Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Hold on to the Sun

hold on to the sun2 Hold on to the Sun, by Michal Govrin is a compelling book of stories and essays, stories and essays bound together by themes of despair and hope, love and loss.

The author’s life as a young woman is depicted through some stories that are magical or fantasy-based. Other stories are compelling through their Holocaust-themed prose. All of the stories come full circle with Holocaust connections, and how that horrendous event formed the foundation of her life. Govrin is a first-generation, Holocaust survivor, family member. She is a woman searching for depth and meaning in life after the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was a secret within her familial life, as far as her mother is concerned. Yet, within those unspoken words, there was always a sense of something hidden. Children feel these things, instinctively, although they might not be able to put a name to it. Much of Govrin’s early life was formed through the unspoken, which in itself spoke resoundingly.

Her essays are strong, and deal with her travels to Poland. She traveled there to see the death camp her mother was imprisoned in, and where her mother’s first husband and their son perished. She did not know for many years that her mother had been married before, and did not know about her half-brother. Her journey there was a form of witnessing the site where they perished, and a form of remembering them. Her essays honor them.


Hold on to the Sun, by Michal Govrin is not an uplifting book, but a book that imparts the importance of remembrance. It also is a book that enhances the importance of hope in a world that does not seem to offer much in the way of illumination.
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Filed under Book Reviews, Holocaust/Genocide, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Memoirs, Non-Fiction

Earth Day 2014

hatchlings

It is Earth Day!

Nature can also be a state of mind, illuminating from your mental image, and your spiritual being. Torah and nature coexist quite comfortably, in my environment.

I found the book The Way Into Judaism and the Environment, by Jeremy Benstein, PhD, to be quite helpful in matters regarding encompassing Jewish practice and Jewish life. It’s an excellent book, informative on the issues relating to Jews and environmentalism, and their understanding of nature. The six chapters are formatted well, and here are the chapter titles:

1. Emet Ve’emunot: Environmentalism, Religion, and the Environmental Crisis in Context
2. Bereishit Bara’: Creator, Creating, Creation, Creatures and Us
3. Lishmor La’asot U’lekayem: Traditional Sources and Resources
4. Olam Umelo’o: Contemporary Topics and Issues
5. Chagim Uzmanin: Cycles in Time, Sacraments in Life
6. Ha’am Ve’Ha’aretz: The Land of Israel and a Jewish Sense of Place

As you can see from the chapter titles, the book doesn’t only deal with nature and the environment. Within the pages lie quotations, biblical references, time and place, Earth’s beginnings, etc., all incorporated within Judaism’s traditions. The Way Into Judaism and the Environment is an excellent resource expanding on the current, pertinent environmental and global issues. Benstein believes that “a sustainable society is one that integrates social, environmental, and economic concerns of health and justice, and can both sustain itself over time, living up to responsibilities to future generations…”

Benstein infuses Torah within the realms of today and tomorrow, and the human responsibility for the preservation of our planet for future use. His articulation is masterful, is message is strong in its expansion and enhancement of nature and Judaism. After finishing the book, the reader is left with much to ponder. Jeremy Benstein, PhD, shows us how we can root ourselves in Judaism and Torah, and how we can combine nature and our spirituality in our daily lives. It is a must read for anyone concerned with today’s “green planet” and environmental issues, and issues of society and humanity within the framework of the planet Earth.

For more Jewish-related environmental information, visit The Big Green Jewish Website.

I have posted this review in the past, but decided to post it in full, again, rather than link to my previous post. I find links to be excellent resources, but at times I feel the entire post should be repeated.

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Review: Visible City

visiblecity2 Visible City, by Tova Mirvis, is a predictable story in many aspects, but I still am glad that I read it. I found the almost “voyeur” aspect to be interesting, and the thoughts that are dreamed up while one person stares out of their window, with their own set of passions, desires and loyalties.

Nina is that person, and stare she does, at every given opportunity. If it is during the night, she turns off the lights so as not to attract attention. What she sees happening in an apartment across the way, enhances her imagination, and her perception of what the individuals are like. As the reader reads on, they realize that not everything is as it appears to be. In fact, the couple who live in the apartment are not so different from Nina and her family, in the sense that their married life seems to be complacent. Nina desires more in life, yet doesn’t have the ambition to seek it.

