Review: The Seventh Day: A Novel

The Seventh Day: A Novel
The Seventh Day: A Novel by Yu Hua
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yu Hua has written an inventive and contemplative look at the afterlife. Our main character is a young-middle-aged man who has recently died; initially, he is not quite sure what has happened to him. In the first seven days following his death he visits important places and people from his life story, finding a measure of resolution.

It took me a little while to get into this story – I was confused along with Yang Fei, and it took time for me to get used to Hua’s style and the pacing of the book. In the end, though, I appreciated this window into modern Chinese life — rich business people, underground squatters, small entrepreneurs trying to get ahead in the face of government kickbacks, and hard working civil servants looking for meaning in their daily lives. It made me want to learn much more about China, to piece out what was real and what was Hua’s invention. From The Seventh Day, it seems like a cold and unforgiving society.

The good news is that all are comfortable, beautiful, loved, and part of the community in the afterlife. In the place Yang Fei goes, all have food, all have comfort. It’s the fulfillment of the communist ideal. Additionally, as long as you have not yet been cremated, there is the possibility of reuniting with loved ones.

I highly recommend The Seventh Day to readers who don’t mind a bit of a learning curve and are interested in experiencing a taste of another world.

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Review: A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s books like this one that make me love memoir. Golinkin tells the story of his family’s last days in the USSR, their successful application to leave, and their adjustments to life as people without a country (until they become American). Fear of the government, getting beaten up at school, being denied one’s choice of occupation for political reasons rather than lack of aptitude, having your official papers confiscated, your life’s history burned, showing up in a foreign land with no proof that you ever went to school, held a profession, existed. You wouldn’t think that would hold humor! Or be fun to read! But, it is. Golinkin has a way with storytelling. There’s a joy for the reader. He also manages to convey the experience he had as a ten year old refugee and combine it with the context and details he learned as an adult through study and travel.

As a teen in NY in the 1980s, I marched ‘for Soviet Jewry.’ A high school acquaintance’s father was an artist who created posters for one of the marches, and he posed in a kerchief as a babushka. We saw him in every subway station, representing the people we hoped to liberate from religious persecution.

Golinkin’s grandfather had an aptitude for Torah study; just 2 generations later, he and his father know to buy contraband matzoh in the spring but they don’t know its meaning and get no pleasure from eating it. In fact, there is no joy in being Jewish for Lev — It’s a nasty name that other kids lob at him before punching him, smearing him with filth. By the time he’s in first or second grade, he only knows that he doesn’t want to be the thing that causes other kids to react to him this way. (The other kids also don’t know what it means to be Jewish — They only know they’re supposed to despise it.)

And then, brought out of the Soviet Union by the combined efforts of Israel, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, American congregations, and others, the expectation is that the Golinkin family (and every other former Soviet Jew) would exuberantly embrace synagogue membership, Jewish holidays, bar mitzvah. But it’s not that easy to love what you’ve been taught, daily, to hide and hate. The latter part of the book, in which Golinkin grows up, becomes American, and tries to learn to like himself, is less humorous, but very touching.

Also moving is his telling of the trip he took after college, re-tracing his family’s path and seeking to reunite and thank the many people in various countries who did large, small, and important things to enable them to get out and stay afloat. I look forward to reading whatever Lev Golinkin writes next.

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Review: Revolution

Revolution by Deborah Wiles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story in this book — of Gillette and Raymond and Sunny — is 5 star! These three are young kids in Mississippi in the early 1960s; It’s Freedom Summer, and brave blacks and whites are working together in voter registration drives and trying to integrate the diners and movie theatres against a very long tradition of oppression and segregation. The kids are 12, 13, 14, and they are beginning to think for themselves. They’re sorting through the politics of their milieu and learning to take it all in and make their own decisions, – and to participate! It’s thrilling and scary and moving. There were times when Sunny’s personal story had me in tears.

So, why only three stars? This book is a whopping 544 pages. Too big to hold in your hand. Too big to read in bed. Full to bursting with historical material that breaks up the narrative each time the reader starts to care about the characters and the action. I love what Wiles is trying to do with the historical context. I just can’t imagine any 6th or 7th grader having the patience to stick with it if not assigned for a grade.

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