Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

During the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as a volunteer with the Russian Jewish community in Chicago. The program was funded by the Jewish United Fund. The volunteers helped families practice English while assisting with the difficult transition to American life. In most cases, families were inter-generational, with grandparents living with children and grandchildren. The experience allowed me to look at American life through the lens of an immigrant. It gave me an appreciation for the freedoms I enjoyed that my Soviet brethren had not.

In addition, I listened to family members recount their experiences with anti-semitism, much of which was state sanctioned prior to the 60s. Having taken my own admission to universities for granted, I learned how entrance into universities in the USSR often required a bribe, as did many government services. Gradually, I came to understand the complex relationship Soviet Jewry had with their motherland and with their new home in America.

Thus it was with a sense of empathy that I read A Replacement Life (2014), by Boris Fishman. In it, he explores the many conflicts - ethical, social, and familial - that face his protagonist, Slava Gelman. After listening to Bob Edwards interview the author, it became evident that Slava is an alter-ego of the author himself.  (Bob Edwards Weekend, July 4, 2014, NPR)

Fishman was born in Belarus in 1979 and came to the United States in 1988 at the age of 9. He became the official English speaker for his parents and grandparents. As a child, and later as an adolescent, he helped them navigate the complicated ways of a new society. When he was only 15, his grandmother asked him to write an appeal to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany. She was claiming reparations for her two years as prisoner in the Minsk ghetto during WWII. There were no surviving records from that period. The Germans destroyed the ghetto in 1943 and executed the remaining inhabitants.

Even at that young age, Fishman knew that the lack of record-keeping would encourage deceit. Indeed, it did. In 2010, twelve forgers who invented Holocaust stories were indicted.  Had the scam not been foiled, the German government would have paid upwards of $50 million to people who were never in the camps.  In an interview with Tablet Magazine, Fishman suspends judgment:

If you lived in (the U.S.S.R.), he explains, you couldn't get certain basic things without going around the law. Some people remained honorable and did without; some people lucked out and knew the right people; others just wanted a little more for their families. I'm not talking about Rolls-Royces and gold watches. I'm talking about another pair of shoes or a banana. Tangerines were a once-a-year luxury. Sometimes, you could not get basic things without resorting to light crime.

It is this very dilemma that occupies the heart of A Replacement Life. Slava yearns for a sense of belonging and for the recognition of his writing skills by the literary magazine that employs him. These are not forthcoming. He is gradually drawn into his grandfather's world and begins writing stories - all with kernels of truth - for people not technically recognized as survivors of the Holocaust. He rationalizes that they did, after all, suffer. He becomes a better writer with each document he fabricates. There is just one problem: Slava's actions are illegal, and eventually, he must choose between his interpretation of justice and the law itself.

Boris Fishman has written a poignant and funny novel that examines truth versus family loyalty and explores suffering in its many dimensions.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Gemini by Carol Cassella


Gemini, by Carol Cassella, is an engaging story that focuses around an ethical dilemma in a Seattle Intensive Care Unit. An unidentified woman has been brought from the scene of a hit and run accident to a rural hospital on the Olympic Peninsula. There, something goes terribly amiss in surgery and Jane Doe never regains consciousness. She is air-lifted to the ICU and becomes the patient of Dr. Charlotte Reese.

At this point, the reader is introduced to a parallel story - that of twelve year old Raney and Bo - the boy she befriends. Raney comes from a poor, rural family. Knowing nothing about her father and abandoned by her mother, Raney now lives with her widower grandfather. She is a fearless girl who escapes the harsh realities of her life by painting the beautiful, natural world around her.

By contrast, Bo comes from a wealthy albeit broken home. He is described as a waif-like, sickly boy whose attraction to the independent Raney is strong and immediate. Rainey comes to love him with equal intensity - a love that lasts through her twenties and beyond.

Gradually, the reader learns the relationship between these seemingly unrelated stories.

Gemini uses the genre of medical mystery to explore issues of class, genetics, family, and choice. Her characters - especially Raney - are drawn with depth and compassion. As a practicing anesthesiologist, the author shares some of the life and death issues that may confront a hospital physician.  Moreover, she allows her readers to see both the doctor's and the patient's point-of-view.

Ultimately, Cassella gives a realistic portrayal of the lack of choices faced by the working poor. What happens when family health issues bring personal ambitions for education to a stand-still? And how do individuals deal with life when forces beyond their control intervene?