The novel gives a wonderful overview of New York City, its brilliant architecture, some modern, some old and abandoned. We are given snippets of the exteriors and interiors of the abandoned buildings, as some of the characters skulk through them out of a passionate desire to learn about them. We are also taken into the world of stained-glass art and all of its illuminations. Through this examination, we are seen how the passions, desires and loyalties flare up from the deep-set goals that some of the characters hold.

Six individuals meet in various places where they normally go to spend some time away from their homes. Some of them end up living on the edge, merging their connections into areas better left undone.

Passionate moments are strong within the pages, and by that I mean passionate in every sense, including one’s drives, dreams and life accomplishments. What one views as important and a driving force is not necessarily so for another person. In relationships each person should accept the other for their own interests and goals, whether the interests and goals are theirs, or not. They should offer encouragement, and not discouragement.

The urban aspect is strongly illuminated. Mirvis’ word-images are depicted quite vividly. This reader could envision everything she painted with her prose. All of my senses were filled as my own imagination took hold.

I enjoyed how each character was somewhat flawed, as we all are, in reality. I enjoyed the city tour through their eyes, and enjoyed the human perspectives, and how we see people. We are not the sum of what others see in us, or think about us. In fact, most of us are usually much different than how a stranger might view us. This was quite true in Visible City. What Nina saw, is not the actual person, but a person who she encapsulated from a distance, from a view out of a window.

The emotional aspect was a major underlying issue, as most of the characters found it difficult to relate to their family members on a deep level. They also portrayed superficiality when in the presence of others, outside of their familial and friendship realm. Even within those realms, feelings were not always touched upon.

I did not like all the characters, but that is okay. In reality, do we all like everyone we encounter? I did like how life, seen through various city windows, was depicted, and how the characters were eventually connected. Mirvis was masterful in her depictions and her prose. I felt as if I was given a personal tour of various aspects of New York City and its urban character, from architectural exteriors to individual’s projections of themselves. It almost felt as if I were looking out of a window into the lives of others. Maybe that was one of Tova Mirvis’ intentions.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Lorri's Blog, Novels

Review: The Book of Daniel

   If you are a fan of E.L. Doctorow’s work, The Book of Daniel, a novel, will not disappoint you, if you pay attention and grasp what you are reading, because it is a compelling and intense story line.  I read it straight through, and had difficulty putting it down to even eat.   was overtaken with emotions thruoght the book. The novel takes place beginning with the Cold War, with the secrets, the Leftists, and with the alarmist political tactics used in order to control the country.

The narrator, Daniel Lewin (nee Isaacson), is the son of parents who were convicted of conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, parents who were executed in the electric chair.  The story begins with him as a graduate student, married and with a son.  He is seemingly in the university library preparing his dissertation.  His mind begins to wander and he begins to compose a book outlining the harrowing childhood that he and his sister faced as the children of convicted spies, and as children adopted by a loving couple.

He tries to analyze and make sense of his parents’ deaths, and of his life and his sister’s life up to that point in time.  While writing his thoughts and feelings, Daniel’s writing often seems to be frenzied, grammatically incorrect, jumping from first person to third person, jumping back and forth in time.  This is brilliant on Doctorow’s part, because in reality, if one were to be in this situation, and writing about their experiences, I would think it would be exactly how one would write.  As feelings begin to surface, one might talk about their father, as their father in one sentence, and then in order to block out some painful event, start talking about him as “Mr. Isaacson”.  One might call their adopted parents by their surname in one sentence, and in the next refer to them as mom and dad, father and mother.

The story is unique, written as events remembered from Daniel’s childhood, including visiting his parents in jail, the ominous Sing-Sing.  It is intense and insightful, and sheds light on how the acts of parents can affect the children into adulthood.  How children survive, and how their loyalties bounce back and forth from their birth parents to their adopted parents, how the children can’t fathom why their parents would be so stubborn as to not admit some guilt, in order to gain a lesser sentence, how the guilt of the parents is afflicted onto the children.  The story details how the emotional electricity runs through their bloodstreams.

