Take A Peek Book Review: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Cover for Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land by artist Sarah Anne Langton

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lior Tirosh is a semi-successful author of pulp fiction, an inadvertent time traveler, and an ongoing source of disappointment to his father.

Tirosh has returned to his homeland in East Africa. But Palestina—a Jewish state founded in the early 20th century—has grown dangerous. The government is building a vast border wall to keep out African refugees. Unrest in Ararat City is growing. And Tirosh’s childhood friend, trying to deliver a warning, has turned up dead in his hotel room. A state security officer has identified Tirosh as a suspect in a string of murders, and a rogue agent is stalking Tirosh through transdimensional rifts—possible futures that can only be prevented by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

From the bestselling author of Central Station comes an extraordinary new novel recalling China Miéville and Michael Chabon, entertaining and subversive in equal measures.

My Thoughts:

Wow, what a crazy read! I can’t say I’ve ever come across Israeli science fiction before, and I enjoyed the heck out of this one.

The initial premise is intriguing — and based on true events. Back in 1904, the Zionist Congress, led by Theodore Herzl, sent an expedition to Uganda to explore land that had been proposed as a site of a future Jewish state. In our (real) world, that didn’t work out particularly well, and the idea was shelved in favor of pursuing a homeland in the “holy land”, resulting in modern-day Israel. In the world in which we begin Unholy Land, the Africa expedition was a success, resulting in the birth of Palestina, a Jewish homeland located between Uganda and Kenya. Certain of our realities exist in this world as well — native populations displaced by the creation of the state, resulting in ongoing border crises and refugee camps, a border wall, debate over the Right of Return, and never-ending peace negotiations.

But wait! There’s more. Certain people are able to travel between alternate realities, including one like our own, one in which the entire Middle East is at peace and unified after the horror of a limited nuclear event which destroyed Jerusalem, and other, more exotic and frightening worlds. There are Kabbalistic elements involved which mingle with discussion of quantum physics, and it’s all packaged up inside a very noir-feeling detective/spy plot.

I was fascinated by the descriptions of life in Palestina — the language, the culture, the food, the geography. The author does an incredibly inventive and persuasive job of making it seem like a real and viable country, while also demonstrating that in this world or any other, certain problems and challenges and misfortunes seep through no matter what.

The entire plot is somewhat mind-boggling, and I think I’ll need to let this one percolate for a bit and then return and read it all over again. It’s a quick read, but with plenty to think about. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Unholy Land
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #120: The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Family Orchard
Author: Nomi Eve
Published: 2000
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the bestselling tradition of The Red Tent, The Family Orchard is a spellbinding novel of one unforgettable family, the orchard they’ve tended for generations, and a love story that transcends the ages.

Nomi Eve’s lavishly imagined account begins in Palestine in 1837, with the tale of the irrepressible family matriach, Esther, who was lured by the smell of baking bread into an affair with the local baker. Esther passes on her passionate nature to her son, Eliezer, whose love for the forbidden Golda threatened to tear the family apart. And to her granddaughter, Avra the thief, a tiny wisp of a girl who thumbed her nose at her elders by swiping precious stones from the local bazaar-and grew to marry a man she met at the scene of a crime. At once epic and intimate, The Family Orchard is a rich historical tapestry of passion and tradition from a storyteller of beguiling power.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy about 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

Nomi Eve’s more recent novel, Henna House, went straight to the top of my oh-my-god-this-is-so-good-everyone-needs-to-read-this pile — and so I knew I needed to read her first novel as well. The subject matter and synopsis of The Family Orchard sound fascinating to me. I love reading books set in Israel and incorporating Jewish history, and I’m really looking forward to finally diving in.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Take A Peek Book Review: Waking Lions

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

After one night’s deadly mistake, a man will go to any lengths to save his family and his reputation.

Neurosurgeon Eitan Green has the perfect life–married to a beautiful police officer and father of two young boys. Then, speeding along a deserted moonlit road after an exhausting hospital shift, he hits someone. Seeing that the man, an African migrant, is beyond help, he flees the scene.

When the victim’s widow knocks at Eitan’s door the next day, holding his wallet and divulging that she knows what happened, Eitan discovers that her price for silence is not money. It is something else entirely, something that will shatter Eitan’s safe existence and take him into a world of secrets and lies he could never have anticipated.

