In 1908 a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked on the door of Chicago’s police chief. After handing the Chief Shippy a letter (we never learn what it says), a frightened police force shoots Lazarus several times until he is quite dead. Aleksander Hemon writes one fictional account of Lazarus’s murder, a second of the author’s parallel immigration from Bosnia to the United States, a third about his investigation into Lazarus’s origins in Eastern Europe and life in Chicago’s tenements, and a fourth as a travelogue back to Bosnia taken by the author and a fantastical story-telling companion named Rora. Lazarus dies because deeply anti-Semitic law and order fears anarchists are destroying America and anyone with dark skin, big ears or a nose that might be Jewish is suspect. Immigration to a new country is awful, except it is not as bad as the pogroms that drive you to flee. Getting an author’s grant to take adventures through post-war Sarajevo and rural slavic countries provides good product for a novel, but ambitious, and award-winning as the novel is, the multiple story lines all remain too independent to cohere into a compelling whole.
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya ** (of 4)
In the first half of the book, Pasha, an intentionally depressive poet, because without depression there can be no decent poetry, arrives from Odessa to spend a summer month in Coney Island with his Russian Jewish family. Pasha trips on the sand at the beach, gets lost on the subway, but doesn’t seem to mind, argues with his sister, and is babied by his Mama. Every character is funny and wonderful and this young author’s style is reminiscent of her Russian forebears, Chekhov and Tolstoy, in that there is infinite amount of talking and pondering while almost nothing of consequence happens. There are even several laugh aloud moments, but by the time Part II rolls around, and the story turns to Frida, Pasha’s niece, the desire for a plot, or even anything resembling a plot, overrides lovely sentences and exquisitely rendered scenes of Russian immigrants lost between two worlds. If you are the kind that loved War and Peace this will be a delicious little morsel. On the other hand, if Russian novels feel a wee bit tedious, Panic might not be worth the effort.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz **** (of 4)
What a masterful, entertaining (if one can use such a word for such despicable deeds), and unique way of telling the story of Trujillo’s dictatorial devastation of the Dominican Republic and the impact it continues to have on the Dominican Diaspora. Oscar Wao, the protagonist, is a nerdy, Dominican fan of Sci Fi growing up beneath the dark shadow of his homeland and his mother’s experience of political tyranny. Oscar’s tribulations taught me much about the Dominican experience in the U.S. and on the island. June 2009.
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat **** (of 4)
Danticat impeccably captures the voices and inner thoughts of Haitian peasants, and first and second generation Haitian immigrants to New York and Florida. Violence lingers in the background of the story as it does in real life in a country ruled by dictators, which makes the book readable, rather than gruesome. There are several literary references to lost sight, deafness, and voices gone silent, reflections, I believe, on Danticat’s view of the Haitian plight. Characters are complicated mixtures of emotions and priorities. I listened to this book narrated by Robin Miles who distinguished half a dozen Haitian accents so effectively that I felt I knew each protagonist personally. The book is understated, rather than a two by four, subtle and complex enough that it should really be read twice or by a book club. May 2006.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri **** (of 4)
Remarkable short stories. Each one feels like a complete novel of Indian immigrants making their way in the new world.
Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam **** of 4
Islamic Pakistani immigrants struggle with isolation from their homeland and one another. Aslam’s writing is so replete with metaphor and cultural insight that every page is like peeling an orange. Beneath the skin there is the filmy white pith, a thin membrane about each section, and as the sections are removed, and juice is squeezed from within, he reveals not just the seeds, but individual cells. Aslam’s masterpiece is a highly detailed tapestry of emigrant Pakistani culture caught between the old and new. Like all intricate weavings it takes time to construct, but as the plot slowly develops, so does each character’s relationship to Islam. Thus, this is the best book I’ve read on how Islam is practiced by real people, albeit fictional ones. See also, Guests of the Sheik, The Shia Revival, Persepolis, Reading Lolita in Tehran, December 2006.
Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis. **** (of 4)
This short collection of short stories is a wonderful piece of honey cake with a glass of tea. A Jewish Russian immigrant to Toronto describes the transition he makes with his parents and uncle and aunt as they climb from helpless newcomers to weary acceptance of life in the new world, without ever losing the cultural imprinting that Russia plants within its citizenry. The book is full of smiles of recognition, truthful while remaining fictional–but who knows where autobiography is replaced by a little relish — and I think quite accessible even to people who neither know Russians or Jews. In fact, it’s probably a wonderful introduction to both. The book is short, the stories chronological, the characters continue to grow from one to the next, yet it’s not quite a novel with contiguous chapters. July 2005.
A young, wealthy, Dutch bank analyst moves to New York City with his British wife. Soon after the World Trade Center is destroyed, his wife leaves him and takes their three year old son, his apartment in lower Manhattan is abandoned, his son has developmental issues, and he has no friends. Who would want to read such depressing drivel? It’s the same genre as Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth: despair and post apocalypse desolation, only this book is pretentious, too. O’Neill reaches for every multi-syllable word he can find in his thesaurus. Hard to say why this book made so many top-10 books of 2008 lists. April 2009.
Small Island by Andrea Levy **** (of 4)
There’s a reason this book won the Whitbread Award for best book of the year, one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards. It captures the huge themes of racism and class by examining the minutiae of the lives of just four characters: two Brits and two Jamaicans who are struggling to live in England immediately following World War II. The book succeeds because it reads like a play with perfectly captured dialogue and emotion. In fact much of the action takes place inside a single house as if the house were a stage. The Jamaicans leave their home island because it is too small and confining only to discover that England is also a small island. Cold, too. June 2005.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri *** (of 4)
Compelling in the way of an auto crash. I could not look away, but I definitely felt worse for having partaken. Like her Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri delivers a compendium of short stories about the first and second generation lives of college-educated New England Bengalis. Only thing is by her accounting their lives consist nearly entirely of remorse, despair, despondence, regret, cancer, alcohol , duplicity, and disloyalty. March 2009.