Category Archives: Fiction

Review: Kalooki Nights

Kalooki Nights, by Howard Jacobson is an excellent book, exploring Judaism in all of its facets, giving the reader much to think about.

A Jewish cartoonist, named Max Glickman, is the narrator of this story. The story touches on many issues, including childhood, identity, pain, assimilation, memories, and friendship. It delivers considerations about what it means to be Jewish, and about growing up in a family whose father is an atheist.

Max Glickman’s childhood friend Manny Washinsky appears to be a religious fanatic (in Glickman’s eyes), along with Washinksy’s family (his brother Asher, and his mother and father). His parents rule the household with a strict hand, causing both of their sons to be in a state of constant emotional distress. Above all else, they stress the fact that their sons must marry a Jewish girl. There is no exception to the rule, no leverage or straying from that. Asher becomes emotionally involved with a girl who is a gentile, not Jewish, and he is unable to contain his emotions. Whereas Manny is brooding and silent, with nervous tics, always in prayer, always feeling as if he is the protector, always mindful, always in remembrance of the Holocaust.

It is Washinsky who brings understanding of the Holocaust to Glickman. He spurs Glickman to draw a comic work entitled “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness”, depicting in comic/caricature form the events of the Holocaust.

Glickman’s mother is Jewish and a card game addict, specifically a card game called Kalooki, and only stops to play it on the High Holy Days. His father, a born Jew, is an aethist, and is extremely intent on issues of assimilation and avoidance. He is more Jewish in his heart than he is aware of and/or wants to admit, and his life revolves around his Jewish roots and ancestry (he speaks Yiddish, for one thing). Glickman’s father would not allow Max to have a Bar Mitzvah, and wanted nothing more than for him to marry a gentile.

Jacobson weaves his story within the Jewish world, the Holocaust, and within the world of the gentiles. He leaves us to ponder what is Jewishness, Judaism, and what is the difference and the sameness between the fine line of those who consider themselves Jewish aethists, and the practicing Orthodox Jewish community. There is an intensity within the pages, that explores the Jewish community versus the gentiles, and the interactions of both, within the varied religious and cultural expectancies. He defines the characters with pain and humor, poignancy, flaws, and humanness. He is brilliant in illuminating the humanity that we all have within us, despite our backgrounds and religious beliefs.

I enjoyed reading this book, and went back and forth within the pages, digesting all that there was presented. Bravo to Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights!

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Review: The Winter Vault

The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels is an intimate account of the lives of husband and wife Avery and Jean. It is a novel that blends historical fact, and one that combines two stories in one. The reader is a witness to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting Montreal and Lake Ontario. We are also witness to the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt.

The reader almost feels as if they are present when the St. Lawrence Seaway is built and when it was completed in 1959.

We are privy to the most intimate of details during the tearing down and reconstruction efforts of the Nubian temple Abu Simbel in order to build the Aswan Dam. The threads of the word images are so strong that my senses were filled to capacity. Minute details are woven and take forms that evoke intense emotions and immense visuals. Historical fact and accuracy is apparent within the intense and compelling content of the pages.

Actions versus consequences are played out with quantitive measurements, causing the logarithms of energy and nature to illuminate and diminish. Both Avery and Jean feel the death toll, the demeaning of civilization, in order to pursue the inevitability of modern man and technology. That is a strong theme woven throughout The Winter Vault.

I remember traveling with my parents when I was an adolescent, to Montreal, and passing over the St. Lawrence River, and remember the awe I felt by the magnitude of the Seaway. We traveled over it at the end of July 1959, a month after the official opening of the Seaway on June 26,1959, from Long Island, New York to Montreal, in order to visit relatives. I distinctly remember my father (who was doing the driving) being completely impressed by the Seaway. But, I wonder now, after reading this book, if he was aware of the displacement of so many lives, communities, homes, businesses, natural environments and habitats, etc., that had to be sacrificed in order to create such a structure.

Avery and Jean’s story begins when they meet, and then in 1964 when, as newlyweds, they leave Toronto to live on a houseboat on the Nile.