WAKING LIONS is a gripping, suspenseful, and morally devastating drama of guilt and survival, shame and desire from a remarkable young author on the rise.

 

My Thoughts:

Waking Lions is an Israeli novel translated into English, and having or getting a grasp of Israeli social dynamics is key to understanding the conflicts and pressures involved in this story. Eitan is a respected, talented neurosurgeon who was forced into leaving his prestigious position at a Tel Aviv hospital after threatening — unsuccessfully — to expose his mentor’s corruption. Now living in the desert town of Beersheva, he’s frustrated and out of sorts, despite having a wonderful marriage and two small boys whom he loves. When he runs down the Eritrean immigrant with his SUV in the middle of the night, Eitan makes a snap decision that will haunt him and threaten all he holds dear.

The wife of the hit-and-run victim blackmails Eitan — not for money, but for medical treatment for a seemingly endless crowd of illegal immigrants, all refugees who risked their lives to cross the border into Israel. The Eritrean refugees work menial jobs for bare subsistence, and are too scared to go to a real clinic or hospital for help, fearing deportation or detention.

Waking Lions outlines the serious problems facing refugees, the ongoing criminal activity in areas such as Beersheva, and the ethnic tensions between African migrants, Bedouins, and Israelis. Moreover, Waking Lions is the exploration of personal ethics — how does a “good” man like Eitan justify the choices he makes? On top of this, as we view events from multiple points of view, it becomes clear that the cultural divides here are so vast that it’s simply impossible for any one person to  understand the thoughts and desires of any other.

While Waking Lions was a compelling read and offered plenty of food for thought and discussion, it was at times frustrating as well. The language often feels over-written, with long passages about inner thought processes that seem to meander and engage a bit too much in navel-gazing. (I have to wonder whether some parts of this book worked better in the original Hebrew.) Eitan in particular, as well as other characters, makes choices that seem utterly senseless, and I often felt that a desire for a dramatic plot was pushing the author to have characters act in unbelievable ways or to makes decisions that defy logic.

On a reading note, I’ll add that my husband and I ended up reading this book at the same time, and had many long discussions about the characters and their actions along the way. In some ways, our discussions were the best part of reading this book, so it could make for a terrific book group choice!

I enjoyed Waking Lions, but did feel that the lengthier moments of introspection weakened the storytelling, and couldn’t help shaking my head over some of the more ridiculous developments. Still, the book provides an eye-opening view into a little-covered element of life in Israel, and posed some interesting dilemmas about right and wrong — and whether right and wrong are absolutes or subject to social interpretation.

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The details:

Title: Waking Lions
Author: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
Publication date: February 28, 2017
Note: Original Hebrew edition published 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Published

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Book Review: The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

Beauty Queen of JerusalemFour generations of family traditions and doomed marriages form the heart of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, a family saga that takes place in the decades before, during, and after Israel’s war for independence.

Gabriela Siton is the youngest in a line of women belonging to the Ermosa family, a large Sephardic family — Jews of Spanish descent — living in Jerusalem, dealing with family secrets and turbulence during a time of war and upheaval in Israel itself.

The story opens with Gabriela’s mother’s death. Luna dies at a relatively young age from a deadly and fast-moving cancer, and Gabriela’s resulting grief is heavily laden with guilt. She and Luna had a fraught, difficult relationship all of Gabriela’s life, and she doesn’t quite know what to do with all of her emotions and the confusion she’s left with.

Bit by bit, over the course of the story, we hear more about the history of the Ermosa women. There’s the matriarch of the family, Mercada, who marries her beloved son off to a poverty-stricken orphan as punishment for his near-betrayal of his family. Mercada’s daughter-in-law, Rosa, faces life with a husband who doesn’t love her, a beloved brother who gets involved in the deadly underground movement leading up to independence, and three daughters — the oldest of whom is Luna. Luna is gorgeous, the most beautiful girl in Jerusalem, but with a selfish and combative personality. She’s prickly and self-centered, and she and Rosa never find a way to bond.

