Tag Archives: social dynamics

Book Diva Review: Snapshots

snapshotscover Snapshots, by Michal Govrin is a novel that examines Judaism, love, fulfillment, motherhood, zionism, war, and so much more. We are given not only physical photographs/snapshots, but descriptive prose that brings us a personal perspective of the issues and affairs in the state of Israel, through one woman’s often confused, determined, conflicted and blinded eyes.

The protagonist is Ilana Tsuriel, and we are given snippets and snapshots of her life through photographs, drawings, letters, and scrawled journal entries, most of which are written to her recently deceased father (her way of saying Kaddish for him), and is her way of staying close to him. Her father helped to build the state of Israel. She has a deep sense of social responsibility and a deep sense of personal fulfillment, and we feel the human element throughout Snapshots. Tsuriel is a mother, the wife of a Holocaust historian, an architect, the daughter of a pioneer of Israel, and she is also a woman who has had several affairs, including one with a Palestinian named Sayyid.

The novel takes place during the first Gulf War, and Tsuriel’s passion to reunite with her Palestinian lover, and her steadfast and determined passion to continue on with her architectural project, sees her moving to Israel with her two young sons (during the beginnings of the war), against the wishes of her husband. Her project is a unique monument, and is one with a serene setting, where Sukkot-like huts on a hillside overlook the valley, where one can go on sabbatical to reflect and feel free from life stresses, where those of diverse backgrounds can come together, peacefully. Tsuriel is trying to accomplish this during a turbulent and relentless time period, often appearing as though she is not fully cognizant of the ongoing problems surrounding her and her children.

Tsuriel, although seemingly aware of the situation she is putting her children through, feels it is important for them to understand the sense of time, place and Homeland in Israel. She doesn’t completely face the gravity and reality of the situation, the war and the ongoing devastation. The perils of war seem to play a minor role in her scheme of things, as they don’t sway her from her goals.

She is a strong-willed woman, and one who seems to want to fulfill her goals at all costs. Tsuriel is causing her sons to feel alienated from her, feeling the insecurities of war, and the insecurities of a mother who they feel is not often there for them, emotionally. They have food, shelter, clothes, yet what they crave is her full attention. They need to feel secure. And, she isn’t there to bring them emotional security and support, due to her overzealous passions for her project. She is a woman at odds with herself, her marriage, her children, and constantly in a state of confusion as to priorities.

Tsuriel feels Jewishness and its responsibility within her, and tries to convey it to her children. Yet, on the first anniversary of her father’s death, she doesn’t visit the cemetery, leave a stone, light a candle or say Kaddish for him. Her Jewishness has visions of grandeur, and it has boundaries, both emotional and political.


Govrin’s
attempts to contain so much content in one novel, often whitewashing the moments, like a negative not completely developed, are realized. And, that is the foundation of the novel, the snapshots of life that we are given, in haphazard and scrawling script, bits and pieces of life written during time of war, in almost frantic and desperate fashion anywhere, everywhere, when the mood strikes her.

Snapshots is a well-written book of imagery, both word paintings and actual photographs. Michal Govrin has the ability to bring vivid scenarios to our minds, filling all of our senses, through the depressing pages of Snapshots. The book is not a light and airy read, and it is not a quick read. I had to put it down and take a break from it, several times, before going back to it. It was almost a chore to finish (due to the dismal and non-uplifting content), even though it was well-written. It is insightful into the human condition, and its vivid presence in emotional and physical lives.

In my opinion Snapshots is a metaphor for confusion, both emotional, social, religious and political.

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Book Diva Review: The Rise of David Levinsky

theriseofdavidlev The rise of David Levinsky, by Abraham Cahan, is true-to-life in its depiction of the Jewish immigrant experience, leaving nothing to the imagination.

David Levinsky is a Hasidic Jew living a Torah-filled life in a Russian village. He comes from a family of poverty, and one that is stringent in Torah study. He is unhappy in his situation, and eventually sails to America, disembarking in New York City.

