Category Archives: Novels

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 Butterfly and the Violin

The Butterfly and the Violin, by Kristy Cambron is a story focusing on the Holocaust and a particular painting. The story bounces between events occurring pre-World War II, World War II, itself, and the current time period.

A painting of a woman, hair shorn, holding a violin, is the glue that bonds two specific individuals together, as they try to find out information regarding the painting, and locate the owner of it. During their research, they become deeply attached to each other. Each person has their own past, their own secrets they are withholding.

Unfortunately, the story did not speak to me. I felt the modern day characters were weak, not realized, and I thought they were lacking in substance and depth.

Their superficiality flowed throughout the pages, in my opinion. The relationships that develop, which include a young child, do not seem to be realistic, as to specifics within the relationships. I could not imagine that some of the modern day, familial depictions could actually happen. The ending was extremely disappointing, and left me devoid of a final conclusion.

Some Holocaust-related truths and facts were infused within the pages. Events and modes of operation were described, along with visuals that the reader could “see” before them. In that aspect, the word imagery was defining. Unfortunately, that information is colored by the novel’s multiple stories within the entirety.

What I thought was going to be a serious novel regarding the Holocaust was more of a novel with loose ends, a novel not for readers who want a compelling Holocaust story. The Butterfly and the Violin, by Kristy Cambron, in my opinion, would be better served as a book for teenagers and young adults (early 20s).

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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: 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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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: Last Train to Istanbul

lasttrainto If you like reading historical fiction regarding Turkey, then Last Train to Istanbul, by Ayse Kulin, is a book I highly recommend. I, personally, could not put it down once I started reading it.

The story revolves around Selva and Sabiha, two sisters, and how their lives take dramatic turns in Ankara, Turkey. Their father is a retired government official, and a man who is greatly respected. The family is Muslim. This presents a problem within the ideals of the family unit.

Selva falls in love with a Jewish man named Rafael Alfandari. His family is also highly regarded and have been physicians of the court for many centuries.
Selva’s father disowns her, casts her out from the family for Selva and Rafael leave Istanbul for France, where they feel they will have a better life. Within that mode, events cause their lives to take unforeseen actions, actions that are dangerous and life-threatening.

Sabiha marries within the circle of aristocracy, to a man named Macit who works for the Turkish Foreign Ministry. This fact would prove fruitful in the coming years. She was a devoted sister, and her actions illuminate that.

As the story line unfolds, the reader is privy to historical facts and events leading up to Turkey’s involvement in the evacuations of Jews from Paris to Istanbul in 1943. This reader was captivated by the actions presented to me throughout the pages. I knew little about Turkey during World War II and was enlightened as to the efforts that were put forth by the “neutral” country to rescue Jews. Jews were welcomed into the arms of the country, and not just Jews of Turkish descent, but also non-Turkish Jews.

From the underground and resistance groups, to the Turkish offices of Paris and Marseilles, to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, everyone bands together in order to get Rafael and his family out of France. Selva has opportunities to leave without him, but is determined to stay with him through all costs.

We are given perspectives from both of the sisters, within the framework of a double narrative. The political situation in Turkey is demonstrated with forthrightness. Society, as a whole is well-depicted. Life in France is presented with all of its nuances and social qualities. The war and how it affects both Selva and Sabiha is realistically and believably shown.

The Last Train to Istanbul
was a page-turner for me, and a novel filled with extreme historical details, which were obviously highly researched by Kulin, a well-esteemed Turkish writer. Her efforts did not go unnoticed, by me. I am a World War II history fan, and was given new insight into the dynamics that Turkey played (although “neutral”) in the assistance of rescuing Jews.

I liked the aspect of family, and how the two sisters struggle within their own environments to not only survive, but to keep in touch under adverse conditions. Selva’s concern for her family in Ankara is strongly written, as well as her thoughts regarding her father and his disowning her. Sabiha’s concern for her sister is also deeply depicted, and her struggles to bring Selva and her family back home seem quite plausable due to her husband’s influential connections.

Family dynamics are explored in depth, along with social stigmas and politics. Jewish Turkey is illuminated, and that fact gave this reader much insight into the country prewar and events leading up to, and during, the horrific time of war.

The author’s use of the strength of love and survival under the duress and adversity of war is a definite foundation of the story line. I totally became involved within the pages of Last Train to Istanbul. Brava to Ayse Kulin, and to the translator, John W. Baker.

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