Tag Archives: Russian history

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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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: The Life of an Unknown Man

the life of an unknown man2 Although the novel, The Life of an Unknown Man, by Andrei Makine, is 208 pages long, its short length does not lessen the compelling story line.

The novel brings the reader an extremely well written descriptive of Russia, seen through two main characters. The first one is a man named Ivan Shutov, a Russian who has been living in Paris for about twenty years. He is a writer, aspiring to write that epic novel, a novel similar in style to Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy. He lives and breathes the classic Russian authors, and compares his current life experiences to their writings. He is wrapped in dreams and fantasies, and the essence of life revolves around Russian Literature. He values their ideals that he reads within the pages of their books.

Shutov is approximately fifty-years old, and old enough to be the father of his former lover, Lea. After many discussions and arguments (some over Chekhov) he is brutal in his verbal attacks on her opinions. After a while, she became disgusted and fed up with him and his lack of emotional commitment. She left him for a man her own age, and Shutov has great difficulty dealing with her departure. He can not stop thinking about her, and obsesses on her. He feels a void, and decides to take a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, to revisit his past, a past he has glorified in his memories, and one he has not viewed realistically.

When he arrives, he sees that things are not what they were in the past. Communism reared its distorted head with brutal force to the Russians. The country has gone through an upheaval, and it has collapsed. The citizens have become westernized in their thinking, and become materialistic in their approach to life. This attitude has a shattering affect on Shutov.

While there he meets up with a former lover named Yana. They had a fling while students, and she is not the same person he knew. How could she be after living through the changes and events her country has gone through. He encounters an elderly man named Georgy Lvovich Volsky, living in a room within Yana’s apartment complex. Yana and her son have told him that Volsky doesn’t speak, and is paralyzed. To make a long story short, Volsky does eventually speak to Shutov.

And, the tales he tells are incredible accounts of the love of his life, Mina, and of his experiences during Leningrad’s siege, and his military service to the country. The times were horrific, horrendous moments were prevalent, food was scarce, life was lived by barely hanging on. Volsky’s story is vividly depicted by Makine, and nothing is spared in his relaying it.

Throughout the pages, the reader can not help but grasp the devastation and the brutality of the times. One also gains a sense of the individual, as a separate being, one who has weathered all the forced events. The reader also gains insight into the philosophy of the individual as part of the whole in the connection of community, the military and the country. The title, “The Life of an Unknown Man” is very fitting, within these aspects. Makine is brilliant in displaying both modes within the pages.

He also makes the reader ponder about human worth. Volsky went through so much, yet he was not validated for his efforts. He went unrecognized in an environment that was not conducive to acknowledging accomplishments. The time periods that encapsulated his life achievements seemed almost for naught. Yet, Volsky did not view it that way. He saw beauty in nature, in music, in theater, and constantly saw possibilities out of what others saw as impossible. Volsky saw his life in a positive manner, and saw his participation being an allegiance to Russia.

Makine’s message was clear, his prose depicted with visual clarity. The suffering and the lives lost were a minute part of the entirety. The sentimentality of the past can hinder people in ways they can not imagine. It was a harsh lesson for Shutov. The past caught up with him, and he was able to distinguish the reality of the Russia he had left behind, and the reality of the Russia through the twenty years he had been gone, and what the country had evolved into.

I applaud Andrei Makine for his brilliance and for his magnificent writing. The novel was a fascinating look at the history of what was then known as Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and an intriguing read. He took me back to eras of harshness, and within the story line I found illuminations of hope resonating, strongly.

I recommend The Life of an Unknown Man to everyone.

January 7, 2013 – 25 Tevet, 5773

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Book Review – The Madonnas of Leningrad

Sometimes it requires all her wits to piece together the world with the fragments she is given: an open can of Folgers, a carton of eggs on the counter, the faint scent of toast.”

And, so, begins the story of Marina, a woman caught between her past, and her present, as her life weaves back and forth, memories often overlapping the lines between the here and now. From 1941 Leningrad, and the German siege that follows, to relocating to America, the book resounds with ghostly images of starvation, bombings, and paintings by the great Masters of old.

Marina is one of the tour guides in the Hermitage Museum, one of a few staff members who are responsible for packaging up the great paintings, themselves, while leaving the frames on the walls, as a reminder of what was, and what eventually would be returned to its proper place in the Hermitage.

In order to escape the ravages of war, Marina creates a “Memory Palace” in her mind, remembering and visualizing each painting, each stroke of the brush, of the Madonnas and angels within the paintings. The minutes and hours pass by, and life is created within Marina’s mind, often blurring the borders of reality and fantasy. These fantasy images are what help her to get through her horrific situation, both during the war, and during the last years of her life, when the past takes over the present, guiding and comforting her towards the end of days, during her struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.

The visuals within the story line are incredible, both beautiful and haunting. Dean is masterful at depicting art with all of its minute details, all of the colors and intensities that artists render in their paintings are illuminated through her stunning prose.

Debra Dean brings us a poignant novel of wartime, a beautiful, yet ghostly reminiscence of what was, and how we deal with the emotional pain of loss. She gives us food for thought, and her compelling images leave us to wonder about emotional borders, and where the line ends or begins, between fantasy and reality, between illness and end of life stages.

I highly recommend The Madonnas of Leningrad to everyone.

June 28, 2012 – 8 Tamuz, 5772

© Copyright – 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 expresss written consent/permission.

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