Category Archives: Historical Novels

Book Diva Review: If You Awaken Love

If You Awaken Love, by Emuna Elon, is a wonderfully written novel, dealing with rejection and acceptance, love and loss, and other underlying, issues, within the pages.

The story line takes place during turbulent times, a thirty years span from the Six-Day War up until the day Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated. Although politics is not the primary theme in If You Awaken Love, it is there, underlying within the pages. We are given glimpses of life through those who lived in Israel before its statehood, glimpses of the Left and Right Wings, the Orthodox and the secular, the elderly and the young, the liberal and the staunch, and so on. The reader sees both sides of the issue within the vivid images that Elon depicts, from those Jews who are in favor of a dual land, and those who are more restrictive in their thinking.

The narrator is a woman named Shlomtzion Dror, who by all accounts seems to be supportive of the Israeli Left Wing. She lives in Tel Aviv and is a forty year old divorced woman. Shlomtzion is a woman who has been rejected by her childhood sweetheart, Yair Berman. Her unrequited love has transcended the decades. She has a daughter named Maya, who happens to be in love with Yair’s son, and they plan to marry. This comes as a shock to Shlomtzion. Shlomtzion is left wandering through the years of her past, journeying back in time to what once was, as she slowly makes her emotional, physical and political journey forward.

Shlomtzion is consumed by the past, unable to let the fires of history burn, allowing them to continually refuel. Which is much like the political and religious situation in Israel, with the embers continually flaring up into a constant and eternal flame. Elon writes with precision, is cognizant of the issues at hand, and her descriptions are beautiful works of prose.

Suffice it to say that the story is filled with a roller coaster of emotions, emotions that fluctuate from moment to moment, memory to memory. Within the emotional elevator ride, the reader is given impressions of daily life in Israel, impressions of religious life and the political balance of a nation, over a thirty year period. Is there forgiveness and/or redemption at the end? You will need to read it yourself in order to find out. But, when you do, don’t skip over sentences and word images, as each one is specific to the whole of the novel.

On the surface, If You Awaken Love might seem to be a drab or unsaturated story. But, its’ beauty is within the illuminations that Elon so aptly and masterfully brings the reader. Her words are dynamic, strong, yet filled with a sensitivity to both sides of the issue. Elon uses biblical passages to enhance the story line, which make the novel all the more profound. She doesn’t have answers, and doesn’t have a final judgment, and leaves it up to the reader as to whether a judgment is even necessary, or if sides need to be taken. I found If You Awaken Love to be a brilliantly written novel. I applaud Emuna Elon for her endeavors in documenting history, combined with a story of love and war, in her first novel.

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Review: Maps and Shadows

Maps and Shadows, by Krysia Jopek is a novel, told from a unique perspective, that of Polish deportees deported to forced labor camps in Siberia.

The novel begins in 1939, and is told through four family members in alternating chapters. Andrzej is the father, Henryk is the older son, Josef is the youngest son, Zofia is the mother, and Helcia is the daughter. It details the family’s experiences through the four voices of all but the youngest child, Josef. The story line is based on both family history and historical fact regarding the Soviet deportation of over one million Polish individuals. The four family members lived a decent and good life, on land given to the father, Andrzej, for his status and service in the Polish army. That all came to an end in September 1939, when Russia invaded Poland from the east.

Their land was seized, as were their belongings, and they were forced at gunpoint onto trains heading to Siberia. It is there that father and son, Henryk, become part of a work crew, a crew that is cutting down trees in order to aid the Russians in the war. After eighteen months the family is “freed”, if you can call it that, in order for the Polish individuals to help Russia fight Germany.

Andrzej joins the Polish army, once again, leaving his family behind. A decision he will regret over and over again. The other family members manage to flee to Uzbekistan. It is there that Henryk joins the Young Soldier’s Battalion, in a move to find some independence for himself, and he eventually ends up in Palestine. The other three family members flee to Persia. Some family members end up in Italy and Africa at some point during their traumatic separation. Each family member does not know the whereabouts of the others, or if they are even alive.

Andrzej prays each day for the survival and well being of his family. He is wracked with guilt for having left them, but he felt he had no choice. They all are reunited, eventually, in England. From there the emigrate to America and settle in Connecticut. Their history and displacement constantly haunts them.

Maps and Shadows is a story of displacement, inhumanity, severe living conditions, loss and love, assimilation and starting life anew in a foreign country. It is harrowing in detail, vividly depicted, yet beautifully written. The poetry and poetic undertones are strong metaphors, and Jopek portrays the plights of the family, both as a unit, and as individuals, with brilliance, in a memoir type of format filled with haunting imagery. Her use of incorporating family members in an alternating chapter style gives authenticity and realization to the characters.