Jean is a passionate botanist who was raised by her father due to the death of her mother. She is obsessed with botany and everything relating to growth. Her obsession and passion causes her to bring her mother’s garden wherever she goes. The growth of the plants symbolizes her mother’s nearness.

Avery is an engineer, and he is part of a team that is tearing down and then reconstruct a temple. The analogies between Avery’s love of engineering and his love of Jean coincide, both seemingly occupying the same space. Therein is the problem.

Jean and Avery experience an event that magnifies, amplifies and affects their lives in ways the reader doesn’t expect. This event causes them to separate and return to Canada, where Jean meets a Jewish-Polish artist who fills her soul with the horrific images of the Holocaust, one of mankind’s most destructive, physical events against humanity.

I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, and won’t divulge any more of the story line. As it is, I have been careful not to divulge too much. Suffice it to say that it is filled with depth, an energy level that is strong, emotional intensity and linguistics that define the historical in formats that are overwhelming.

Births and rebirths fill the lines. Love and grief combine, as does longing and loss. Michaels weaves an esoteric tapestry of time, filled with the essence of humanity and essence of destruction, both physical and architectural.

Her word imagery is strong, extremely magical and surreal, poetic and filled with a sense of time and place. She is masterful with her ability to infuse the pages with technical content, yet write with an almost reverent quality. She evokes an immediacy to return to the past in order to confront the present. She is an archivist and an architect, a poet and a historian. Anne Michaels is an amazing writer whose capacity to incorporate language and visuals is incredible, bringing the science of language and technology to a poetic form, a poetic balance in The Winter Vault.

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Review: Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel

Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel, by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, revolves around the Nasmertov family, who have emigrated from Odessa, a city by the sea, to Brighton Beach, another city by the sea. Brighton Beach was often called “Little Odessa”.

The comfort level of the area is one reason the family chose the location. An immigrant from Odessa could find anything that their homeland offered, in Brighton Beach. From food to furniture to household items to clothes and material goods, it could all be had.

This very fact is what held the elders of the family within its fold. It is what prompted them to convince their son, Pasha, to emigrate from Odessa. Pasha, on the other hand, procrastinated, and waited until the last minute.

His role in the book is one of a man who doesn’t seem to be motivated by anything in life, positive or otherwise. He lags behind in everything. He doesn’t quite get the situation or the city he has arrived in, and has no desire to find out the aspects of life within the realm of Brighton Beach.

The story deals with the way that life is perceived during a time of assimilation. It brings the reader snippets of the procedures to assimilate, and also yearnings for what once was in the homeland. The desire for change does not necessarily overrule the comfort of what the homeland held in a person’s daily life.

The reader is taken on a twenty-year journey through the Nasmertov family’s treks to fit in, to understand the cultural divide between homeland and their new land. The journey is humorous at times, but only to the extent of familial actions, and also how they are viewed by those around them. The humor is more of an enhancement of what it means to survive in a country so unlike the one you emigrated from.

Nostalgia is a strong undertone within the pages. Comfort levels of every aspect is depicted. Familial bonds do not necessarily provide the comfort one needs.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, is filled with descriptions of Coney Island and Brighton Beach, that one can capture through their five senses. The novel is also an examination of the immigrant and their experiences and endeavors to fit in, despite strong memories of the past.

I enjoyed reading about the cultural issues, and enjoyed the word-imagery regarding the beach cities. I am extremely familiar with those cities and with the cultural aspects depicted in the story. I, myself, have fond memories of Brighton Beach in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The novel transported me back to times past.

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Review: The Train to Warsaw

The Train to Warsaw: A Novel, by Gwen Edelman, is an interesting work of historical fiction, based on two characters’ impressions of the city on a postwar return trip.

Jascha and Lilka have returned to Warsaw after having escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and the atrocities and horrors of World War II. They left individually but managed to reunite years later, after the war.

Jascha is a writer and has been invited to give a reading in Warsaw, forty years after escaping. He is reluctant to go, because deep in his heart he knows that the city is not the same, and that nothing could ever replace what once was.

Lilka, on the other hand, wants to return, wants to put to rest the memories of what occurred, and the positive memories she has of a city that once was. She feels that it will be a cathartic experience and encourages Jascha to attend. He finally gives in, and so their journey begins. In the dead of a cold and snowy winter they travel back to the country they left, and back to memories, both stifled and constant.

