Category Archives: Historical 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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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Experience, Jewish History, Jewish Immigrant, Lorri's Blog, Novels

Review: The Gates of November

Chaim Potok’s The Gates of November is an extremely intense non-fiction book, written about a Jewish family. The book delves into the father/son relationship that Potok is well known for in his books.

Solomon Slepak is an old-school Russian Jew, a diehard Bolshevik. He became a Marxist when he emigrated to the America, and then returned to the Soviet Union. He was a stubborn and difficult man, and became a staunch and renowned Communist Party member, despite the fact that he was Jewish. Solomon Slepak resists the ideals of his son, Volodya, who is a “refusenik”, and basically disowns him.

Volodya sees what is occurring in the Soviet Union and wants no part of it. He wants to take his wife and two sons and emigrate to Israel. Thus he begins the process of paperwork and documentation. His bid to emigrate is refused, and he and his wife, Masha, become activists, working to try to help other Jews who are refused permission to emigrate, under Josef Stalin’s relentless rule.

Due to his activities, he is sent to a remote part of Siberia, where the conditions take their toll on his health. Masha asks for permission to be with him, and is granted such. He is exiled for over five years, under the harshest of conditions, not only weather, but food and daily sustenance and necessities (this articulation is putting it mildly).

Once he returns home, he tries to seek work, and finds menial jobs here and there, that don’t last for any length of time. He applies for permission to emigrate, once again. The process drags on for years, and we are given an overview of the social, political and diplomatic events and results during the years that go by, while he waits for a positive outcome.

I could articulate more on The Gates of November, but I suggest you read it yourself in order to grasp the depth of the story. The Gates of November is quite extreme in detail. Potok has shown us the degrees people will go to in order to manipulate others by leaving out none of the horrible events or descriptive word images.

Potok infuses the intensity of the time period under Josef Stalin’s rule. He details the depth of life under the most adverse and harshest of circumstances within the confines of the brutal Stalin reign. His book is based on personal accounts, taped and written interviews, videos, etc., in order to bring exactness to The Gates of November. It is not an easy book to read, due to the brutally detailed circumstances and events. But, it is a book most definitely worth reading, not only in comprehending the historical aspect regarding Jews under Soviet rule, but for the ongoing father/son relationship and family dynamics that Chaim Potok always manages to write so brilliantly about.

The Gates of November, by Chaim Potok,  is a masterful telling of Jewish familial life and dynamics under extreme social circumstances. It is both horrific and inspirational, and brings to the forefront the degrees of determination people have in order to obtain their goals. I highly recommend it to everyone.

All photography, writing, poetry, etc. is my copyright and may not be reproduced without my express written permission.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Experience, Jewish History, Jewish Immigrant, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Non-Fiction

Review: The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig is a combined study on human behavior and Austrian life. Each story examines behavior, with great detail within the boundaries of Austria’s social standards and mores.

The stories were not only period pieces, but social statements regarding ethics/morals, war and pacifism, and the living standards of the elite versus the poor. Most of the characters are depressed, stuck in a rote of life, and give off an aura of tragic lives lived. The stories are filled with melancholy and slices of drama. Drama played a major role in Austrian lives, and survival depended on roles played.

Pacifism is conveyed in the story entitled “Compulsion“. It involves an artist who receives orders to go to the Austrian consulate. His back and forth indecisiveness reflects those who do not believe in war, yet also feel they should do their duty to their country. Responsibility to his homeland is constantly questioned. Should he go, should he stay, should he go?

Religion factors into many of the stories, from Judaism to Catholicism. The individuals, family units and their beliefs are illuminated through Zweig’s writing. The treatment of Jewish individuals is written with insight and cognizance. Secular Jews were not necessarily considered part of the Austrian fold, depending on time frame and location.

The details within the stories are masterful and filled with perfection. The reader is exposed to the psychology of living in Europe during tragic and uncertain times. This psychology includes the poverty stricken individual’s struggle to survive in a world that looks upon them as less than desirable. Their very psyche is affected, in every aspect.

The bourgeois also strive to fit in. They feel somewhat above those who live in dire straights, but feel less confident than the well off elitists. They are the in between people. The elitists don’t necessarily fare better within their financial circumstances, as odd as that might sound.

Each story is a page-turner in its own right. Some of the characters have life-altering events, along with physical limitations, mindsets and philosophies, ideals, fears and struggles. The stories are not connected. Yet they share a time and place of prewar and war, and the situations that result due to war’s impact on citizens and their lives.

The stories cover the years from 1900 through 1935, with two additional stories having been unpublished until 1951 and 1987, respectively. This reader could see the author’s disintegration from society through the written prose. Zweig’s life was filled with disillusion, antiwar sentiment and a depressive state. So much is apparent in his writing, regarding his mindset, controlled by his dreary outlook on life. His work conveys much of his own thoughts, opinions and emotions, vividly. At least this reader thought so.

