Tag Archives: historical novel

Lorri’s Book Review: The Poe Shadow

thepoeshadow2 The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl, is part mystery, part intrigue, part fact, part fiction, but always brilliant in the author’s desire to unearth the details surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe. If you like suspense mingled with twisting and turning plots, then this is the book for you!

It is one of life’s peculiar facts that it is usually those no longer alive whose stories preserve the truth….”

Quentin Clarke, an admirer of Poe’s, is immersed in finding out the truth of the circumstances behind Poe’s death, at the risk of his own career as a lawyer. The local police seem uninterested in finding out why Poe died, or how he died. His partner laughs at him, mocks him, yet Clarke is determined to find out the facts, and ends up living and breathing every one of his waking minutes trying to encapsulate the last days of Poe’s life, and what led to Poe’s demise.

Clarke’s obsessive behavior takes him to France, where he meets a mysterious female, and two men claiming to be the “true” person that one of Poe’s characters is fashioned after.

We are given a look at 19th Century Baltimore, from its back streets to its upper echelon of society, from its slave trade to libraries and reading rooms. Pearl takes us on an adventure, both domestic and internationally. No stone is left unturned in his quest to present us a novel filled with the essence of what Baltimore was like, during that time period, from street scenes and scents, attire, transportation, mindsets, social graces, and so much more, our senses are on a constant roller coaster ride. Pearl’s vibrant descriptions and images are filled with clarity.

The author combines mystery with historical fiction, bringing vivid characters through his brilliant writing and research. Pearl, himself, was trying to solve the mystery of the death of Poe, and in the end, gives us much to ponder in this intriguing mystery. Poe would be proud of Matthew Pearl’s accomplishment.

Edgar Allan Poe is buried in the Westminster Presbyterian Cemetery, in Baltimore, MD. A few years back, I visited the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond VA. It was fascinating.

December 31, 2012 – 18 Tevet, 5773

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

Book Review – Wandering Stars

What an amazing novel, and what an incredible story! Wandering Stars, by Sholem Aleichem, and translated from the Yiddish by Aliza Shevirn, is a journey into Yiddish Theater unlike anything I have read on the subject. Jews are known as wanderers, and Aleichem’s novel not only evokes that theme, but also infuses the story with characters-turned actors straight from Holeneshti, a Russian shtetl, stars in their own right, shining brightly on stage. It is a sprawling love story spanning ten years and two continents, and set in the colorful world of the Yiddish theater.

Reisel is the daughter of a cantor, a cantor who is in dire straights, monetarily speaking. Leibel is from a wealthy family. Both Reisel and Leibel are intrigued and taken by the Yiddish Theater company, and its troupe of actors that come to their shtetl at the end of the nineteenth century. They sit next to each other during each performance. They plot to run off together and join the theater company, influenced and persuaded by the theater manager.
It is difficult to write a review of this 400+ page book without delving into the story too much, but I will give a brief synopsis.

Reisel and Leibel leave their homes, thinking they will eventually meet and run off together. Things don’t quite work out that way. They join the theater, but as it turns out, it is not together, because they become separated by greedy theater managers. They eventually make their own mark in the Yiddish Theater world, after being promoted and exploited by their managers and theater owners. Reisel becomes Rosa Spivak, promoted as a concert talent coming from Bucharest. Leibel becomes Leo Rafalesko, an acting genius. Their audiences adore them, and can’t get enough of them, wanting them to perform more often. Rosa and Leo wander through Eastern Europe with their theater company, through London, and eventually make their way to America. In America they become instant successes, each one not knowing the other is there, and practically under their noses.

Aleichem is strong in his ability to bring not only comedy, but rage to the forefront in Wandering Stars. He illuminates the characters with emotion that is illuminated so strongly, the reader understands that the humorous statements are actually superficially so, as they are in fact statements of anger, disguised as comedy. Comedy became a way of life, a form of survival, both physical survival and emotional survival. Sarcasm rules within the Yiddish acting troupes, as does greed, suffering, love and longing, deceit and desire.

Actors and actresses put on costumes, donned their stage outfits, and performed boldy, enticing the audience to crave more. They were audacious both on and off stage. They were bold individuals and were colorful, self-absorbed, comedic and tragic. The managers were just as daring in their feats to entice not only the audience, but the performers. They were bold, often reckless and ruthless. Aleichem demonstrates the backstage antics and manipulations with details that are brilliant. Yiddish theater, along with its dynamics is brought to the forefront, and all of the reader’s senses are filled. We are there, in the midst of it all, through all of the travel, performances, artistry, and through the changes of not only the theater, but also societal changes. Sholem_Aleichem brings Yiddish Theater to life!