Maps and Shadows depicts the boundaries/borders of humanity that are crossed during World War II, and how the Polish civilians were forced into situations of extreme inhumanity all in the name of war. It is a story that brings to light the civilian Polish deportations by the Soviets, which are not normally explored in the context of World War II.

Krysia Jopek intertwines the tapestry of family history, weaving a novel that strongly imparts the horrors of the deportations. The story is compelling detailing the physical and emotional struggles of separation that the family is forced to endure in order to survive.

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Review – In America: A Novel

With extremely vivid details, Susan Sontag has written a novel of the immigrant experience, in her novel, In America. Not only does Sontag establish European life during the latter part of the nineteenth century, but she also depicts theater life and all the aspects of theater production quite brilliantly.

The main focus of In America concerns a woman named Maryna Zalezowksa, a famed Polish actress. She is adored and respected in her world of theater. But, discontent rules her, and she longs for more out of life, and for a more natural and ideal existence than the one lived in her homeland of Poland.

I believe part of her dissatisfaction is due to the fact that she is aging, and possibly afraid that she will not be given preference with good roles in the future. She sees the writing on the wall, so to speak, and does not want to fade away, theatrically speaking, with minor acting roles. She wants to leave while she is still at the top of her form.

Sontag has infused the pages with Maryna’s desire to go to America. Within her goal, her circle of close friends find it difficult to refuse her, and her desires become their desires. Her friends are clingers, and followers, and like being in the same circle as Maryna, and they like what they see as the enhancements of being her friend (or her lover). She manages to exercise her influence on those individuals and convinces them to take the leap and leave Poland and emigrate to America.

Maryna hopes to eventually open a commune, a farm, where one can live off the land, and spend their years in a natural environment. Yet, while packing, she did bring along her stage costumes, also making me wonder if she thought she might fail in her goals. If she did, she would have her acting career to fall back on.

Maryna, her husband board a ship for America where life is supposedly golden. From there events unfold, some happy and some tragic. The journey and its consequences of assimilation, and renewal of identity and of life is brilliantly portrayed through Sontag’s amazing sensitivity to the immigrant experience and to the political scenes unfolding throughout the book.

Poland was in a state of upheaval, and the political climate was intense, and lives were at risk within the confines of the continual changes. Maryna’s dreams of life in a communal environment fall to the wayside, and she returns to what she does best…acting.

Throughout In America, I had the feeling that Maryna was quite self-absorbed at times. Sontag subtly manages to convey that message quite clearly, if the reader takes the time to actually be cognizant of the content and the underlying signs, symbols and metaphors. This self-absorption leads to her using her acting skills to her advantage whenever possible in her personal life.

Sontag writes with vivid word visuals, and I felt as if I was right there in the midst of life during the late nineteenth century. In America is a long book, and isn’t a fast read, but for me it was a satisfying novel. Sontag’s comprehension and mastery of details and history, even the most minute of them, is masterful. The historical content within the pages of In America is quite valuable. She not only gives the reader insight into the dynamics of political unrest in Poland, but also of American assimilation and identity. Sontag explores life in general during a time when great waves of diverse immigrants were vying for a foothold in order to begin life anew in America. T he immigrant had to be strong and determined, no matter the situation thrown at them. They had to have an eye for the moment and take advantage of situations dealt them. In other words, they had to be a good actor.

In America: A Novel is a brilliant metaphor for the political and social aspects that led not only to emigration to America, but also to the disillusionment and/or to the satisfaction of many goals and dreams after arriving there. Susan Sontag conveys a strong message, one that reverberates throughout the pages of In America.

Brava!

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Review: Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People

The Anglo-Jewish situation is depicted with extreme precision and accuracy in the novel, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People, by Israel Zangwill. Being a second-generation Jew of Polish and Latvian heritage, he grew up the midst of the Anglo-Jewish economic and social scene in Victorian England. As both a child and an adult he lived in the Whitechapel Ghetto of London. Through life experiences, he was involved in the social situations portrayed in Children of the Ghetto, first published in 1892.

Petticoat Lane and surrounding streets in the area known as the Whitechapel Ghetto are given illumination that fills the reader’s senses. From the food stalls and carts, to the shops, clothes, and daily goings-on, Jewish life and its hardships take on new meaning through Zangwill’s exacting descriptions and vivid word-paintings. He leaves nothing unturned, and his descriptions resound with vivid clarity.

Food takes on new meaning, as the majority of the immigrant Jews live day to day in a hand to mouth situation. They have “fast days”, not associated with Jewish holidays. These are the days that they don’t have food to eat. They get free food three times a week, and try to make it through to the next handout by fasting. Life is harsh and difficult, and within the social stratum of it, the Jewish factors illuminate.