Gemini explores these and many questions in a story about love, medical ethics and personal responsibility - all packaged into a well-written thriller.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ripper by Isabel Allende

In San Francisco, there have been some very strange murders. The latest one involves a grade school 4th grade gym class discovering a body in the gym. The man, Ed Stanton, was the school security guard. He had been shot through the lead, draped over a piece of gym equipment and assaulted with a baseball bat. The kids were thrilled by the murder; the police, not so much.

Meanwhile a group of 5 teenagers and 1 elderly man are connected through the net and are playing a game of Ripper, which is a role playing game where they adopt alter egos and try to solve the Ripper's crimes. The group members are spread out all over the world - New Jersey, Montreal, New Zealand and California. One member of the group is Amanda whose father happens to be the deputy chief of police and is trying to solve the San Francisco murders. She is also the game master. The elderly man is her grandfather, Blake Johnson. With the latest murder the group decides to try to solve the current murders instead of the Ripper's. A famous local astrologer has predicted a blood bath for San Francisco and it looks like she may be correct.

Amanda has a rather fluid life. Her parents are divorced and she shuttles between her father, the deputy police chief, and her mother a new age masseuse at the local Holistic clinic. Her mother, Indiana, is beautiful  which results in her male clients either falling in love with her or wanting to protect her from all others. Amanda is extraordinarily close to her grandfather.

Amanda's group has been carefully studying the murders. With some inside information they begin to see connections that have so far eluded the notice of the police. The group gets to look from a distance until Amanda's mother goes missing.

Allende has stepped out of her normal milieu with this story. A fast paced thriller, with a likable character in Amanda, Allende has opened up a whole  new venue for herself. The story line is fast paced, the characters engaging. If you have never read Allende try this book.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Sycamore Row, by John Grisham

Sycamore Row is the best kind of legal thriller: great writing, good storyline, and characters that really come alive on the page. Having said that, the book seems even better on audio, thanks to narrator Michael Beck, an actor and native Southerner who has voiced numerous Grisham novels.

This particular Grisham offering, set in 1988 in Mississippi, is a sequel to the author’s first novel, A Time to Kill. Like that book, Grisham’s latest work stars attorney Jake Brigance, who is once again at the heart of a controversial trial.

Before local curmudgeon Seth Hubbard, suffering from lung cancer, hung himself from a sycamore tree, he wrote a hand-written will giving the bulk of his huge estate to his black maid Lettie, and leaving virtually nothing to his adult son and daughter. With their father gone, the kids expected to be millionaires; they have a copy of Hubbard’s will that was written earlier, and that will includes them and doesn't mention Lettie. Obviously, Hubbard’s children have a huge problem with the new will, which was delivered to Attorney Brigance right before the old man did himself in.

What did Lettie do to deserve the majority of his money, asks the dead man’s children, and a lot of the townspeople are wondering the same thing. Was Hubbard out of his mind on pain-numbing drugs when he penned the new will? Or did Lettie coerce him or possibly romance him into leaving his fortune to her? Even her husband has his suspicions, though he is more than happy to think of himself as a future rich man, and he is just one of Lettie’s many relatives who feel her good fortune is theirs too.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez AND The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice

At the 2014 Printers Row Lit Fest, Cristina Henriquez and  Luanne Rice discussed their most recent works with Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea and Henriquez are writers recognized for their works about immigrants and immigration from Latin America. Luanne Rice had contacted Urrea about her story for The Lemon Orchard wanting to know if this story of immigration from Mexico was her story to tell. Urrea urged her to do so. 

HenrĂ­quez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, The World In Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories. She was born in Delaware and now lives in the Chicago area. She spent her childhood summers in Panama with her father's extended family and it is her own personal knowledge and experiences that are reflected in most of her work. Her prose is exceptional and her stories are powerful.

Her most recent, The Book of Unknown Americans, has been widely reviewed and praised.   This is one example, from The Washington Post:
“The Book of Unknown Americans’ is a deeply stirring story about a budding romance between two unlikely lovers, but it is also a ringing paean to love in general: to the love between man and wife, parent and child, outsider and new­comer, pilgrims and promised land. With a simple, unadorned prose that, in the end, rises to the level of poetry, HenrĂ­quez achieves the seemingly impossible: Without a trace of sentimentality, without an iota of self-indulgence or dogma, she tells us about coming to America.”

The Book of Unknown Americans is set in Delaware and told by a variety of immigrants from Latin America, living in one apartment building. A boy and a girl who fall in love are central to the story. Each chapter is told in a different voice and by a different person, including the boy, the parents of the girl, and others who live in this small world and share the immigrant experience from a multiplicity of viewpoints.


New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice is the author of thirty-one novels. After hearing her speak about The Lemon Orchard, I knew this was one I wanted to read. It was based on her own personal experience of moving across the country to California and of time spent learning the story of a landscaper, an undocumented Mexican worker, with whom she became friends.