From the minute he finds himself standing on American soil, Levinsky’s journey begins, taking him into the heart of socialization and cultural displacement, a displacement he avidly tries to overcome.

He is a fast learner, as far as trying to fit into society’s demands. He is insightful as far as his exterior environment, and realizes that in order to succeed he must learn to speak English, not act as if he is a greenhorn, dress as if he is successful, and coordinate his mannerisms to an ideal that will let him succeed. All this, he manages to eventually accomplish, within the realm of his goals of being a proper businessman.

The streets of New York City are depicted with amazing clarity. Cahan knows from where those streets lead, as he, himself was a Jewish immigrant, arriving in Philadelphia in 1882, and then quickly traveling to New York City. He eventually worked his way up, through his social learnings, and eventually founded the Jewish Daily Forward.

His story could almost be Levinsky’s story. The learnings and social stigmas that Levinsky had to overcome in order to succeed in business, are portrayed with brutal clarity within the novel. I am sure Cahan’s own experiences fill many of the pages.

The latter part of the 19th century is detailed in every aspect. I was amazed at the incredible details that exhaled from the pages. From there, through the early 20th century, the reader is taken back in time to every conceivable issue, from religion to education, sex to romantic, social to assimilation, business to materialism, and so much more. Each facet of society and its doings are examined, especially those involving the lower east side of New York City.

Levinsky’s desire for success and desire to become rich are documented through all of his dealings. From business banking to storefronts, cloak making and competition, and eventual warehouses, each facet of his business dealings incorporate his very desire to build an empire, and build it he does.

Within those structures, he also involves himself with women, and the women that he finds most attractive are ones that he can not have. His wealth and empire can not buy him love.

Levinsky rose in stature and success, yet his reputation and the respect he gained did not foster a sense of family or belonging within his environment. He gained financial success beyond his wildest dreams, only to fail in the romance department.

I read The Rise of David Levinsky always mindful of when it was written, always mindful of the language, grammar, land usage of slang, Yiddish and linguistics of the time period. I felt that to be extremely important in order to gain a sense of time and socialization.

Abraham Cahan has given this reader a sense of the late 19th century-early twentieth century New York City. My senses were filled with the streets of New York, the homes of New York, the business wheelings and dealings of New York. They were filled with the experience of immigrant life in all of its ugliness, hardships, demeaning attitudes, strivings to survive and so much more. I applaud Abraham Cahan for his accomplishment.

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Book Diva Review: Enrique’s Journey

enrique NazaEnrique’s journey, by Sonia Nazario, is more than a journey, it is the compelling, unbelievable, and factual saga of Enrique, and his harrowing odyssey through lands unknown, in order to find his mother. He traverses from the Honduras to the United States, traveling twelve-thousand miles in order to come face-to-face with her.

Enrique’s mother left in order to find work in the United States. She sent most of her earnings back home to feed, clothe and house her children and other family members. They were able to survive, due to her efforts. But, her efforts cost her important things that money could not provide or buy. She lost years, and in her own words, “On the one hand it was worth it…at first. But on the other hand…no. I lost their childhood.”

This book is gripping, dramatic, filled with scenarios one might find in an adventure movie or a thriller movie. Enrique’s harrowing experiences leave one overwhelmed at the thought that a young boy could endure and overcome so many obstacles in order to reach his dream.

From drug-infested streets, to railroad boxcars, to work camps and jails, and through so many other appalling scenes, I found my heart racing along with the emotional roller coaster ride this book took me on. It is difficult to let go, and I am not sure that I will let go of Nazario’s accounting of Enrique and his family. I am not sure that I want to let go.

Nazario reaches into the depths of the immigration experience, which she thoroughly researched and documented through witness accounts and photographs, interviews and film. Her efforts gained her a Pulitzer Prize, in 2002, when her series “Enrique’s Journey” appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

This book includes that series, and so much more. The information contained within the pages is a testament to Sonia Nazario’s dedication to the cause of humanity, and her striving to bring a face to the story of immigrants and the immigrant experience, immigrants who are human beings. We are all one minute speck, under the sun.