Esther Ansell is a young girl whose mother died. She is left to be a surrogate mother to her siblings, and is still a child, herself. She is confronted with all of the challenges of raising children, including feeding them and clothing them. She is an avid reader, loves books, and has goals of becoming a writer. Her father is constantly studying Torah, and when he isn’t doing that he is praying. He does try to earn an income, but never seems to entirely succeed. This reinforces the family’s strife and keeps them in a constant state of poverty.

Raphael Leon is a man torn between two worlds, the ever-changing societal politics and economics, and the traditions of old. Character after character take on the burdens of the past in their attempt to move forward. Some characters manage to unload the baggage, others are caught in the folds of tradition, and can not let go. Retaining strong traditions within a modern environment is difficult for some, less difficult for others. Within the movement of secularism, many Jews practiced their traditions behind closed doors, illuminating a sign of the times externally.

The younger generation, born inside the Ghetto, find themselves in a disparate situation. They go to school, the Jews Free School, established for children of penniless Jewish immigrants. Their primary language is English, and they have adapted to secular standards. This generation of Jews is in transition between the traditions and mores of their Ashkenazi and Sephardi parents and grandparents, and between the modern society of their time period. They are in a quandary of sorts.

The forces of the old homeland and its traditions versus the modern day society are sharp and concise, and the reader is taken back to an era in transition. It is a time when the Orthodox Jews of the “old country” find it difficult to assimilate into modern English society. Yiddish is the language they speak, and their children speak English outside the house, but speak Yiddish inside. Even at that, some of the children are reluctant to continue speaking it, even inside the house. They are Anglo-Jews, and they are the individuals who will mold future generations of English Jews.

Many of the characters portrayed are in double-bind between the past and here and now. Hannah Jacobs, for instance, has a chance at love and marriage. Due to a legality that dates back to the existence of the Jerusalem Temple, she is not able to marry the man of her choice, David Brandon. Her father, Rabbi Shemuel, is insistent on that factor. Hannah and David dismiss that theory and plan to meet, run off, elope and marry in a civil ceremony.

Sam Levine believes in “muscular Judaism,” a movement that encourages both mental and physical strength in order to foster efforts to achieve a Zionist national state. Within his beliefs lies his parental roots, that never let him forget where he came from. Jewish transition and the Jewish homeland, although his goal, is restricted at times due to his ancestry.

Within the streets live a varied blend of Jews, and some with differing traditions and life styles. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews and their customs and religious practices differed. Along with that, their common denominator, Judaism, did not necessarily bring them together in a harmonious way. The Orthodoxy and the Heterodoxy are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some Jews felt superior to others, and some exhibited charitable tendencies to the less fortunate Jews in order to gain status within the Jewish community and within English society.

Zangwill’s historical novel is an intense read, yet one that also exhibits humor within the pages. Jewish humor is like no other, and through euphemisms filled with humor, and through humorous moments during gatherings, the Jews often get through their days, days of a life of hardship. Zangwill is forthright in his descriptions, describing every minute particle of Jewish life. His portrayal of the Ghetto streets, Ghetto homes, Ghetto life, Ghetto amusements, Ghetto Jews, and Jewish traditions is masterful. His own upbringing gave him the foundation to write the novel, and he filled the pages with brilliant scenarios, taken straight from his own background.

Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People is an incredible read. I felt the characters were realized, and found them to be credible. The novel is filled with societal, economic and political mutation. The comparison of “then and now” is astounding. The reader is taken to the heights of a changing Jewish England, a changing London, and a society fluctuating in constant transformation and metamorphosis. I gained so much from this historical novel, from the social journeys and searches, to the scenarios of the time period, it was as if I was physically there. I was infused with Victorian London in every aspect, due to Israel Zangwill’s mastery with his stunning prose.

-The Grandchildren of the Ghetto, is a sequel, Israel Zangwill’s second book, which was published separately (although some editions have condensed it with The Children of the Ghetto).

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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 you 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.

Sholem_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 schnorrers, 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. 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.

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Review: A Perfect Peace

Amos Oz’s novel, A Perfect Peace, brings the reader a bit of an inside look into life within the kibbutz environment. Set in Israel, as most of his books are, it was quite the insightful story. The 1960s kibbutz setting emphasized the harshness and the difficulties the individuals had to go through in order to find a sense of place, sense of Self and sense of peace.

The characters were floundering for varied reasons, and their mindsets were brought to the forefront by Oz’s masterful writing. From first-generation disenchantment with kibbutz life in the stifling environment, where “privacy” is only a word, to the almost guinea pig atmosphere of life, Oz confronts the issues of daily life with strength and uncompromising honesty.

Through Oz’s honest appraisal, the reader is given privy to the corruption that runs rampant throughout the kibbutz and the state. It is not an idealistic story in that respect. Some of the less than ideal situations causes much disharmony within the kibbutz, where life is stifling to begin with. In the view of a few of the first generation to be born on an Israel kibbutz, kibbutz life defined as stifling would be an understatement.