The dialogue in the book is written without quotation marks, which made it difficult to realize who was speaking, at times. I found myself having to go back and reread some of the dialogue to ascertain who was the one talking. This made it a more difficult read than necessary.

Their journey through Warsaw, through streets once walked, paths, sights and buildings once so familiar, AND through the area that was the Warsaw Ghetto, became very arduous for them due to the changes that have occurred. The changes of time have purposely been erased. Lilka has difficulty dealing with that, whereas Jascha knew, beforehand, what to more or less expect. He was cognizant of the reality.

Within that concept, the book depicts the individuals that Jascha and Lilka encounter with an indifference in regards to the past. Those individuals either do not want to remember the past, or still harbor antisemitism, or are too young too remember it, or were born a decade or two after the war and do not know the true history behind it. The city’s inhabitants are trying to move forward without bringing their history with them. They want to leave the emotional suitcases and other baggage behind.

The novel takes place on a train, in a hotel room and in the city, itself. With each passing moment, the discussions revolve around the past. Enfolded in those discussions are secrets from the past, that slowly come to be revealed, by both of them.

I felt the book was a bit drab and it dragged on. Of course, Jascha didn’t want to be there to begin with, and Lilka’s concepts keep referring to “what once was”, and she couldn’t let go of those perceptions. She was in shock seeing things for what they currently were, and her depressed state grew even deeper, explaining a lot of the attitude projected in The Train to Warsaw: A Novel.

I am sure that Edelman’s intent was to enhance how events of a former time affect individuals displaced from their homeland, leaving them feeling melancholy and miserable. The individuals can have a constant yearning for home, leaving a void within them. If that was her intention, she succeeded in that respect.

With all of that being said, in my opinion, the novel was okay.

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Review: Falling Out of Time

falling Falling Out of Time, by David Grossman, is a novel that had me engrossed from the first page to the last, and then back again, throughout some of the pages.

The novel is written in a unique format, part poetry, part theater play and part independent prose. This works, because the individual formats vividly illuminates the characters, their thoughts and their feelings regarding death.

Oh, the sorrow, the sadness and excruciating pain of it all, so many individuals banding together to journey towards their children, children who have died. The anguish, the need to reunite, the after-effects and affects of death are portrayed with insight, empathy and the continual mourning process of not letting go.

The expressions of grief and mourning are compelling, profound and caused this reader to reread specific pages. The writing is incredibly overpowering and intense, yet filled with beautiful prose that connects each poetic articulation so brilliantly. I can not say enough.

The never-ending/eternal fragments left behind to those who remain are depicted with masterful word-imagery. The poetic prose is absolutely stunning, poignant, heart-wrenching. As a parent, I can not imagine one of my children leaving this earth before me. It is an unspeakable thought. And, that is what the title implies: The word “death” is too agonizing to utter, as if saying the word finalizes the death, making the reality a starkness. The main character, formerly known as “Man”, now, “Walking Man”, chooses to define death as a person who has “fallen out of time”

He, known as “Man”, and his wife are trying to begin to communicate about their son’s death, five years after the fact. Their relationship since then has been one of non-communicative status. His death has determined how they have reacted, or not verbally reacted, over these past few years…years that seem like an eternity. They try to bring him back to life through memories, and that proves to be more painful than if they remained silent. He becomes “Walking Man” and decides to leave the house and go “there”. He wants to see his son again. His wife reminds him that there is no “there”, but only a “here”. He does not agree, and leaves, beginning to walk.

He walks, walks and walks some more, circling around the town, and along the way he gathers more people who have lost children, and they band together in commitment to find a way to go “there” to reunite with their lost loved ones. Death becomes a communal loss. Each individual is part of the whole, with their individual losses merging into one.

From the “Town Crier”, the “Centaur”, the “Cobbler”, the “Midwife” and others, they are all on a mission, seeking their departed child. They all verbalize their loss, remembering moments past, remembering the good with the bad. Some regret their actions while their child was living, some linger in a block wall state, unable to move forward. And, they all are trying to find the wall in which they can somehow cross through to see their children. Their journey and struggle is heart-wrenching. Their sorrow reverberates throughout the pages, like an unending funeral march, an unending and silent howl streaming through the time continuum.