The format might seem odd to some readers, as each chapter is approximately 2-3 pages long. There is a reason for that…the book was serialized in the newspaper, and each day, a different chapter was printed. Its length long enough to be published in the paper, and long enough to hold the reader’s interest, and make them want to come back for more.

Wandering Stars
is a love story, but also much more than that. It is both a tour de force, and a tour de farce. From moochers to shnorrers, shlimazels, nudniks, gonefs, to the honorable mensch, the book is filled with characters of all types, colorful in personality and ideals. Nothing is left unsaid, and the Jews in the book are often pompous and pretentious. The novel is infused with Jewish life, not only theater life, but life outside the theater. It is a novel rich with vivid word imagery, and rich with Yiddish euphemisms. In fact there is a Yiddish glossary at the back of the book. There are also meanings and interpretations that allude to the Bible/Tanakh. Aleichem has filled the novel with a vivid and amazing life tapestry.

Aleichem was a masterful writer, and Wandering Stars is a masterpiece because of that. Wandering Stars is a tribute to Yiddish theater, and to a way of life that once was, and one that no longer exists, both onstage and off stage. It is also a tribute to Sholem Aleichem and his consummate writing skills.
I highly recommend Wandering Stars to everyone, not only for the story, but for its historical aspect as well. It belongs in every personal library, and every university, college, high school, and local library.

Sholam aleichem to Solomon Rabinowitz, wherever he is.

November 19, 2012 – 5 Kislev, 5773

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Judaism, Novels

Review – 22 Britannia Road

From pre-war Poland through post-war England, Amanda Hodgkinson’s novel, 22 Britannia Road, brings the reader a unique perspective on war, separation, survival, and how people try to move forward.

The characters, Janusz and Silvana are married when he is conscripted and goes off to war, leaving Silvana behind. Silvana and their son, Aurek are left to literally fend for themselves. Silvana eventually make her way into the forests of Poland with Aurek, and hides there for several years.

Janusz makes his way to France, and from there, to England. He assimilates into English society, and overcomes the social stigmas of the immigrant through his determination and educating himself in order to fit in.

Janusz tries to locate his wife and son. He finds out that Silvana and Aurek are alive, and sends for them. He rents a house, tries to make it cheerful looking for his wife and son to settle in once they are all reunited. Little does he realize the hardships they have to overcome.

The reunion period is difficult. They each have secrets that they are hiding from each other. Each one is trying not to think of their past, and in doing so can not move forward. The secrets of their pasts are preventing them from living in the present. They are emotionally spent regarding the past, and can not bear the pain of remembering horrors and adversities they have witnessed and been involved in.

Janusz wants his family to be stable. He wants his son, Aurek, to love him, although, he himself, finds it difficult to relate to Aurek. Aurek is not the son Janusz dreamed he would be. He is quirky, odd, and acts more like an animal at times, and less like a human being. He has behavioral issues that others can’t comprehend. That is due to his hiding with his mother in the forest, and learning survival tactics within that environment, tactics learned as a toddler and carried through until his arrival in England. He knows only forest life.

Is there hope for this family? Will they be able to find a common ground in order to form a family unit after so long a separation? Will their secrets hold them back from moving forward? Will the desire each parent has for the safety of the child be enough to help them through the difficult adjustment times ahead of them?

Amanda Hodgkinson seems to have insight into the human condition, and as far as love and war, separation and reunion, is spot on, in my opinion, in the dynamics that are portrayed. The characters are not filled with vitality and liveliness, but rather filled with emotional hindrances. All three members of the family unit seem to be in states of oppression, forced upon them by their own attitudes. The after-effects of war, and how the war affected them, repressed their dynamics within their family unit, each in different respects. They were stuck in time and place, and adjusting to each other, once again, proved difficult. Love during war, and separation and survival do not always mean that reunions will prove to be positive experiences. Those involved often have to learn about each other all over again. From that viewpoint 22 Britannia Road is a well told story.

June 11, 2012 – 21 Sivan, 5772

© Copyright 2010-2012 – All Rights Reserved – No permission is given or allowed to reuse my photography, book reviews, writings, or my poetry in any form/format without my express written consent/permission.


Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Novels