We are given access to the mindsets of the characters, and their disillusions, anger and rage, questioning of ethics and questioning of participation in the humane along with the non-humane running of a tight ship, almost in a tyrannical fashion. Lack of motivation leads one man in particular, named Yoni, to want to leave the kibbutz in order to find what he believes he is missing. He feels there must be something better and more worthwhile outside of the confines of his daily life.

Yet, another individual tries to move in, and is in constant fear of being turned away, and of not being accepted and liked by others. His trials and tribulations take different paths than Yoni.

Oz understood the social, political, emotional and environmental aspects. I applaud him for his excellent and brilliant word-images he presents us, and for his mastery in not only conveying corruption, but also in conveying the kibbutz life in all of its essences. I recommend A Perfect Peace to everyone.

I read the book to learn more about kibbutz life, and once I was finished, I had my own thoughts, thoughts within my own mind regarding kibbutz life in respect from those who founded them, and those who became the first generation of the founders. Kibbutz life affected the first-generation in ways that have not usually been written about. Life was not easy, was harsh, was not conceived as individualistic. Each individual was a part of the whole, part of the kibbutz community. Each child seemingly had more than one mother and father.

How this upbringing impacted the children gives one food for thought. Most of the adults were escaping a pogrom, escaping Holocaust-related events, tyranny, antisemitic abuse, escaping in order to find a better life. The kibbutz was a form of communal effort and struggles, some of which did not afford the adults the dreams they had wished for.

Those dreams were quashed and their children were raised with firm hands and old ideas and ideals. In essence, their own dreams (children’s) were not given any credence, and they came to regard those dreams as being unfulfillable. The story line was quite illuminating in that respect.

I want to make something clear. My thoughts in reference to kibbutz life are not meant to be in anyway reflective of a negative attitude on my part. I have friends who spent part of their teen years or young adult years on one, and had wonderful experiences. The book details one kibbutz of many, and a few individuals living in that kibbutz, along with their own baggage.

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Review: Brick Lane

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, is a story that depicts immigrant life in London’s East End, with flavor and flair. From the first page to the last, this reader inhaled her prose, and her defining of community assimilation so effectively.

Not only are the immigrants a part of the whole, in relation to community, but they are also a part of familial dreams, traditions and expectations. And, they are also individuals, who try to grasp the enormity of what it is to survive in another culture, and survive in their own cultural world, within the confines of the East End.

Two sisters, each married with different perspectives on life, love and domesticity. Nazneen’s marriage to Chanu is an arranged one, and she finds herself in the midst of life in London, a life with restrictions and cultural mores and traditions of the Bangladesh she left behind. Her sister, Hasina, remains in Bangladesh, and married for love. Through Nanzeen’s loneliness, her letters from her sister become a source of comfort, in a world where there is little to comfort her.

She is the dutiful wife and mother, takes care of household issues, and takes care of her husband and fulfills his desires within the poverty-stricken environment they live in. Chanu, ever the dreamer, is a life-long student, always taking some type of course in which he hopes to improve their lifestyle. He feels the key to success is education. He doesn’t quite understand that is education will get him nowhere, due to the cultural divide.

His educational efforts do not come to fruition as far as a promotion on his job, and he eventually has to resort to driving cabs. He sees the light, and has to acknowledge to himself the failure of his situation. His learning has gotten him nowhere, nowhere except a demeaning job forced upon him in order to survive and feed his family.

Nanzeen and Chanu’s children are handfuls. They are arrogant and do not agree with the old customs and traditions. They show a facade, as far as their Islamic religion and culture, within the realm of their neighborhood.

Nanzeen, herself, demonstrates growth potential. She eventually gains a sense of independence, and sense of self. She begins to wander from her neighborhood, and begins to realize there are other aspects to life, aside from the strictness forced on her within her marriage and familial traditions.

Some of what she experiences are fostered in part by her correspondence with her sister, Hasina. Hasina speaks of marriage with love, marriage as an ideal. Yet, as time goes by, Nanzeen realizes the fallacy of her sister’s life.

Monica Ali has created a novel that speaks to the heart and soul, one that brings emotional levels that rise up and decline. Yet, through it all, Nanzeen matures in ways that are realistic, especially her growth being a slow process within the Bangladesh community of London’s East End. Step by step, she advances through the years, and becomes a more self-assured person within the world of intense tradition and expectations.

Ali’s writing is a bit drawn out, in my opinion. The book could have been shortened, but aside from that, her prose is intense, vivid and filled with excellent word-imagery. The imagery is so astute and sharp that this reader could almost see, taste, smell and inhale the London, East End, and all of its Bangladesh flavors and community aspects.

I could go on and on, but you must read this book yourself in order to grasp the seriousness of the socialization, deprivation, integration, and assimilation aspects of Brick Lane.

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