JULY BOOK NOOK: Three Books about Immigration

Book Nook reviewer Abby Pinard is back–this time, with three books about immigration.

A REPLACEMENT LIFE

by Boris Fishman, 2014

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Slava Gelman is a junior staffer at a magazine that isn’t but might as well be The New Yorker, where his assignment is to ferret out and crack wise about absurd news items in small-town newspapers. Slava lives on the Upper East Side, which isn’t but might as well be on the other side of the world from “Soviet Brooklyn” where he landed as a child on arrival from Minsk (as did Fishman), where his grandparents still live, and which his parents fled for suburban New Jersey. When Slava’s grandmother dies, he treks via subway to Brooklyn and before long is trekking regularly, roped by his scheming grandfather into crafting (he’s a writer, isn’t he?) a fictitious claim to the German government for a slice of the reparations pie earmarked for Holocaust survivors. So what if Grandfather didn’t suffer precisely as required to be eligible? Didn’t the Germans make sure to kill those who did? So begins Boris Fishman’s darkly comic and very impressive debut novel.

Fishman pulls off a difficult feat in a first novel, even one so closely grounded in his own experience. He has written a book that is both funny and genuinely moving. The Jews of Brighton Beach, who survived the Nazis and the Soviets through cunning, luck and sheer force of will, are a brilliantly drawn tough lot, re-inventing themselves once again in a place where you can “afford to be decent.” Slava wants to free himself from “the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn” and earn a byline by writing elegant prose but in borrowing true elements of his dead grandmother’s life to fashion false narratives for his grandfather and his grandfather’s friends, he is drawn more deeply into the past and into the community he has longed to escape.

Poor, confused Slava, torn between past and present, loyalty and honor, skinny uptown Arianna and luscious childhood playmate Vera… Is he being followed? Will his fraud be uncovered? At what cost? Will he do the right thing? I loved this book. Fishman tells a good story, one with moral ambiguity and conflicting loyalties, and his prose crackles with irony and wit. If you were in any danger of thinking that the immigrant experience has been exhaustively mined in fiction, think again. Boris Fishman is a welcome voice and A Replacement Life is a wholly original and worthy contribution.

 

PANIC IN A SUITCASE

by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, 2014

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“The morning was ideal, a crime to waste it cooped up. They were off to the shore. That means you too, Pasha — you need some color, a dunk would do you good, so would a stroll. Aren’t you curious to see Coney Island? Freud had been. Don’t deliberate till it’s too late. Strokes are known to make surprise appearances in the family. Who knows how long…? Now, get up off that couch!

 “Pasha had just flown in last night and didn’t feel well…fourteen hours strapped into an aisle seat near the gurgling lavatory of a dented, gasoline-reeking airplane, two layovers…would have been tough on any constitution and Pasha didn’t have just any constitution but that of a poet…If he’d been smart, he would have been born a half-century earlier into a noble family and spent his adult life hopping between tiny Swiss Alp towns and lakeside sanitoria, soaking in bathhouses and natural springs, rubbing thighs with steamy neurotics, taking aimless strolls with the assistance of a branch, corrupting tubercular maidens…

“Instead Pasha was born in 1956 to a family whose nobility was strictly of spirit.”

Meet the Nasmertovs in 1991, all but Pasha planted in Brighton Beach two years ago but pining for Odessa. Scraping by in circumstances significantly reduced in status and income (both grandparents had been physicians), three generations live under one roof in a neighborhood that replicates home, even in its proximity to the sea. Gently, hilariously and mostly brilliantly, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, herself born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, captures the struggle between striving for assimilation and yearning for home. Despite their urging Pasha to emigrate and join them in Brooklyn (where he won’t have to do anything but sit on the couch so they can look at him), he is their connection to Odessa, keeper of the apartment in a prime location and the beloved dacha. Fifteen years later, Frida, the youngest Nasmertov, now in her twenties and at loose ends, visits Odessa and despite finding life there no rosier feels drawn to a place she barely remembers and that her parents and grandparents fled.

Akhtiorskaya has said that her next book might be fantasy or sci-fi. Thankfully, she wrote this one before forswearing further fiction based on her family. She is a talented writer and it will be interesting to see how she applies her talent in other realms following this fine debut.

 

I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT

by Zachary Lazar, 2014

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This is a book about identity.  Its characters — some fictional, some historical — are actual or metaphorical immigrants, products of the turbulence of Jewish history. Meyer Lansky flees pogroms in Eastern Europe, becomes a notorious American gangster and, denied citizenship by Israel, returns to the U.S. to face charges. Gila Konig, concentration camp survivor and Lansky’s mistress, never at home in Israel, emigrates to New York but always feels herself a refugee. Hannah Groff, a journalist who travels to Israel to investigate the death of an Israeli writer, unearths her own family’s history as she pursues her story and wrestles with her own feelings of rootlessness.

Underlying the displacement felt by the characters is an examination of the moral underpinnings of the state of Israel and its place in the world today. Was the writer murdered because he depicted King David as the forebear of the Jewish gangster and because he compared the founding of Israel to the vision Lansky and Bugsy Siegel had of building a shimmering city in the desert of Nevada? As a plot device, that’s an easy question to answer. As a moral/political question, it’s a heavy burden for a novel to bear and it’s not always easy for the reader to stay afloat.

Lazar skillfully weaves together multiple narrative threads across oceans and decades. When I finished the book, I was thinking that all those narrative threads were confusing and the angst suffocating. On second thought, I became more comfortable with the author’s ambition. The reflection in modern Israel of the brutality and existential threat suffered by Jews over centuries makes this more than a complex story about characters looking for a home. The novel is difficult but fascinating and ultimately satisfying.

Abby Pinard is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

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