Short takes on three recent books by local authors | Books | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Short takes on three recent books by local authors

Yolanda Avram Willis’ Holocaust memoir, and novels by Michael W. Cox and Kathleen Tessaro



Reviews of the first 50 pages of recent books by local authors

A HIDDEN CHILD IN GREECE: RESCUE IN THE HOLOCAUST. “I lost count of how many people saved my life,” writes Yolanda Avram Willis in her self-published memoir (326 pp., $34.99) about surviving as a Greek Jew during the Holocaust. Willis was 6 when the war broke out, and spent four years on the run from the Nazis with her family, including her aged grandmother and sickly little brother. Eighty-seven percent of Greek Jews perished during the war, Willis writes, but her family survived through strategies including hiding in a village oven, gifts of Christian IDs from Athens police, and her temporary adoption by a Christian family. The book also includes other people’s stories of rescue in Greece. As an adult, Willis came to the U.S. and worked as a researcher, manager, educator and consultant. In straightforward prose, she portrays herself as a brave little girl, but is careful to note the emotional toll that her repressed fear later took — and more careful still to forefront the kindness and bravery of her family’s many protectors and helpers.


THE BEST WAY TO GET EVEN. Nobody really wants to spend time with Callahan. Not his estranged father; not the former students he scandalizes by drunkenly groping one of them at a party; and certainly not his ex-wife. But readers of Michael W. Cox’s new novel just might want to, especially after the alcoholic English professor comes to believe that someone is stalking him as a result of the groping incident. Cox teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and wrote the fine 2013 short-story collection Against the Hidden River. Novels about the travails of dissolute, educated, middle-age white men are legion, but in Best Way (Mammoth Books, 188 pp., $14.95), Cox illuminates Callahan’s unhappy world with sharp prose that sucks you into the spaces between the lines: “[P]ornography was in truth the only thing that held Callahan’s attention these days. Not the sex so much as the representation of it, actors going through their paces and managing, somehow, to do their thing, despite the camera’s unflattering, super-realistic gaze.”


RARE OBJECTS. Kathleen Tessaro’s sixth novel, now in paperback (Harper, 378 pp., $15.99), tells the Depression-era story of a young woman who grew up poor in Boston but feels destined for more. “Other worlds were within my grasp — better worlds full of rewarded ambition, refinement, and eloquence,” narrates Maeve Fanning. “I clung to them as a pilgrim whose faith is proportional to the extremity of their need clings to a relic or prayer.” Unfortunately, Maeve has a taste for gin and isn’t too careful about men, which is how (basically) she ends up in an upstate New York asylum before returning to Boston; the plot leads her to a fateful job at a posh antique shop. Tessaro moves the narrative slickly and writes snappy dialogue for her flawed heroine and a range of characters from “loony bin” inmates to Italian bakers, Maeve’s Irish mother and Boston Brahmins. What impresses most is her eye for period detail, a rigorous attention to the physical realities of Maeve’s world (clothes, food, etc.) that really brings the story to life. 

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