The majority of the lines of poetic prose gripped me, left me with lumps in my throat. Here is a sample of Grossman’s prose..a minute reflection of so many lines that moved me and spoke to me.

In August he died, and when that month was over, I wondered 


How can I move 


to September 
While he remains 


in August?

I have not lost a child, but lost my father when I was a teenager, and the last five words (in the example below) resonate with me, the void of loss still here, over five decades later.

He is dead,

he is dead. But

his death,

his death 

is not 

dead
.”

Such boldness in those last five words, such stark reality. And, that is the foundation of the novel. The book is a metaphor for death, death in the sense of all of the lingering aspects of loss and accepting the loss and journeying forward.

I won’t go into more detail regarding the story. You must read it yourself in order to gain the full understanding of the masterful and brilliant undertaking that David Grossman has endeavored in writing Falling Out of Time.

I could expound on my review so much more, but I feel the novel needs to be read for the full impact of its brilliance.

Falling out of Time was first published in Israel, five years after David Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed during the Second Israel-Lebanon War. Does that matter in the scheme of things? I don’t really know, other than the fact that the intense emotional content must stem from some place deep within that many individuals have never accessed.

I can imagine countless others reading this amazing novel, and gaining a sense of hope and inspiration regarding loss, love, and moving towards finality and acceptance, acceptance with unending bittersweetness and loving memories.

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Review: The Wanting

thewanting From the 1970s Moscow to Israel in the 1990s, The Wanting, by Michael Lavigne, is an intense and complex story line.

There are three main characters in the book: Roman Guttman, Anna, his daughter, and a Palestinian man. Each one tells their own sad story, alternately. Each one has a yearning, a desire for a semblance of peace and understanding.

Roman’s Moscow is filled with the terrors of the time. His relationships and struggles within a time capsule of war, rivalry and hatred lingers throughout the novel. His daughter’s naivete turns into judgements that go against the grain of existence. The Palestinian, Amir Hamid, has a bitter perception regarding the Israelis, and his desire is to inflict damage and pain, at all costs, is a strong dynamic within the pages. Lavigne is brilliant in his masterful telling of the events that take place. Historically speaking, the facts are forthright and told with extremely vivid imagery.

The conflicts in Israel and Palestine are also masterfully depicted. The characters bring their own history and baggage to the complex situations. Daily life and the struggles to endure the social quandarys and conflicts are told with a sense of knowing, and a sense of sadness for the peace that seemingly can not be.

Events that define those who become involved in suicide bombing are explored in depth through those who foster the desire to participate. We are given glimpses of issues that lead up to the suicidal moments. We are privy to the after effects and affects of the horrendous action upon others. Emotions run rampant, on both sides of the conflict. For some, emotional aspects are not necessarily shown from the beginning of the story line. They are slowly gained through crises after crises, and eye-opening moments.

Each side is victim to the whims of conflict. Not victim in the sense of one harmed, but victim in the desire to murder without forethought for the welfare of humanity. Each side is guilty of repression and harm.

The human struggle with each other’s culture and traditions are depicted vividly, and often times extremely harshly. The warring factions and their modes of engulfing others within their grasp are well told and defined. Lavigne is a master story teller, and at the core of The Wanting is a desire for peace, for the ceasing of the continuing issues of war, for a blending of two cultures in harmony.

The story encompasses not only the desire for peace, but also a desire for spiritual understanding and acceptance, acceptance respect for each other in the realm of religion. If we can be accepting, then the issue of a peaceful society is possible.

This is not to say that Lavigne is not cognizant of the issues at the forefront between Israel and Palestine. On the contrary, he is most definitely aware, and the novel displays that in every aspect, with sensitivity. He also brings a huge sense of sadness to the unfolding events and occurrences within the pages. The Wanting is a story of sadness. The longing, yearning, WANTING, is a continual aspect within the pages, displayed without prejudice, through Michael Lavigne’s incredible writing.

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