In The Lemon Orchard, Julia, mourning her daughter's death, moves to Malibu to house-sit for her aunt and uncle. The man who oversees the orchard, Roberto, shares with Julia the story of his journey to California from Mexico and of the loss of his daughter on that difficult journey. The book is a romance, but, even more, a story of many aspects of love and of caring, compassion for and helping others.

This is what Rice said about her experiences in an interview: " I went to the desert with the non-profit Water Station to volunteer. The desert is so vast, and death happens all the time. I was grateful that my friends survived, and it was humbling to fill water barrels and know we were saving lives. Armando’s family reminds me of my own, and of research I did about our ancestors immigration to the U.S. from Ireland. Like his, my family left a place and people they loved to escape poverty and search for a better life." This sensibility informs the story she tells in The Lemon Orchard.  

After you read these two tender and informative books, I hope you will read one by Urrea, if you have not already done so.


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The Lemon Orchard - check our catalog
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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Willin': The Story of Little Feat by Ben Fong-Torres

You may be familiar with the songs of Little Feat from the other artists that have performed them. Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, The Byrds, Robert Palmer and even Van Halen have covered Little Feat songs on their albums. Or you might actually know Little Feat's songs from their original albums, though they certainly weren't a band that sold tons of albums in their 1970s prime. They had a sound that bridged rock, R&B and New Orleans funk and while the quality of their work went down in their reunion in the wake of founder and guiding light Lowell George's death they still have a dedicated following.

Much of the focus of music writer Ben Fong-Torres' new biography of the band is (appropriately) on Lowell George, the unique frontman of the band (and the owner of the little feat of the band's moniker). George got his start playing with The Fraternity of Man, his own band The Factory and Frank Zappa's Mothers, from whom he escaped with bassist Roy Estrada in order to form his new band with drummer Richie Hayward and keyboardist Bill Payne. George had a large appetite for both food and drugs and between his size and his unique slide guitar style (played with a spark plug socket) he would end up being the center of the band's focus by fans and the media. Luckily he was a heck of a songwriter too, with a sound that moved beyond the traditional R&Besque sounds of similar groups.

Little Feat was signed to Warner Brothers and while their first couple of albums did not sell well, they were lucky to be signed to a label that would take time to develop artists, enabling them to tour and develop a bigger following during years to come. Unfortunately Lowell George died at the age of 34 due to heart failure brought on by excessive weight and drug use. The band broke up but reformed years later and has continued touring with different lead singers. To be honest, I skimmed this last section of the book since the band became a lot less interesting both musically and personality-wise in its later years.

The book is a fairly workmanlike read in parts but for those interested in the band, it serves a good purpose. Unfortunately, once George dies the book (and the band become a lot less interesting). I do think that the best way to judge this book is that it certainly made me want to go back and listen to Little Feat's catalog album by album.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My introduction to the writing of Donna Tartt came late. It began with The Goldfinch - a Dickensian suspense novel whose characters, for all their frailties, remain sympathetic and identifiable. The Goldfinch is her third and most recent book. The Secret History, the author's first novel, was published twenty years ago. Donna Tartt was only 28 years old at the time of publication.

From the prologue, the reader is made aware of a murder - a premeditated murder by five college friends. The ensuing 524 pages are an exploration of why the murder occurred and its psychological aftermath.

Our narrator, Richard Papen, is one of six classics students who form a tightly knit group at a small, East Coast college. Of the six, Richard is the outsider - the poor kid from a family without means and lacking respect for higher education. Thus Richard seeks to reinvent himself. At college, he ingratiates himself into the wealthy and elite group of classics students taught by the enigmatic Julian.

The six students, each fully actualized in the book, and Julian, the erudite muse, do not mingle with others on campus. They study only Greek and read untranslated classics. Estranged as they are from their families and the world at large, they start living outside its moral boundaries.

As Richard reflects:
Religious slurs, temper tantrums, insults, coercion, debt: all petty things, really, irritants - too minor, it would seem, to move five reasonable people to murder. But if I dare say it, it wasn't until I had helped to kill a man that I realized how elusive and complex an act a murder can actually be, and not necessarily attributable to one dramatic motive. (p. 215)

The Secret History is far more than a murder mystery. It exposes the accesses of academia and the "intellectual life" while exploring the depths of individual remorse.

If you liked The Goldfinch - or even if you did not - you will want to read this book. Donna Tartt gives us a glimpse into the rarefied world of the upper classes and its privileged youth. She proves, once again, that morality is not so flexible and all is not what it seems.

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