This book is modeled after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for treason on June 19, 1953. But, the book is not about the political times, although that is a major factor as to the events that eventually led to the execution of Daniel’s parents, but it is a book about humanity, children caught up in the trauma of the death of their parents, children who jump from family to family, never quite feeling at home, children who must learn to survive in a world of cruel insinuations and insults, children who have surpressed their emotions in order to survive, children searching for the truth of their lives, having no model in order to do so.

Doctorow’s brilliant writing has created a classic novel, and one that should be on the shelves of every household.  It is a sad story, and was emotional, and painful to watch Daniel grow, to watch his sister institutionalized, to watch Daniel try to understand his parents’ actions, and for him grow into a 60s radical, yet try not to be like them in his political zeal and zest, living in constant fear that he would turn out like them, behind bars with electric currents shooting through him.  With clarity and intensity, E. L. Doctorow brings the political past to the forefront, and we realize that things haven’t changed much with the political climate, in the fifty plus years, as we continue to live in the after-affects of September 11th, 2001.  The century is different, the decade and year is different, but the alarmist mindsets are still an ever present force.

This was my second reading of this novel, due to an upcoming book club. The story was just as engrossing as the first time.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Novels

Book Review: The Free World

thefreeworld

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis, is a captivating novel that entails the emigration of Latvian and Soviet Jews, specifically during the late 1970s, when some were permitted to leave. In 1978 the Krasnansky family has decided to leave, and their journey takes them to Rome, where they must wait for visas to continue on to the United States, or possibly Canada.

The elder Samuil Krasnansky is a diehard communist, and decorated war hero for his service while in the Red Army. The Russian Revolution had a profound affect on him, and the effects of war continued to define his life until his death. Emma, his wife, is also there, as are their two sons, Alec and Karl. The two brothers, are as different as they can be in their political and social spheres.

Alec is a roamer, a womanizer, married to Polina. He seemingly cares little about the circumstances surrounding their journey. Karl, on the other hand is a staunch capitalist, ever involved within the circle of individuals he encounters in Rome. Life is not always as it seems for the two of them. Through some humorous twists of fate, Alec feels he is being pursued by female interests, when in fact it turns out to be otherwise.

There are other laugh-out-loud lines and scenarious within the pages, such as Samuil’s reaction to a rendering of Fiddler on the Roof. Yet, withing the comic relief, the story line is one wrought with varied ideals, and varied perspectives of freedom, and what it actually means. Bezmozgis is brilliant in depicting the mindsets of the characters.

I didn’t necessarily like the characters, and found them to be flawed in many aspects. But, I still enjoyed reading The Free World, for its historical factor, and for how the author depicted the lives of the individuals. We are all a part of the whole, no matter our choices, our mindsets and our differences. We are all flawed, and no one individual is perfect in the scheme of things.

Due to Samuil’s health, the family is forced to stay in Rome longer than expected. Their visas are on the line during this time period. Their freedom to journey forward, physically, is hindered by his health. Yes, they could have forged forward, and he could have emigrated at a later point in time, but the familial hold was a strong one, despite the disparities and lack of similarities within the family members. This aspect is strong throughout the pages.

The story line reflects back and forth, and there are back stories of each of the characters. The book spans decades of familial uprising and social standings. The decades infuse the dynamics of revolution and war quite vividly. This brings into focus why they act the way they do, and also gives the reader a sense of their lives before departing for Rome, and the choices they made beforehand.

The roller coaster ride the family finds themselves on only enhances their feelings of suffocation in a city that they were supposed to be temporarily involved in, waiting for the chance to leave. Freedom takes on new meanings, from emotional stifling to physical stand stills. Their wait for visa approval is filled with frustration and the unknown.

The book had me questioning the defining of freedom and the “the free world”. Is there such a place on the planet where a person can be truly free? Does “the free world” exist, or is it just a euphemism for the areas that were located outside of the realm of the communist states. One might live a life in a non-communist environment, but does that mean they are free? Freedom takes on many forms, not the least being emotional constraints.