I highly recommend Enrique’s Journey to everyone.

I am sorry for the update, but I have received some news on Enrique’s Journey, directly from the author, Sonia Nazario, who responded to this post. There is a young adult version of the book, which came out August 27, 2013. Here is the link to it. Included in this book, according to Ms. Nazario, is the fact “It has an epilogue that updates people about Enrique and the immigration issue.”

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Book Diva Review: Chains Around the Grass

chains Chains Around the Grass, by Naomi Ragen, is a novel that is about family dynamics, expectations, resilience and so much more.

The book opens in Queens, New York, and it is 1955. From that point forward, the underlying context of the story line goes downhill. It is a depressing read, within the less than desirable confines of the low-income housing projects.

David Markowitz is a Jew who has done what so many other Jews have done in the past, given up his Jewish identity and assimilated into the folds of America. He changed his son’s surname to Marks. He has high hopes of making it big in a world filled with schemers and dreamers.

Capitalistic mores and values are strong within the pages. They overtake the social aspects of identity and culture, creating realities that family members don’t want to face. The “American Dream” turns into a constant nightmare for the Markowitz family.

David’s wife Ruth and their three children become the victims of poverty. In David’s mind the children become the scapegoats of dreams that have turned to nightmares. And his children are victimized as their innocence is broken at too young an age.

David’s wife passively allows him to be the decisive one in the family, making all of the decisions, even though she doesn’t always agree with them. As hard as he tries to move his family out of poverty and out of the less than desirable living conditions they find themselves in, he fails. He tries to sound optimistic and speaks in a positive tone, often too loudly, hoping against hope that they will be happy in their environment.

David feels that with each move they have managed to somehow move up in status, when in actuality they have been bumped down several notches. This reflects in the attitudes of his children, and how they adjust to, and accept, their new surroundings. They see the truth behind the superficial attempts David makes at overplaying the situations he has put them in. Eventually David begins to see the reality, but it comes at a time when it is too late.

The “chains” are metaphorical for not only the reality of their oppressive existence, but also for the emotional levels that keep each of them bound in a regressed state, unable to move forward.

One area of the novel that is filled with clarity is David’s daughter, Sara’s eagerness to accept and find fulfillment in education and Judaism. She finds a sense of comfort within the Jewish day school, whereas her brother, Jesse is the opposite. He forsakes education and religion, and in the end is filled with self-hate, which shows in his destructive behavior and interactions. Sara begins to value herself, and her self-esteem is slowly enhanced by her religious and educational pursuits.

Ragen is adept at reflecting the individual mindsets within the family interactions, the situations and the devastating events. What I found a bit lacking in Chains Around the Grass was the fact that the characters didn’t seem to have much substance to them. But, of course, that all ties in with the extreme euphoria that David often projected, and superficial aspect behind the enhanced exterior presented to others. It also makes sense in the scheme of things with Ruth and her passiveness, due to his overbearing behavior which masks his underlying insecurities.

Ragen writes with her usual flair, enhancing the theme of Jewish illuminations within an environment of despair. She tries to weave a sense of hope within the prose, and sometimes it works, and at other times it doesn’t within the chapters of Chains Around the Grass. It is not a happy read, but a sad one, and I feel that the inspiration that Ragen might have wanted the reader to come away with left this reader without hopeful glimmers during many of the passages within the pages. Of course, this could be intentional on her part, due to the themes of the demeaning and debilitating circumstances of lives that are filled with adversity and poverty, lives that often do not have hope. She more than likely wanted to underscore the severity of their lives.

Naomi Ragen is brilliant at writing and creating stories of despair. Within the slow-moving pages I began to recognize the slow-paced emotional and logical development of Sara, and even her mother, Ruth. Many may not like Chains Around the Grass, due to its slowness and/or often depressive content. If you stay with the book, there will be illumination, although it is often slight, nonetheless, it is illumination that radiates hope.

