Below are reviews of The Fortune Teller's Kiss, including a piece of a longer review, by Emel Benbasat, which appeared in Salom, a Turkish magazine:
Brenda's story is based on her life, and is about her family's migration from Spain to Turkey and to the Bronx. She tells her life story and the fight against polio, along with introducing us to her family members. Though they left Turkey long ago, the family has not given up their Turkish traditions. This evokes very warm feelings and lets the reader see the world from the child Brenda's point of view: the fortune-telling, Turkish coffee-drinking, the music they listened to, belly-dancing, and food in general, takes you along a journey of tears and laughter.
The author's mindset during her ordeal with polio pushes her to feel victorious as an adult, and young Serotte expresses a special love for her grandmother (Nona Behora), and a special tie to her father.
The Fortune Teller's Kiss is a book you will look forward to reading, to find out how she recovers her trust and the will to walk again.
Emel Benbasat, March 2009
"How many families can boast of an Aunt Kadún, kidnapped and placed in a Turkish harem at the age of 13?...Do you conjure up fortune-telling grandmas, belly dancers and Mediterranean feasts? If that were not enough, the tapestry of her childhood includes a life-changing bout with polio and its aftereffects...Serotte never learned to play the role of polio victim...[she] lures us with the tantalizing aroma of Sephardic life in 1950s America. Her memoir simmers with family richly portrayed: dancing, singing, arguing, and laughing. Gently stirring, she adds a pinch of Eastern culture, blending it into the West's. We sample, savoring the unique flavors that only she could create." Sharon F. Slutsky, Expressions Magazine, November 2007
"Brenda grew up in that fabulous melting pot, The Bronx...Part of a Spanish Jewish family from Turkey...her recollections of what life was like in the '50s is terrific [and] paint a wonderful portrait." Art Sbarsky, Estate Lifestyle, September 2007
Sandra Lindow's review in the beautiful journal, Kaleidoscope, can be read in its entirety below. She writes, in part:
"What is most apparent in this memoir is the strength of [Serotte's] narrative voice and her ability to see the world in which she grew up with loving honesty and humor."
FINALIST, NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARDS, 2006 SEPHARDIC CULTURE CATEGORY
Jewish Book World, in its review of the Finalists, writes:
An impressive memoir, The Fortune Teller's Kiss, with many Ladino habits and customs embedded in the narrative that shed light on the experience of the Sephardic community living in the Bronx during the 1950's. It is a story that surprises us with its richness of detail, accuracy and objectivity. It describes the differences between well-respected families and those that were not and how this affected the lives of the children. The characters, ways of life, superstitions, and old customs are graphically depicted. All of these serve as a background to the story of a young girl who has to fight polio and, after a long struggle, manages to recover and walk again, thanks to her strong will and iron determination. It is an amazing story of the victory of the human spirit, the refusal to give up, the psychology of human suffering, and the nightmare of polio. The author describes the condition of the hospitals in those days and the way crippled people were treated. As such the book will be of interest not only to Jewish readers but also to a general audience that will appreciate this sensitive heartbreaking story.
Kathleen Alcala, in her review in Raven Chronicles, says:
The Fortune Teller's Kiss, Brenda Serotte's memoir of growing up in the Bronx, is a time capsule of a lost era...Serotte understands both the curse and the blessing of coming from such a family, and describes her colorful relatives in detail, from the aunt who was so beautiful she had been abducted in the Dardanelles to serve in the harem of a sultan, to Serotte's father, Victor, a match for her mother in temper and stubbornness. This book is worth reading just for the descriptions of food and use of Ladino...This book will enthrall those who remember the Bronx of an earlier era, as well as those of us who have ever stared at the grounds in our Turkish coffee, wondering what the future might hold.
Also in Jewish Book World, in an earlier review: “Serotte’s memoir of her colorful and eccentric Turkish-Jewish family, and her courageous triumph over childhood polio, is both a fascinating story with scenes of great humor and deep pathos, and a beautifully written account of a life-changing experience [that] speaks to the hope that lies within every heart, and gives this powerful book universal appeal.”
Roberta Gordenstein, in the Multicultural Review, writes: “Serotte’s poignant and profound memoir spoke to me on so many levels…sensitive and thought-provoking, The Fortune Teller’s Kiss combines tragedy with humor to create a compelling portrait of the effects of severe illness on immigrants and their children.”