Later on, Gabriela is told that the curse of the Ermosa women is to marry men who don’t really love them, and that seems to be true in the three preceding generations. Each man is madly in love with a woman who isn’t appropriate or acceptable, and so marries out of obligation, leading to bitterness, lack of passion, and lack of respect.

In some ways, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem reminded me of Isabel Allende’s masterpiece, The House of the Spirits. Like The House of the Spirits, the blessings and curses of each generation seems to be passed along to the next, as each set of relationships is influenced by, or damaged by, the ones that came before. Likewise, The Beauty Queen of Jersusalem, while telling the tale of a particular family, is set against a backdrop of a significant historical era. The history of pre-state Israel and its struggle for independence form a big piece of the picture here, as the Ermosa family is caught up in the violence and upheavals that surround them.

The title of this book is a misnomer, and a pretty unfortunate one at that. Luna is known for her remarkable beauty, and is referred to as the beauty queen of Jerusalem — although not, as you might expect, because she actually competed in pageants or won competitions or anything. She’s just a woman who was known for her beauty and style. What’s more, the book isn’t exclusively, or even mainly about Luna — it’s about all of the women of her family. In fact, Luna is a mostly unlikeable character who’s a terrible mother and is mostly portrayed as being awful to her own mother. Things happen later in the book that make her a slightly more sympathetic character, but the bottom line is that she isn’t solely what the book is about, and it took me a while to get past the preconception that I had from the title in order to see the breadth of the story.

On the plus side, there are many vignettes in this sweeping story that are completely enchanting. Rosa’s story is fabulous, and you can’t help but feel compassion for a woman who’s struggled all her life and gotten little in return. The story of Rosa’s three daughters (including Luna) and how they each met the men they’d end up marrying is varied and textured. The Sephardic heritage of the family is described through their rituals, their use of Ladino phrases, and the little details about food and customs that bring a sense of vitality to their daily lives.

The Jerusalem setting is wonderful, with the city forming a vibrant stage for the family drama. The historical elements are skillfully woven into the story, so that the loves and struggles within the family are set against their worries about English police, bombings in the streets, sieges and rationing, and men serving at the front.

While overall I enjoyed the book, I did hit a few stumbling blocks. The biggest issue for me was the language, which often felt a bit clunky. The book is an English translation from the Hebrew, and I’m afraid that something truly was lost in translation. The writing just doesn’t always flow, and the dialogue and use of Ladino and Spanish phrases seem a bit jammed in, not organic. I have a feeling this issue might not be an issue if the book were read in the original Hebrew.

The other element that might be problematic for American readers is the assumption of familiarity with details of Israeli history. The book was written and published in Israel in 2013, released in English in the United States for the first time this year. It occasionally feels a bit like “inside baseball” — the book is written for an Israeli audience, and there’s an assumption of a common culture and background. For me, having spent time there and understanding the history and culture, it wasn’t an issue, but I can imagine that some readers will have a harder time understanding the context or getting the full picture of the historical elements woven into the story, or even being able to identify some of the names, politicians, and organization that are referred to throughout the book.

The perspective and organization of the book is somewhat puzzling. We begin with Gabriela’s first-person narration, but the storytelling shifts. Sometimes, it’s another family member telling Gabriela about incidents from the past, set out as a dialogue with Gabriela, with the story appearing in quotation marks. But at other times, it’s a third-person narrative, filling in the gaps and telling other pieces of the family story. The narrative jumps from one character’s perspective to anothers, and it can be jarring to sometimes see the world according to a character who hasn’t had a POV before. Time-wise, it’s confusing as well, as we get a description from Gabriela early on about her mother’s death, but as the story jumps back and forth for most of the book, it’s jarring when the last few chapters jump back to an adult Gabriela and how she reconciles her grief and anger.

At its core, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a moving story of a complicated and messed-up family. I really enjoyed parts of the story, especially those pieces that delve more deeply into the complicated emotions and wounds of the many family members. Unfortunately, the awkward writing/translation and the narrative inconsistency make this book more difficult than it needs to be, and overall I think the plot could have used a bit more focus. Still, it’s worth reading for the intergenerational conflicts and dynamics, and I enjoyed the nuggets of history that form the backbone of the story.

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The details:

Title: The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
Author: Sarit Yishai-Levi
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Publication date: April 5, 2016
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley