lives seem like a guilty pleasure.


“The English Wife” 
By Lauren Willig. 
376 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.

Besides the whole murder and suicide bit (if you believe the headlines), which happens about nine pages into the book through the point of view of Bayard’s 26-year-old spinster sister Janie who finds Bayard’s body, Annabelle and Bay were practically royals in late 1890s New York, expected to wear fancy hats, entertain high society and never cause a scandal. They lived in a secluded mansion, which they named Illyria after Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and had twins they named Sebastian and Viola.

But that changes on January 6, 1899, when Bayard’s found lethally stabbed with a costume sword and Annabelle’s seen submerged in the Hudson River. The couple were to host a wondrous costumed ball that night in their new mansion modeled after the English Tudor home Annabelle grew up in. They would be have danced and laughed, perhaps, and showed the gossips how happy they were.

Instead, cousin Anne and sister Janie find Bay’s body — and the rest is printed in the presses.

Willig’s novel alternates between the past and present, between the romances of Janie and Janie’s sister-in-law. Desperate to clear her brother’s reputation (because Bayard couldn’t have killed both himself and his wife), Janie Van Duyvil recruits reporter James Burke to find out the truth behind her brother’s death. What she finds isn’t what she suspects, but madness and mixups are part of what keep “The English Wife” entertaining.

In true Shakespearean fashion, Willig introduces pairs of twins, sisters who could be twins masquerading as each other, and confusing similar-sounding names. There are an Anne and Annabelle, a George and Georgie — the characters even comment that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.

With the comedic elements and tragic circumstances, “The English Wife” is a Shakespearean problem play — one that starts with a tragedy and ends with people dancing at a funeral.

The dialogue is bit thick at times — with characters literally quoting lines from Shakespeare to each other (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), but when the characters take a bow, you take their cue and grin and applaud.


Predicting the next ‘American War’

More than 50 years in the future, the second American Civil War isn’t fought over race, or confederate statues, or religion. The war is fought over fossil fuels, according to Omar El Akkad’s debut dystopian novel “American War.”

In 2074, America is divided between the Red states (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina; Florida has been swallowed up by ocean) and Blue states (most of the rest of continental U.S. as we know it).

Global warming has brought upon areas of extreme heat and cold, swallowing up more and more land. Solar panels and wind energy are standard in most U.S. households that industries like coal are obsolete. Yet folks in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, collectively known as the Free Southern State, succeeded from the Union and clung to these dying industries, just like they clung to cotton and slavery in the first Civil War.


“American War” 
By Omar El Akkad. 
333 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

El Akkad’s future feels much like the past with bloodshed on U.S. soil, people routinely ducking from air bombing (which they call Birds), global interests suppling weapons to insurgents, poor refugees camps which become breeding grounds for recruiting suicide bombers and child soldiers, and inhumane torture facilities off far-off islands.

To understand this world, El Akkad recruits Sarat Chestnut, a six-year-old dark skinned black girl uprooted from her home in Louisiana after the war moved into their backyard. Her mother, Martina; twin, Dana; and older brother, Simon; travelled to Camp Patience (which was based off Guantanamo’s Camp Justice), a refugee camp for Reds displaced by the war, before that too became a casualty.

Through it all, Sarat learned to grow up too fast — to play with rats, get drunk off Joyful (a jungle juice of rotten fruit, crushed painkillers and alcohol), swim in brown rivers, sharpen a knife, hold a rifle, maim, kill, fight for the South. She learned about pain — what it’s like to be humiliated by boys with mean smiles, what it’s like to be betrayed by her mentors, what it’s like to lose everyone and everything she knew. And she learned about war — how “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language.”

“American War” isn’t an easy read and it might take a few tries to get into, but El Akkad’s fiction, which is influenced by El Akkad’s own reporting on Black Lives Matter protests, Arab Spring, war in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, feels very real.

Perhaps that’s because it’s like how he describes in his book: “The misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same—and yet they were. War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war . . . was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”


Falling in love with ‘The Rules of Magic’

Alice Hoffman’s “The Rules of Magic” is a story that begins with “once upon a time” and doesn’t end with “happily ever after.”

It’s a story about losing and loving and losing and living and loving and living despite of it.

You see, the Owens family, who you might have met in Hoffman’s bestselling 1995 sequel “Practical Magic” (which also became a 1998 motion picture starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as the great nieces to the characters in this book), are an old magical family of witches from Massachusetts. Their ancestor Maria Owens was persecuted for witchery during the Salem witch trials in the 1600s. After being imprisoned and betrayed by her lover John Hathorne, she cursed her family to never fall in love.


“The Rules of Magic” 
By Alice Hofman. 
367 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.99.

Try as you might, you can’t help but fall in love with Maria’s descendants: resourceful Franny, kind Jet and charismatic Vincent, who come to age centuries later in New York City during the Cold War, Kennedy assassination, Stonewall riots and Vietnam War.

The Owens siblings inherit their family’s curses: to always float above water, to be able to read minds, to know the future and to be unlucky in love.

Told in six chapters that span decades, “The Rules of Magic” feels like Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” meeting Diana Wynne Jones “Howl’s Moving Castle” — the type of story that makes your heart grow three sizes and believe in the impossible. There’s magic and poetry and longing in Hoffman’s words. You just wish the book didn’t have to end.