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by Sharon Chisvin, June 9, 2011

As I do every year as summer approaches, I have begun putting aside books to shlep out to the cottage for my reading pleasure in July and August. So far, this stack of summer reading is mostly made up of books that have come my way in recent months but that I haven’t had the inclination or the opportunity to read. Many of them are non-fiction and many of them, as usual, are Jewish themed.

In no particular order they include: Efraim Zuroff’s Operation Last Chance – One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice; Miriam Pressler’s Treasures from the Attic – The Extraordinary Story of Anne Frank’s Family; Michael B. Oren’s Six Days of War – June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East; and a collection dating back to 2003 entitled The Virtual Kibbutz – Stories from a Changing Society. Having recently read Canadian/Israeli author Edeet Ravel’s new novel, The Last Rain, about 1950s kibbutz life in the Western Galilee, I’m interested to read American/Israeli author Ellis Shuman’s take on the subject. 

While non-fiction and memoir increasingly have become two of my favourite genres of writing, my first choice in reading is still fiction. Yet, although I have several novels awaiting my attention this summer, I have a feeling that none of them will match the sense of awe and pleasure that I received this winter when I read the Free World, the new novel by Torontonian David Bezmosgis.

Like his 2004 debut short story collection, Natasha and Other Stories, The Free World concerns itself with the misadventures of a Soviet family in the 1970s. In this case, the family, composed of patriarch Samuil, his sons Karl and Alex, and their respective wives, has left the Soviet Union for Canada, and is stuck in Italy awaiting their visas. As they wait, Samuil bemoans the immigration he didn’t want, Karl wheels and deals to make the best of the situation, and Alex, in spite of the presence of his wife, roams the streets of Italy looking for love. The novel is brilliant, beautiful, moving, funny and enlightening, and clear evidence of its author’s tremendous talent.

It is also the kind of novel that compels readers to pause and consider the lives upon which the fiction is based. I could not read this book without thinking of the ‘Russian’ teenagers who began trickling in to my Winnipeg Jewish high school in the 1970s. With names like Felix and Stanley, they were noticeably different from those of us born and bred in Canada, but because no one took us aside and explained to us what they had been through – years of waiting for permission to leave the Soviet Union and months in limbo in Italy – we as a group probably were not as patient or as kind as we should have been.

Author David Bezmosgis was a version of those students. Emigrating from Riga, Latvia with his parents in 1980, he ended up settling in Toronto rather than in Winnipeg and eventually began to write down his recollections of their emigration experience. Ultimately, he crafted these recollections into extraordinary works of fiction, the most recent of which, The Free World, should be the must read book of the summer.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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