Picador, February 2016
A very different novel is this. Extremely well researched, a flight of fancy, original in form and content. It chronicles the history of Soviet Russia from World War I to the death of Stalin in three acts starring an odd collection of characters ranging from an elderly Yiddish actor to a Yiddish surgeon and a Black Yiddish-speaking American engineer. The novel takes place in a week following a late night attempt to arrest the actor, who turns the tables on the three security personnel by killing them. This was at a time when Stalin was planning a “final solution” to the Jewish “problem,” planning to collect the minority population, pack them in cattle cars and ship them out of the Soviet Union. It was also the period during which the so-called “doctor’s plot” was in the news: a group of Jewish doctors were arrested and accused of plotting the murder of Soviet officials.
The actor, Solomon Levinson, is soon joined by the surgeon, engineer and others, and conceives a plot to prevent Stalin’s massive pogrom by assassinating him, cutting off the head of the serpent. In the intervening days the group debates, remembers the past, trades banter on a variety of subjects, from Shakespeare and Pushkin to anti-Semitism and racism and the broken promises of Socialism. The novel is strewn with Yiddish phrases and poetry (conveniently translated).
For a debut novel, The Yid is most original, a flight of fancy based on reality, filled with excellent dialogue and innovative characters. It has to be read to be appreciated, and it is hoped this suggestion is well taken. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2016.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House
Soho Press, April 2016
This introspective debut novel chronicles the ups and downs in the life of Ray Welter, a farm boy who rose to the top of his profession until his inner self caught up with him. Then he tossed it all away in effort to escape everything he had left behind in Chicago: a high-paying advertising job, a wife, and a way of life with which he had increasingly become disenchanted. He takes off to the Scottish Isle of Jura. And rents, for six months (with the last of his funds which he hopes to spend before his wife grabs the money in the divorce settlement), the cottage where George Orwell wrote and finished the satirical novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The inhabitants of Jura are an eccentric bunch, protective of each other and their way of life, especially disdainful of outsiders, tourists and the like. Ray’s intrusion sets up many amusing situations. That Inner Hebrides island is known for its single malt scotch, and Ray consumes a prodigious amount in an effort to either lose or find himself. In the meantime, not only does he have to cope with his own troubles but also deal with the foibles and problems arising from the various characters in the community.
The author uses comedy to mask the seriousness of the novel, which deeply probes Ray’s thinking, seeking to define the good and bad of his life as he knows it and distilling the results until Ray can reach an inner peace. It is quite an achievement, rarely seen in a first effort. Can Ray reach his nirvana? Read and enjoy the book, which is highly recommended, and find out.
Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2016.