Booklist calls The Fortune Teller’s Kiss “A joy to read…Serotte's memoir tells of her growing up in the Bronx in a Sephardic Jewish family among Ashkenazi neighbors. Serotte is a marvelous storyteller, and this book, one of the American Lives Series, is a profoundly moving memoir.”
In the Federation Star, Philip K. Jason writes: “Brenda Serotte’s engaging memoir opens doors to rooms that we rarely have a chance to enter, and we may be thankful for the opportunity…A colorful and moving series of expertly drawn narratives…a work of abundant, tonic good humor.”
Publishers Weekly says: “Poet Serotte relives a childhood cataclysm in this culture-rich, affecting memoir…Serotte earned high praise for her beauty, grace and belly dancing, grooming herself for the proverbial sultan's harem…The drama of [her] struggle to walk again, filtered through the tender emotion of youth, creates an aromatic narrative brew that reveals her destiny in riveting detail.”
Kirkus Reviews has called her story “An unquestionably heroic narrative that never sounds preening or self-satisfied…Serotte brilliantly recreates the sheer dread the very word ‘polio’ evoked in those pre–Jonas Salk days. Her description of her family's response to her illness is unflinching.”
The following review is by Sandra Lindow, in the journal Kaleidoscope, reprinted in full:
The Fortune Teller’s Kiss
University of Nebraska Press, 2006,
ISBN 0-8032-4326-X, 318 p., 217 pages, hardback
It was with interest and pleasure that I read poet, Brenda Serotte’s memoir, The Fortune Teller’s Kiss. Just as Serotte was, at seven, one of the last children in America to get polio in 1954, so also was my seven-year –old first cousin, Greg. Fortunately, like Serotte, the polio did not affect his respiratory system. There was no need for an iron lung. After the two-week contagious period my aunt and uncle brought him back to the family farm where my grandmother was able to help with the Sister Kenny’s acclaimed hot pack treatments and physical therapy exercises. What I most remember is watching curiously from my grandmother’s bedroom doorway as Greg was rolled back and forth on a blanket to stimulate his muscles. Soon Greg was entirely recovered and back to climbing trees, swinging on a knotted rope across the width of the barn from the highest bale in the mow and joyfully figuring new ways to cheat at Monopoly. For Serotte, recovery was not so easy.
Born in the Bronx into a large extended family of Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Serotte’s family was steeped in superstitions as strong as their coffee: “Garlic and cloves! Keep the Evil Eye away!” and “Whoever wishes you harm, may harm come to them!” Hospitals and “hospital men” in ambulances were to be avoided. Mumya, the dried, pulverized foreskins of baby boys, was used in cases where extreme healing was needed (5). Secret ceremonies requiring holy prayers, a bronze bowl and melted, exploding lead were enacted in cases of desperate illness (29). Ritual words and homemade charms and amulets were required to keep the Evil Eye away. Almost everyone in the community wore one, “something that would knife through the surrounding dark spirit forces” (2). The problem, of course, with this simplistic worldview is who then is to blame when something bad happens? When she was stricken, Serotte, a pretty red-haired child with talent for singing and belly dancing, had pinned to her underwear a hand-stitched red cotton heart filled with cloves and around her neck wore a realistic blue eye on a gold chain. That should have been enough to keep Evil at bay. That she became ill when other family members did not, meant that through some lapse, the wards had failed and the Evil Eye had touched and tainted her. Furthermore, her grandmother, “Nona” Behora, respected and feared in the community as a witch and fortune teller, through some strange premonition, had foretold Serotte’s serious illness. Consequently, Serotte, who had been a family favorite and a center of attention, fell from grace when she became ill and was avoided by nearly everyone in her family except her father.
Her mother, emotionally brittle from the first, “drenched herself in blame” for letting her child get sick and became so distraught that at one point tried to kill herself by putting her head into the gas oven. Fortunately it was not the kind of oven where this would work. As a second grader, Serotte had been part of a test group to receive initial test doses of the Salk polio vaccine, but it must have been too late to protect her from contracting the disease. Perhaps it saved her from becoming more ill and disabled, but her mother blamed herself for signing the permission papers.
