Category Archives: Fiction

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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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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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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