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Book Diva Review: Being Polite to Hitler

beingpolite In the book, Being Polite to Hitler-A Novel, by Robb Forman Dew, the title can be initially misleading, because the book has nothing to do with Hitler, and everything to do with the societal standards and mores of time.

From 1953 on, Agnes, the main character, follows etiquette’s insistence on politeness, even during moments where circumstances are less than ideal or less than positive. In her mind, politeness is a standard to be idealed, and even if Hitler was standing in front of her she would exhibit politeness, despite her feelings.

The characters in the book are floundering within the realm, of family dynamics and communications. Their often political discussions are ones that leave much to be desired, and it seems as if they are speaking to hear themselves talk. They are flat, and their personalities are not ones that are necessarily desired.

The reader sees what the individuals are thinking, through their mind’s view of what is occurring or not occurring, especially through Agnes’ eyes. She is reflective of her past. Yet, often times what is not occurring is actually more demonstrative of feelings than if words were uttered.

From the various major developments within a twenty plus span of years, Agnes seems untouched by the occurrences, such as Sputnik, the John F. Kennedy assassination, desegregation, and so much more. It is easier to allow the mind to dismiss or not dwell on the situations, and go on with life without blemishes of historical consequence.

History is quite evident, within the pages, yet when Agnes and her family and friends are confronted with news or the latest incidents, they seem to avoid acknowledging them.

I found Being Polite to Hitler to be a less than interesting read. It is not really my type of story, but I am sure others will enjoy it. The setting and details regarding clothes, living habits, monetary influences, etc. are depicted quite well. The descriptions and portrayals of lackluster individuals caught in the stream of daily life, trying to out voice each other is very pronounced and well written.

With that said, I still did not enjoy the story line of Being Polite to Hitler. I am glad it was a library book, and not one I bought.

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Book Diva Review: A Changed Man

A Changed Mana changed man, by Francine Prose is a well-written novel with seemingly opposing characters.

From a self-claimed Neo-Nazi to a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the male characters do not seem to dramatically change, in my opinion, although they do reach a form of acceptance with each other.

On one hand, we have Vincent Nolan (a Timothy McVeigh look-alike), who professes to be using the “World Brotherhood Watch” organization to help “save guys from becoming guys like me”. He literally uses the premise of the organization to help him survive…they feed him, clothe him, etc. He is in need of a place to live, has no funds to find a place, and decides on a plan, whereby he convinces Maslow that he is trying to do good. He in turn gives Meyer Maslow (the founder and head of the organization, and a Holocaust survivor) the boost that is needed to help promote the organization, and to promote his latest book (which is not selling well). Nolan becomes the poster boy for Maslow’s foundation.

Maslow convinces Maslow’s assistant, Bonnie, to take Nolan in and give him a roof over his head. Bonnie has two children, and her family is rather dysfunctional. Maslow, himself, contorts the fact that he convinced Bonnie to take Nolan in, by stating to himself (over and over again), and to others, that Bonnie volunteered to take him in.

Maslow uses the organization to help those in need, but he also uses any opportunity to promote his own image…that of being a man of honor, trust and a man who is trying to save the world, a person at a time. He even questions his own motives for doing what he does, wondering if it is for the right reason. At one point he claims that material things do not matter to him, because he has experienced the worst of life without them, yet he is married, lives in a mansion, and dresses in Armani suits (proudly). Nothing but the best for him. Often those who have done without, and have lived on the edge of death exhibit this form of behavior.

For me, A Changed Man could have exhibited characters with a bit more depth, but then again, emotional and traumatic pain is often camouflaged by what appears to be a cold and rigid exterior. Survival of the fittest tactics are often subconsciously used, while inside the person is going through their own turmoil, their own emotional horrors. I think that is what Francine Prose was aiming for. If so, she did an excellent job, and A Changed Man is a must read book.

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