Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Review: Kaddish for an Unborn Child

Kaddish for an Unborn Child, by Imre Kertesz, was a difficult book, in the sense that the narrator was rambling, repetitiously, due to his stream of consciousness.

The novel opens with the word ‘No!’  It is an answer to a question asked him, the question being did he have a child.   He also answered his wife the same way, when she wanted a child.  From there the reader is led through the narrator’s bleak, dark and depressed outlook on life and living.

The narrator is a writer.  Within the ramblings the sentences run into each other, as his thoughts unfold on the pages.  He tries to illuminate all of his thoughts and feelings, often repeating what he has just stated.  This is due to the workings of his mind, and the fact he has an urgency to get it all out in the open.  This urgency is what keeps him alive, literally.  He has much to criticize regarding his life, including his childhood.

The narrator compares his abusive and restricted childhood to his existence in Auschwitz.  Rules and the oppressive environment almost seem normal to him, coming from his controlled adolescent upbringing.  Once liberated his perceptions regarding daily life continue in the same vein.  He encloses himself within the walls of isolation.

His routine continues to be a somewhat confined existence, as he transcends from being a Holocaust camp prisoner, to living for years sheltered from life in a rented room.  He compares his living arrangement to that of the camps, in the sense that he has been restricted and limited in space, and therefore in daily life.

Of course, much of his limitations have been self-induced repercussions and extensions of the Holocaust.  Once he marries, he ponders the issues of an apartment with his wife, and how he has never thought of spaciousness, furniture, this or that.  The rented room was self-contained, with all of the essentials provided.  His pen was his life’s companion.  He had need for nothing else.

I won’t delve into the story line any further.  It was enough to get through the novel in its entirety.  It was an emotionally, laborious read in many aspects, reinforcing the Holocaust and its mental and emotional effects and affects on those who survive, those who are generational survivors, and on those who are victims of a survivor’s bleak and dark mindset.  In this case, his wife was a victim of the narrator’s mindset and his demons.

Within the darkness, I found Kaddish for an Unborn Child to be an excellent resource on the philosophical and psychological aspects of humanity’s, Holocaust nightmare.

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Review: The Coffee Trader

The Coffee Trader, by David Liss, is a book of intrigue and an absorbing historical nove.

I became so wrapped up in the historical aspect that I felt as if I had traveled back in time and place. My senses were infused with Liss’ extremely detailed prose. With his strong word-imagery, Liss transports the reader to Seventeenth Century Amsterdam. It is the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, and the Dutch city is streaming with Jews who fled Spain. In fact, many others, from all over Europe have come to Amsterdam to try to make some money.

Much of the money is earned through scheming within the commodities exchange in the city. It is the first of its type in the world. The exchange is very active, not only with honest individuals but also with schemers and villains who try to scam those looking to invest their money securely and/or invest in an honest, yet, quick return (Does any of this sound familiar?).

Miguel Lienzo is a Portugese Jew, one of the refugees who managed to flee the Inquisition, and reside within the Sephardic Jewish community. He has invested his money unwisely as of late, finding himself in financial distress. Not only that, but he has gained enemies along the way, after encouraging others to follow suit with his advice.

There is also another person, a client of Miguel’s who feels he was unjustly sent into poverty through dealings with Miguel. He wants what he deems is his share of the money invested returned to him. Miguel avoids him whenever possible, and feels he owes him nothing. Investments are risky, and you take a risk when involving yourself in them.

Miguel’s financial status leaves him basically broke, and he goes to live in the basement of his brother’s home. Daniel, his brother, is married to Hannah, who seems to be a passive woman. Not all is what it appears to be.

Miguel has become friends with a Dutch widow named Geertruid Damuis. Together, he and Geertruid plan to gain the upper hand of the coffee market, a new offering in the commodities market in Amsterdam. They keep their enterprise a secret, as they want to succeed in their venture.

This is seemingly Miguel’s last chance at success, and if he fails he will become an outcast, not only within the market but the Jewish community and the Amsterdam commodity community.

Trust becomes an enormous issue within the commodities exchange. Many questions arise, lening themselves to today’s financial arena, with the ongoing elevator ride of speculations and the stock market. Drama is abundant, and deceitful practices are plentiful in Amsterdam.

Times and situations don’t seem to have changed much in the 350 plus years that have elapsed since then.

Does he fail? Does he succeed? It is up to you to find out, as I don’t want to insert any spoilers in this review.

Suffice it to say that Liss is brilliant in his writing, and his details to the most minute areas of life in Amsterdam are impeccable. Considering the time period, the fact that he manages to portray daily life so extensively is incredible, almost overwhelming. He read over thirty books in order to paint the setting accurately, and it shows in his masterful and beautiful prose. This reader became totally involved in The Coffee Trader due to David Liss‘ sense of time and ability to create imagery that depicts seventeenth century Amsterdam with perfection.

I was enthralled and recommend The Coffee Trader to everyone.