The film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is based on some of Zweig’s stories and novels. I can definitely see illuminations of that throughout this book. I have read two of his novels, but had not read this particular collection of works. The Post Office Girl is one of the novels, and the film is also based, in part, on this novel, according to the director, Wes Anderson (I saw it clearly).

Stefan Zweig is brilliant with his visuals, minute details, and in conveying emotional content. He was a masterful story teller, transporting this reader to Austrian life during the first three decades of the 20th century. The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig is a valuable collection of works within one book. The historical value is priceless, and I found the book to be a masterpiece.

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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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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Holocaust/Genocide, Jewish History, Lorri's Blog

Review: The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank: A Novel, by Ellen Feldman, is an interesting novel of the Holocaust written from the unique perspective of what might have been. It is a poignant and compelling story line, which includes haunting remnants of the first love between Anne Frank and Peter van Pels. The historical novel kept me captured through the last page.

Feldman details the historical, and little known facts regarding the diary of Anne Frank. She gives the audience a vision of “what if”. What if Peter had survived? What would his life have been like if he had survived? The flow of the story shows how the boy, Peter, grew into an adult. Feldman is extremely brilliant and descriptive in detailing his journey from child to man. There are emotional illuminations, expanding on how he developed into a man who came to hate himself, through his own guilt, denial, assimilation, new identity, and fear.

The novel leaves one to wonder whether promises made as a teenager should be kept as we grow and mature. The author analyzes that factor and how it plays into Peter’s life. The analogies in the novel are compelling, the fear often causing a catastrophe of Self, so to speak.

Peter’s attempt to forget his past, and start anew after emigrating to America, only dig him deeper into the roots he tries to blot out. He marries, has children, yet he vividly cultivates memories of his past through flashbacks, and entwines them in his mind. Some memories are real and some are imagined. All are after-effects of the Holocaust. We watch him deteriorate before our eyes, and can envision his actions through Feldman’s masterful word imagery…such as when he discovers Anne Frank’s Diary has been published.

The events that follow that discovery are a study on the fear Holocaust victims carried with them…hiding, moving, whispering, running. The book became Peter’s stepping stone backwards, forwards, and backwards again into fear and loathing.

Having read over 1,000 Holocaust books, I know that there were survivors who took the same course as Peter, in order to try to move forward with life. People do what they have to, emotionally, in order to journey through life, after emerging from a horrendous situation.

I was intrigued by the information contained in this amazing historical novel. There are scenarios regarding the events leading to the lawsuit filed against Otto Frank, disputing some of the facts that were permitted to be given creative license in the play and film.

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank might not be a book for everyone. Some people do not like fictional Holocaust accounts. I found Ellen Feldman’s writing to be brilliant, cutting to the core of emotions and logic. The book is infused with incredible word-paintings, and historical relevancy, leaving the reader with much to ponder.

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Review: Goliath’s Head

goliaths2 Goliath’s Head, by Alan Fleishman, is a novel that depicts the oppressing life of being Jewish in Russia during the late 19th century and early 20th century, specifically the pogroms of 1905.

Those pogroms were the precursor to the 1917 revolutions, which ended in CommunistBolshevik control of the country. That the Revolution of 1905 became a defining force in the pogroms, and over 3,000 Jews were killed. They were not necessarily killed by government forces, but by individuals who banded together against them.

Avi Schneider is the main character, and at nine-years of age becomes a hated boy, hated by Viktor Askinov. Viktor’s father is influential, and as the son, he constantly lets Avi know that there will not be repercussions for his tormenting and brutal behavior against Avi. He feels he can do, and get away with, anything he chooses to undertake regarding Avi or any Jew. His father will take care of any situation for him, in his line of thinking.

Avi’s family and all Jews are constantly under repressed circumstances, and forced to live in the Pale of Settlement. They are able to work, but unable to live within city/town limits. Their daily borders are within the Pale. Life and living is restricted, and to survive through the hardships is a struggle. And, if that isn’t enough, the riots against the Jews were a part of daily life, the struggles, hardships and fear ever present every minute of every hour.

Avi matures, marries, has family. Within that realm, he becomes part of a group who try to stop the stronghold of inhumane Antisemitism that is trying to overtake the village he lives in. A plan unfolds. Avi must decide what to do. He is left with two choices, save himself and his family, or fight for his beliefs, his people, his Jewish community.

Goliath’s Head is a compelling and powerful read, and this reader read it straight through. Once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. The story is much more than historical fiction, history that Alan Fleishman brings to life, masterfully. I highly recommend Goliath’s Head to everyone.

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