Category Archives: Historical Fiction

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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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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Friday Thoughts

birds lake

I finished reading Amos Oz’s novel, A Perfect Peace.

Set in Israel, as most of his books are, it was quite the insightful story. The 1960s kibbutz setting emphasized the harshness and the difficulties the individuals had to go through in order to find a sense of place, sense of Self and sense of peace.

The characters were floundering for varied reasons, and their mindsets were brought to the forefront by Oz’s masterful writing. From first-generation disenchantment with kibbutz life in the stifling environment, where “privacy” is only a word, to the almost guinea pig atmosphere of life, Oz confronts the issues of daily life with strength and uncompromising honesty.

Through Oz’s honest appraisal, the reader is given privy to the corruption that runs rampant throughout the kibbutz and the state. It is not an idealistic story in that respect. Some of the less than ideal situations causes much disharmony within the kibbutz, where life is stifling to begin with. In the view of a few of the first generation to be born on an Israel kibbutz, kibbutz life defined as stifling would be an understatement.

We are given access to the mindsets of the characters, and their disillusions, anger and rage, questioning of ethics and questioning of participation in the humane along with the non-humane running of a tight ship, almost in a tyrannical fashion. Lack of motivation leads one man in particular, named Yoni, to want to leave the kibbutz in order to find what he believes he is missing. He feels there must be something better and more worthwhile outside of the confines of his daily life.

Yet, another individual tries to move in, and is in constant fear of being turned away, and of not being accepted and liked by others. His trials and tribulations take different paths than Yoni.

Oz understood the social, political, emotional and environmental aspects. I applaud Amos Oz for his excellent and brilliant word-images he presents us, and for his mastery in not only conveying corruption, but also in conveying the kibbutz life in all of its essences. I recommend A Perfect Peace to everyone.

This was not actually a review, but more of a post written because of the thoughts within my own mind regarding kibbutz life in respect from those who founded them, and those who became the first generation of the founders. Kibbutz life affected the first-generation in ways that have not usually been written about. Life was not easy, was harsh, was not conceived as individualistic. Each individual was a part of the whole, part of the kibbutz community. Each child seemingly had more than one mother and father.

How this upbringing impacted the children gives one food for thought. Most of the adults were escaping a pogrom, escaping Holocaust-related events, tyranny, antisemitic abuse, escaping in order to find a better life. The kibbutz was a form of communal effort and struggles, some of which did not afford the adults the dreams they had wished for.

Those dreams were quashed and their children were raised with firm hands and old ideas and ideals. In essence, their own dreams (children’s) were not given any credence, and they came to regard them as not able to be fulfilled. The story line was quite illuminating in that respect.

Shabbat Shalom!

Update: I am sorry for the update. I want to make something clear. My thoughts in reference to kibbutz life are not meant to be in anyway reflective of a negative attitude on my part. I have relatives and have friends who spent part of their teen years or young adult years on one, and had wonderful experiences. The book details one kibbutz of many, and a few individuals living in that kibbutz, along with their own baggage.

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Lorri M. Review: The King of Schnorrers

The King of Schnorrers, by Israel Zangwill, is quite comical. The bantering back and forth really cemented the schnorrer aspect, and gave it an in depth perspective on those who were schnorrers and how they defended and justified themselves, verbally. It also portrayed the territorial aspect of the schnorrer, and how strongly they had to discuss issues in order to gain money.

Attitudes are definitely illuminated. How one perceives themselves in regards to others is depicted vividly. One with airs is really no better than any other schnorrer. A schnorrer is a schnorrer, no matter what, although some tend to eke a better living than others.

De Costa, a schnorrer, was extremely confident, clever, sly, sharp-tongued, quick with responses. Yankel, was the same way, but had to struggle against the verbal strength of De Costa. And, so it went, on and on, almost nonstop, and the witticisms were brilliantly written by Zangwill.

Schnorrers used guilt in order to gain favors from those whose doors they knocked on, or those who they met on the street and managed to stop and corner. The wealthy Jews were hounded, and the poor were hounded, also, to “donate”.

Donations ranged from the monetary to clothes to household items. Usually the schnorrer sold whatever was donated, as far as material/tangible items went. This upped his financial ante for his household. Whether a family man or a bachelor, money was the link to survival.

The King of Schnorrers
is written with a large portion of it in broken English, or English written phonetically with an immigrant’s accent, as spoken by a Jewish man. Such words as “with” are pronounced “Vid”, or the word “will” is pronounced “vill”, for example. I am always mindful of the time period and the individuals speaking, so for me it was not an issue. This book was published in 1894, and I kept that in mind while reading it.

Also, euphemisms that are not used often in today’s world were used then. Some Yiddish is within the pages, but the reader is given an English translation. One must take the variables into consideration, when reading this masterful novel.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading this book. Yet, within the humor, there is a serious undertone regarding Jewish society and its financial diversities. Responsibility for others is a strong theme.

Another thought that came to mind was the fact that the schnorrers of long ago are not so different in interactions than those who we see begging, holding up signs, and/or entertaining on the street in order to gain a coin.

I enjoyed The King of Schnorrers immensely.

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Lorri M. Review: The Book Thief

thebookThief1 The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak is a well written book regarding life, death, and areas in between.

The Book Thief’s narrator is Death, itself. That, in my opinion, was very unique and illuminated the prose in ways that a human narrator could not. Zusak’s use of Death as the story teller is skillful.