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Review: The Marriage of Opposites

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman, is a historical novel, rooted in the social and cultural mores and importance of the time period.

Those standards begin with Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzaro, the mother of Camille Pissarro (Pissarro was one of the forefathers of French Impressionism). She was born in 1795, on the island of St. Thomas.

Rachel’s ancestors fled France due to antisemitism.  They eventually emigrated to St. Thomas.  Jews were permitted to practice their religion in St. Thomas, without fear of repercussions, and they could become citizens.

The reader is given much insight into the social standards through the voices within the novel, including Rachel’s, Camille’s, and Rachel’s second husband, to name three.

The characters are realized. They are varied, as far as religion, lifestyle, superstitions, and ancestral traditions. Yet, within that structure, every facet of life is determined by the laws of the land, so to speak. Certain societal rules can never be crossed or expanded. This is where the ‘opposite’ definition comes into play.

Jews could not mingle with maids, servants, slaves, or mingle with Blacks. Even when slavery was outlawed, the rule applied. There was a tier, a standard of living within each culture, and the boundary could not be crossed.

Those boundaries were crossed, a few times, by characters within the story. There were secrets kept by individuals who, in essence, turned their noses up on others wishing to lead a happy life. Their admonishment caused hardship and chaos within familial and romantic frameworks.

I enjoyed reading about the childhood of Camille Pissarro. His passion, from the moment of his birth, was an innateness within him. He could not function without his painting tools being carried with him wherever he went. His mind was always on nature, on his surroundings, and he saw life through color, meaning each object had its own aura surrounding it. The same went for individuals, in his mind’s view, each person had a color which was a part of their being.

Sketching was as much a part of his hourly and daily life as breathing was. Sometimes more so. He knew his “calling”, and even when family members tried to stifle his artistic passion, he persevered in fulfilling his potential.

His paintings speak to me on many levels.

In my opinion, the story line illuminated existentialism, in the sense that we are individuals responsible for our own development, and responsible for achieving our authenticity. We are all human, and within that concept, we are responsible for each other in the end, no matter a person’s background, religious, cultural, or otherwise.

Alice Hoffman’s prose was often poetic and breathtaking. I highly recommend The Marriage of Opposites, to everyone.

I apologize for the update-I had to correct a misspelling.

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Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author of several books that have been translated into English. I have read most of them. I am a huge fan of her work. She is an author who has kept her true identity hidden, and retained her not only her identity, but also her sense of Self and her sense of freedom to write what she wants without her identity being thrown into the limelight.

I use the gender ‘she’ when defining her, but in actuality she could be a man. Who knows for sure, only her publisher.

Here is a list of some of her books that I have read:

My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name
Those Who Leave and Those who Stay
The Days of Abandonment
The Lost Daughter
Troubling Love

I gravitate to her stories of life in Italy, specifically, life in Naples. I become mesmerized with her depictions of the harsh realities of the characters within the framework of poverty, hardship and striving to somehow move forward.

Men compete for attention within each other, the same with the women. But, the men and their insecurities seem to rule the moments, quite often, and their lack of esteem outweighs the women and their own longings and lack of confidence. Women grapple with child-rearing and domesticity, while the men strut and swagger as if they owned the women. Women reign in their own goals for careers, while men often flounder in theirs, yet interact as if they were superior. The Italian, male mindset is a force that is difficult to break down. Women are often left beholden to their mate, even if the relationship is lackluster.

The need to move forward is often stifled due to love interests and also due to emotional borders. Yet, within the stifled lives, there is a sense of motivation that crops up when least expected.

Ferrante’s writing is bold, illuminatingly harsh at times, and brilliant on so many levels. She leaves nothing left unsaid, nothing left to the imagination. She uses prose as if the words were an attack on life, with anger spewing forth, and also uses them with quietude and softness. The comparisons within situations is compelling and defining.

Her novels speak volumes (pun intended), as to the history of the social aspects in Naples, as well as the history of the city, itself. Social dysfunctiuns, familial dysfunctions, and familial dysfunctions are treated brashly, realistically, and with a compelling foundation.

Elena Ferrante’s books help me understand the barriers presented by familial bonds, friendship bonds, and the bonds of love and loss, within the social strata of the Italian environment. Her books speak to me, possibly due to my Italian heritage, but also due to the human condition exhibited within the pages. Humanity is explored in depth within the pages of her books.

Her novel, The Story of a Lost Child, will be published in September. I will definitely purchase it.

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War and Art

I have read two books that involve the restoring/returning of stolen art, during wartime, to the rightful owner/s. One deals with art stolen by the Nazis during World War II. The other book tells a story of a journey to find whether a work of art was stolen during World War I.

The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, by Anne-Marie O’Connor, is a true story, and it is the book that the recently released film, The Woman in Gold was based upon.

The book is a vivid depiction, not only regarding Adele Bloch-Bauer, the woman who posed for the artist, but also a compelling story of a work of art, and how one woman’s passion and perseverance led to the finding the provenance of the painting. The trials and tribulations in order to ascertain provenance, in order to prove that the work of art belonged in her family, and that it was stolen, outright, by the Nazis, lasted for a decade.