Polio or poliomyelitis is a virus, usually transmitted through the ingestion of water that has been contaminated by fecal matter. This historically devastating disease was virtually eliminated in the Western hemisphere during the second half of the 20th century through the efforts of researchers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Although historians suggest the disease existed in ancient times, its most extensive outbreak occurred in the first half of the 20th century. Although usually passed through contact with tainted water, polio cases occurred in all levels of society including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those of us who lived through that era, remember the endemic paranoia that accompanied the epidemic, making all public swimming pools and many other crowded places suspect and to be avoided.
Serotte may have gotten the illness because of a day she spent with gypsies after wandering off during a family vacation at Rockaway Beach. Although she lost muscles in her legs during the two weeks she was in quarantine at the hospital, sheer willpower and grueling physical therapy made it possible for her to learn to walk again. Serotte writes, “I would learn how to press my lips tightly together to keep back the screams ... . Cowards screamed,” not those of us in the polio ward, “not even when they yanked our legs and pulled on our contracted muscles to stretch them.” (91)
For Serotte the months of recovery in various hospitals and treatment centers were a definitive time where she learned much about her family and herself. At first she was entirely alone. Family members were not allowed to touch her. Her mother was too anxious to come. Only her father came every day from work to sit with her. Nurses were obviously overworked and sometimes abusive. No toys or personal objects were allowed during the quarantine period. Her family was told to throw all her old toys away because at the time it was still unclear how the disease was passed. What was so strikingly obvious was the love that made it possible for her father and her Aunt Allegre to overcome their superstitious fears to be with her during this difficult time. Others stayed resolutely away despite doctors’ assurance that the disease was no longer communicable. Walnut shells with Hebrew prayers on them, almonds with mystical symbols were brought to her and entrusted with power to heal. She belonged to a “bouillabiasse” bloodline in an immigrant community uneasily balanced, one foot in 20th century America, the other in 15th century Spain. Even when she was released and taken home, the family acted as if her leg braces and wheel chair were an embarassment to keep as hidden as possible. Neighbor children taunted her immobility.
There were no pictures of me taken, at any time, wearing leg braces, standing with crutches, or God forbid, sitting in a wheelchair. They did not exist in anyone’s album anywhere. (180)
Last year, according to the World Health Organization 1,889 people were affected with polio worldwide. Seven hundred and seventy-five of them came from Nigeria, Africa, where in 2003 government authorities in the mostly Muslim north ordered an immunization boycott, claiming the vaccine was part of a U.S.-led plot to render Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS. Vaccination programs restarted there the next year but the boycott had a global effect, causing cases of the Nigerian virus strain to crop up as far away as Indonesia. It is apparent even in the 21st century superstition continues to obstruct progress in eradicating and treating disease. Nevertheless, polio is rare in all but four third world countries and WHO hopes to eradicate it by the end of this year.
Despite superstition and disability Serotte eventually learned to walk without her braces. She made new friends, excelled in reading, and in 1958 earned the title of Miss Rheingold Beer while vacationing at a Catskill resort called Blue Paradise Bungalow Colony. Today she is a poet and adjunct lecturer at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When recently contacted she described herself as still suffering from post polio syndrome, the long term effects of the illness. Writing this memoir was for her an act of self discovery that taught her to respect herself, her body and her recovery.
I learned to go deep, to write vertically, break through the earth, so to speak, and therein I discovered what I--and a lot of others, too--was all about. Memoir is not just about the self; you take everyone with you. That's why truth in memoir is so critical, and everyone who makes up stories so that it sells books, should be ashamed. Although I am extremely proud of having produced this book, a labor of love and a passion to write it, it cost me; the impact of remembering, plus writing, teaching, traveling, hobbled me, and the post-polio syndrome kicked in hard. Emotional upheaval is one of the factors in PPS. Nowadays, for distances, I breeze around in a power chair. I didn't like it, but in many ways, my life got easier.
Her poetry collection, The Blue Farm is available through her website. “Contagious,” one of the chapters in this memoir, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize when it originally appeared in the magazine Fourth Genre. What is most apparent in this memoir is the strength of her narrative voice and her ability to see the world in which she grew up with loving honesty and humor. Today, though she can no longer run and dance the dance of the seven veils as she did before polio, her graceful prose deftly reveals the rich, quirky, story-fat world of her childhood.
(Sandra Lindow, 2007)