Before reading this book, I had no idea that there was a “way station” so to speak, in Rome, where emigres had to wait for visas. The daily interactions and emotional aspects of the waiting period is highly illuminated within the pages. The emotional struggles are brought to the forefront.

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis, is a well-formed study and metaphor for freedom and autonomy, within familial dynamics. The visuals are strong, as are the insights into the emotions of the characters. The historical aspect is an important one, in my opinion.

I would rate The Free World a 4 with 5 being the highest.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Jewish Immigrant, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Novels, Uncategorized, World History

Book Review: Snapshots

snap Snapshots, by Michal Govrin is a novel that examines Judaism, love, fulfillment, motherhood, zionism, war, and so much more. We are given not only physical photographs/snapshots, but descriptive prose that brings us a personal perspective of the issues and affairs in the state of Israel, through one woman’s often confused, determined, conflicted and blinded eyes.

The protagonist is Ilana Tsuriel, and we are given snippets and snapshots of her life through photographs, drawings, letters, and scrawled journal entries, most of which are written to her recently deceased father (her way of saying Kaddish for him), and is her way of staying close to him. Her father helped to build the state of Israel. She has a deep sense of social responsibility and a deep sense of personal fulfillment, and we feel the human element throughout Snapshots. Tsuriel is a mother, the wife of a Holocaust historian, an architect, the daughter of a pioneer of Israel, and she is also a woman who has had several affairs, including one with a Palestinian named Sayyid.

The novel takes place during the first Gulf War, and Tsuriel’s passion to reunite with her Palestinian lover, and her steadfast and determined passion to continue on with her architectural project, sees her moving to Israel with her two young sons (during the beginnings of the war), against the wishes of her husband. Her project is a unique monument, and is one with a serene setting, where Sukkot-like huts on a hillside overlook the valley, where one can go on sabbatical to reflect and feel free from life stresses, where those of diverse backgrounds can come together, peacefully. Tsuriel is trying to accomplish this during a turbulent and relentless time period, often appearing as though she is not fully cognizant of the ongoing problems surrounding her and her children.

Tsuriel, although seemingly aware of the situation she is putting her children through, feels it is important for them to understand the sense of time, place and Homeland in Israel. She doesn’t completely face the gravity and reality of the situation, the war and the ongoing devastation. The perils of war seem to play a minor role in her scheme of things, as they don’t sway her from her goals.

She is a strong-willed woman, and one who seems to want to fulfill her goals at all costs. Tsuriel is causing her sons to feel alienated from her, feeling the insecurities of war, and the insecurities of a mother who they feel is not often there for them, emotionally. They have food, shelter, clothes, yet what they crave is her full attention. They need to feel secure. And, she isn’t there to bring them emotional security and support, due to her overzealous passions for her project. She is a woman at odds with herself, her marriage, her children, and constantly in a state of confusion as to priorities.

Tsuriel feels Jewishness and its responsibility within her, and tries to convey it to her children. Yet, on the first anniversary of her father’s death, she doesn’t visit the cemetery, leave a stone, light a candle or say Kaddish for him. Her Jewishness has visions of grandeur, and it has boundaries, both emotional and political.

Govrin’s attempts to contain so much content in one novel, often whitewashing the moments, like a negative not completely developed, are realized. And, that is the foundation of the novel, the snapshots of life that we are given, in haphazard and scrawling script, bits and pieces of life written during time of war, in almost frantic and desperate fashion anywhere, everywhere, when the mood strikes her.

Snapshots, is a well-written book of imagery, both word paintings and actual photographs. Michal Govrin has the ability to bring vivid scenarios to our minds, filling all of our senses, through the depressing pages of Snapshots. The book is not a light and airy read, and it is not a quick read. I had to put it down and take a break from it, several times, before going back to it. It was almost a chore to finish (due to the dismal and non-uplifting content), even though it was well-written. It is insightful into the human condition, and its vivid presence in emotional and physical lives.

In my opinion Snapshots is a metaphor for confusion, both emotional, social, religious and political, confusion of the full spectrum of life.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Jewish History, Judaism, Lorri's Blog