The Austrian government did not want to release the valuable painting, claiming legal ownership. Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, claimed otherwise, stating she was the legal heir to the painting.

The story is illuminating in many aspects. The reader is given snippets of life in Austria, life of the wealthy and how they lived, where they lived, and what the valued. It also is the story of the intricate and minute details involved in trying to gain proof of ownership or provenance. Word of mouth does not work. Documents do not often work, either.

I saw the film, and it was well-done. If I compare it to the book, I would have to say the book was more detailed, whereas the film encompassed dramatic visuals of the time period. I enjoyed both the book and the film, and give them equal share on my enjoyment scale.
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The second book, entitled, The Girl You Left Behind: A Novel, by Jojo Moyes, depicts one family’s struggle to survive during World War I, in a small town in the outskirts of Paris.

Sophie Lefevre’s husband Edouard is a painter. He painted a portrait of Sophie, which is stunning. He eventually must leave in order to fight the Germans. Those Germans eventually occupy the town, and take over the small bar/cafe enterprise that Sophie and her sister operate. The Kommandant and his soldiers are to have dinner prepared for them every night, no questions asked. It is a command that can not be refused.

Fast forward to the present, and Liv Halston, a widow of four years, has the painting hanging in her home. From there the story begins to move quicker.

She is quite insistent that the painting, bought by her husband, for her, is legally hers. She involves herself and others in a battle for ownership. From the living heirs to Liv, herself, the story line unfolds with intensity, and with incredible details of search methods and documentation.

The historical aspect is well-done, and well researched. I was surprised by some of the facts, and did not realize that during World War I, the Germans stole artwork, furniture, silver items from homes, anything and everything they felt useful, was taken. That was revealing for me.

How does the story end? You will have to read the book to find out.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Films, Historical Fiction, Holocaust/Genocide, Jewish History, Lorri's Blog, Memoirs, World War II

Waiting For Robert Capa: A Novel

Waiting For Robert Capa: A novel, by Susana Fortes, is a book that held my interest from beginning until the end, not only because of the photojournalism aspect, but also due to the romantic interests, and the historical aspect. The novel is based on actual individuals who were war photojournalists.

Andre Friedmann, was a struggling photographer, living in Paris. He was a Jewish-Hungarian exile. He had an assignment to take pictures for publicity purposes for a life insurance company. Within that realm, he finds a woman named Ruth Cerf, and asks her to model for him.

Ruth was suspicious, and told him she was bringing a friend along. Her name was Gerta Pohorylle. From there, begins a story line that mingles fact with fiction, and encompasses a story of romance and photojournalism like you have never read before.

Andre and Gerta become known as a couple. They were two young and brilliant individuals trying to maintain a relationship and garner assignments in Spain in order to document the war. And, in order to do so, Gerta came up with the bright idea to change their names in order to gain recognition.

First she changes Andre’s name to Robert Capa, eliminating his Jewish surname. She becomes his self-appointed “agent”. Eventually she changes her name to Gerda Taro. She wanted to be independent, and be recognized for her own work, rather than her photographs be included in Robert’s work without a byline. She literally became the first female war photographer who involved herself in the midst of battle. He became infamous in the world of photography for his extremely hardline images, leaving nothing to chance or to the imagination. To say they found themselves in unbelievable circumstances, is an understatement.

They were right there, within the action, each one, documenting war through photography, putting their lives at risk in order to capture the ravages and horrors of war. Those efforts and circumstances changed the face of war photography forever. From that point forward, war was seen by millions of individuals in ways that they never imagined.

Capa’s photographs depict tumultuous moments. His photograph “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman“, became the poster child, so to speak, for the Spanish Civil War. It is an incredible image, and one that depicts the moment of one man’s death, literally. With one click of the camera, he captured death as it occurred. He never lived that image down, due to speculation that it was staged. He denied it, but there were the nonbelievers. It followed him for the rest of his life.

As a side note-I knew of Robert Capa’s war photography, especially his work regarding D-Day, and other images during that document World War II. I knew of Gerda Taro. But, I did not know about their relationship.

I won’t go any further with details, because the novel is too compelling and intense. Suffice it to say, the love story is depicted with realism and deep intimate moments. The war angle and photography moments are intensely written and portrayed. Susana Fortes is masterful at keeping the reader interested, and masterful in illuminating her word images.

I recommend Waiting For Robert Capa: A Novel. The historical information, alone, makes it more than an excellent read. Combine that with the romantic story of two brilliant individuals whose work will live on, and keep their brilliance and efforts alive, and you have a book difficult to put down.

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To view some of the incredible photographs that were taken by Robert Capa, visit Magnum Photos. I was absorbed in all of them, but the ones from Italy 1943-1944 spoke to me, as my father was involved in the liberation of Italy. I was also amazed at the D-Day photographs, and remember seeing many of them while growing up, in various literary magazines and in newspapers.

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