Tag Archives: immigrant assimilation

Review: Away: A Novel

Away is a novel of epic proportions, panoramic in its landscape and a saga covering two years in the life of Lillian Leyb. Leyb is a Russian immigrant, who has fled the pograms. Her parents and husband were murdered, and as far as she knows, her precious, toddler daughter, Sophie, has been murdered also. She has emigrated to New York City to start a new life, and is very determined to assimilate and reinvent herself.

We witness her go through many changes in her desire to weave her way through the tapestries of 1920s New York City.

Survival is at the foremost in her mind. When she thinks that she has found a niche, a place of comfort where she has the essentials such as food, shelter and clothing, her life takes a turn due to some news she has found out.

Lillian’s cousin emigrates and informs her that Lillian’s daughter, Sophie, is still alive. This sparks an intense desire and passion in Lillian to try to trek to Siberia, in order to find her daughter. Lillian goes to the extremes in order to do so, trekking through expanses of land that are not inhabited, in order to make her way to try to find her daughter. Along the way she meets people of varying status and mores.

This does not deter Lillian, for she is determined to find Sophie no matter what she has to do. It might sound insane, unattainable, and sound like a journey without a happy ending, but as far as Lillian is concerned, it is one she must make.

Away, by Amy Bloom, is a novel depicting the plight of the Russian immigrant. Bloom depicts the social mores, and the ways that immigrants assimilate in order to become part of the society and country they so strongly want to live in. Away has the protaganist reinventing herself to fit her environment, only to return to her true identity.

Bloom has given us a descriptive and clear painting of love and longing, passion and strength, assimilation and identity. Her characters are flawed, but that is to be expected, as in reality, none of us are perfect. And, for those who can’t understand Lillian’s fierce will and determination, they have missed a vital part of the novel. Most of us would go to the ends of the earth to find our child, if we were in the same situation that Lillian was in, no matter how absurd it might seem. Bloom understands this, and writes with eloquence, and gives us an emotionally breathtaking novel, filled with bits of humor and filled with heart-wrenching moments within the vast expanse and panorama of America.

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I have read a more recent book of Amy Bloom’s, entitled Lucky Us, and you can read my review of it, here.

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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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Book Diva Review: How the Other Half Lives

howotheotherhalflives2 How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob A. Riis is an incredible look into the lives of others, lives of poverty that was overlooked by those of higher financial standards. The enormity of information which Riis compiled through documents, his own documentation (both written and photographically), interviews and questionnaires, is astonishing. The magnitude of his project is all-encompassing, and that he was able to accomplish what he did, in the late 1800s, is masterful in every aspect.

How the Other Half Lives in an astounding testament to New York City and its history, and to all of the immigrants and individuals whose hopes were enveloped, and often dashed, within the suffocating environment of the confining tenements and slums.

From Europe to Asia and the Middle East, immigrants from all countries were shepherded into unbearable survival conditions. They came to America hoping to have a better life, and the life they led was often worse than the one they left behind. The slum environment encompassed the worst possible lifestyle one can imagine, and Riis leaves nothing to the imagination in that respect.

The living conditions described within the pages are appalling, and even more so when it is noted that landlords often forced labor upon their tenants. In other words, I will only rent to you if you will work for me, behind closed doors. This was an accepted form of behavior, and left the tenants with less than dignified circumstances. The environment was difficult and demeaning enough, never mind the added indignity of having to work almost twelve hours a day for your landlord.

Not only were the rooms that they lived in infested with vermin of all shapes and sizes, but families, individuals and strangers were more or less forced together in extremely close quarters. Some of the families of certain ethnic backgrounds surprised Riis, with his misconception of their cleanliness. Those he thought would not be, were the best in keeping a clean home, as good as one can be under the circumstances. Those he surmised would keep a clean house, he found the opposite to be true in many cases. Money was a factor in the cultural divide.

The magnitude of the deplorable housing and working conditions is mind-boggling to this reader. I knew that life was harsh and difficult, but Riis brings the reader an in depth look into the horrific conditions forced upon the immigrants. His studies and photojournalism speak volumes to the squalor thrust upon the lower economic echelon of people. There weren’t too many choices for those seeking employment and housing. He crossed borders in his studies, and covered ethnic backgrounds others would have turned their heads away from.

Yes, there were choices, but not many, and finding the decent surroundings was extremely difficult for most, if not impossible. How the Other Half Lives opened my eyes to the worst of humanity, humanity and humiliation right under our noses, in the heart of New York City during the late 1800s.

The book was intellectual, intense and compelling. It is written with honest assessments, forthrightness and shocking depictions. Jacob A. Riss’ documentations were his effort to bring forth the deplorable conditions of the slums and tenements. He tried to open the eyes of others through his arduous labors, but most people looked the other way.

It is not a read for those with sensitive stomachs. Yet, read it through, I did. I found it to be historically important regarding the immigrant experience and the living environments that followed their disembarking into what they believed would prove to be a better life for them.

As an aside: Some readers might find this book boring, and find the grammar, in some cases, to be difficult to digest. When reading it, one must try to remember the time frame that the book was written in, and the varied dialects of the immigrants. Not everyone spoke English, and those who did, were often speaking with accents, and not necessarily schooled in the language.

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