The story line centers around Liesel Meminger. She has been displaced by her mother, and sent to live with a foster family, Hans and Rosa Huberman. Her foster mother and father could not be more different, yet within their differences, they are more alike in respect to the fact that they both love Liesel. Hans is more demonstrative and extremely patient with Liesel. He is the comfort zone in her life, like a warm quilt on a cold evening, whereas her foster mother is more boisterous and foul-mouthed, and impatient.

The family dynamics are an integral part of the story line. Liesel realizes what she can and can not get away with, and how to function under the circumstances of her new life. Her backbone is stronger than she realizes, and Hans plays a major role in that respect with his kindnesses and love.

Liesel makes friends with two boys, and they are her support system, outside of her family. Max, is the creative one, and Rudy is the neighborhood friend. Their friendships grow and are cemented within the environment of World War II Germany. Food is hard to come by, life is hard to come by, and their friendships take them to heights that they otherwise might not become involved in. Survival takes them to realms and possibilities that they might not ordinarily succumb to.

The title of the novel comes from the fact that Liesel is an avid reader, which began when her brother died and the gravedigger inadvertently left behind a book entitled The Gravedigger’s Handbook. A book which in which Liesel eventually learns to read through lessons given her by her foster father. From there, sparks the taking of other books, books she reads over and over again.

As the story progresses, the foster parents are confronted with a situation in which they do not hesitate to involve themselves. Liesel is aware of the consequences, and does her part in being secretive. This is where her friendship with Max begins.

We see lives lived through Death’s eyes, and through Death’s necessity for patience regarding specific individuals and their spirits. At times he tries to take the spirit from a person, sooner than is planned, and his attempt is not meant to be. At other times we see the horrific results of war, the Holocaust, and Death is often overwhelmed with the victims he must move forward to other realms.

He does have his few soft spots, which I found interesting to read. He does have compassion, although it does not serve his needs. He is not there to be influenced by sympathy, because there is there to do a job.

The Book Thief is a story which tells of the human condition, with all of its suffering. Yet, within the pages, there are sparks of humor, more from Death than anyone else. Death analyzes situations, and tries to figure out humans and their behavioral aspects. He is mystified, and often confused. He does not comprehend the human mindset.

The novel details the horrors of war, and the situations of the Holocaust, and the daily lives lived on the German edge of life and threads of life. Markus Zusak is masterful with his word imagery and his prose, in an almost fanciful or elaborate manner. His sentences often verge on the surreal.

I won’t elaborate, so as not to spoil the story for those who want to read it, or for those who might want to see the film. I recommend The Book Thief, especially for young adults. It is a good read for adults, too, but better served, I believe for young adults. The surreal aspect of it will heighten the tragedies of war for young adult readers, and make them more cognizant of war, loss, survival, family dynamics and life…itself.

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Lorri M. Review: The Rise of David Levinsky

theriseofdavidlev The rise of David Levinsky, by Abraham Cahan, is true-to-life in its depiction of the Jewish immigrant experience, leaving nothing to the imagination.

David Levinsky is a Hasidic Jew living a strict Torah-filled life in a Russian village. He comes from a family of poverty, and one that is stringent in Torah study. He is unhappy in his situation, and eventually sails to America, disembarking in New York City.

From the minute he finds himself standing on American soil, Levinsky’s journey begins, taking him into the heart of socialization and cultural displacement, a displacement he avidly tries to overcome. Assimilation and secularism are part of his learning experiences.

He is a fast learner, as far as trying to fit into society’s demands. He is insightful as far as his exterior environment, and realizes that in order to succeed he must learn to speak English, not act as if he is a greenhorn, dress as if he is successful, and coordinate his mannerisms to an ideal that will let him succeed. He has programmed himself to not only fit in, but also to a mode of obtaining financial stability. All this, he manages to eventually accomplish, within the realm of his goals of being a proper, shrewd and prosperous businessman.

The streets of New York City are depicted with amazing clarity. Cahan knows from where those streets lead, as he, himself was a Jewish immigrant, arriving in Philadelphia in 1882, and then quickly traveling to New York City. He eventually worked his way up, through his social learnings, and eventually founded the Jewish Daily Forward.

His story could almost be Levinsky’s story. The learnings and social stigmas that Levinsky had to overcome in order to succeed in business, are portrayed with brutal clarity within the novel. I am sure Cahan’s own immigrant and assimilation experiences fill many of the pages.

The latter part of the 19th century is detailed in every aspect. I was amazed at the incredible details that exhaled from the pages. From there, through the early 20th century, the reader is taken back in time to every conceivable issue, from religion to education, sex to romantic, social to assimilation, business to materialism, and so much more. Each facet of society and its doings are examined, especially those involving the lower east side of New York City.

Levinsky’s desire for success and desire to become rich are documented through all of his dealings. From business banking to storefronts, cloak making and competititors, and eventual warehouses, each facet of his business dealings incorporate his very desire to build an empire, and build it he does.

Within those structures, he also involves himself with women, and the women that he finds most attractive are ones that he can not have. His wealth and empire can not buy him love. His sense of home and family is lacking. Levinsky rose in stature and success, yet his reputation and the respect he gained did not foster a sense of family or belonging within his environment. He gained financial success beyond his wildest dreams, only to fail in the romance department.

I read The Rise of David Levinsky always mindful of when it was written, always mindful of the language, grammar, and usage of slang, Yiddish and linguistics of the time period. I felt that to be extremely important in order to gain a sense of time and socialization.

Cahan has given this reader a sense of the late 19th century-early twentieth century New York City. My senses were filled with the streets of New York, the homes of New York, the business wheelings and dealings of New York. They were filled with the experience of immigrant life in all of its ugliness, hardships, demeaning attitudes, strivings to survive and so much more. I applaud Abraham Cahan for his accomplishment.

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