Uncovering History Through Fiction: My Book(Spoilery) Review of Day After Night by Anita Diamant

I was in an absolute state of glee upon randomly opening up this book to its phenomenal epigraph:Day After Night rebbe nachman- bookspoils

This exact phrase is one my mom reads to my sister and I every Shabbat; we know and recite it by heart. I always craved to see it written somewhere as an opening quote, so this was like a personal wish coming true.

I started the first chapter with the tiniest of hesitation. I was thinking back on how impressed I was by the epigraph, and even the prologue captivated me, so surely the first chapter will be the hindrance. But as I read on, it’s to uncover an enchanting storyteller in Anita Diamant. It’s reading a book, knowing that you surely won’t regret doing so. It’s ending a chapter only to want more. This is an author who knows the power her writing holds and how to wield her magic pen. What a journey this book took me on.

Day After Night is based on the extraordinary true story of the October 1945 rescue of more than 200 prisoners from the Atlit internment camp – a prison for illegal immigrants run by the British military near the Mediterranean coast north of Haifa. The story is told through the eyes of four young women at the camp.

It’s the first book in a while that made me excited to read it during the week, stealing time here and there to dive in, instead of settling for a binge-read on Shabbat. Something about that epigraph and that masterful character building on the very first page (pictured below) made me stand still and reappraise what I was getting into. Day After Night- bookspoilsRounded characterization on page one means: nightmares we can only imagine. They hold so much sorrow in their young lives already. The “military-issue pillows that smell of disinfectant” that are the bare-minimum when compared to what they had growing up, but after all they’ve been through it’s a luxury. Set against the unmoving background of Atlit’s Detainee Camp ruled by the British military, this is a part in European Jewish history I personally hadn’t known of before.

“Everyone who is locked up in Atlit waits for an answer to the same questions: When will I get out of here? When will the past be over?”

I like reading historical fiction for the simple act of being educated on a topic completely unheard of before through a story. It humanizes history and makes me remember details long afterward. Like with Sarit Yishai-Levi’s The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, which delivered both on the historic events of those that tried to detain Jews from coming into Israel, as well as the many romances that still have me worked up. So much of the time period before the founding of the state of Israel holds me enthralled. I recently watched the 2017 film An Israeli Love Story that tackled similar issues in that time frame while residing on the kibbutz.

Following four young women, Day After Night starts with introspective and self-aware Tedi Pastore, who craves nothing more than to assimilate and forget all her horrible memories as soon as her brain lets up, though those memories will sneak up on you as soon as you let your defenses down. My heart connected to her instantly with her quiet nature and this brilliant phrase:

“She wondered if she could fill her head with enough Hebrew to crowd out her native Dutch.”

Yes; though when Dutch peaks its way back into your life down the road (sooner than you’d like), it’ll come flooding back. I feel this so deeply.

We leave her to follow Zorah Weitz, who’s quite the opposite with her scorn and quiet rage at her surroundings. So much of her anger is just, obviously, but because we arrive into her chapter coming from Tedi’s point of view, it became quite jarring to experience such a different tough-to-crack perspective. It became interesting to see how the author would weave their stories together to make Zorah a more multidimensional character. I never doubted for a minute that she wouldn’t succeed. Any author that can character build on the very first page of the first chapter has my full trust.

“She knew they were reluctant to tell their own stories because all of them began and ended with the same horrible question: Why was I spared?”

And Shayndel and Leonie whose specialties include daydreaming and people-watching. They invent stories in their head to escape from their current reality and remain sane under the heinous circumstances thrown their way. They grow close and cling onto each other as people that go through wartime experiences only can.

It’s interesting then to connect and reflect on their stories of coming to Israel to my own Aliyah and how I was more of a Zorah at the very beginning (this realization occurred while writing made me far more forgiving when reading her harsh words after): I felt so helpless with my surroundings and how these circumstances I was in weren’t even of my choice. There was just so much (too much) anger pent-up that I feel so sorry looking back to ten-year-old me. And so came the gradual change of coming to terms with your reality and quietly turning into a Tedi with wanting to forget as quickly as possible all the good and the bad on the tail end. I have the hardest time remembering stuff from the past now, which is why I’m so particular with writing everything down as soon as I complete reading or watching or listening anything.

“It was unspeakable, so they spoke of nothing.”

It makes for an interesting phenomenon when shedding those layers of European culture and reconnecting back to your own Jewish roots. It’s a loss of a comfortable layer and the growth of one that’s been waiting for generations. It’s realizing that the “loss” of your mother tongue isn’t your real mother tongue. The culture of “cold politeness” you’ve become accustomed to isn’t where your heart belongs (“leaving behind the whole poisoned graveyard that was Europe”). The warm connection between the people in our own homeland is one that cannot be replicated.

I felt this distinctly in the piercing moment when all the characters come together to light the candles and say the blessing for Rosh Hashanah, after years and years of hell on earth. The quiet strength echoed throughout this scene felt so real I could almost reach out and grasp it.

“Anschel lifted a cup above his head and glared around the room, waiting for others to do the same. Around each table, the men eyed each other and silently determined which one would stand for the blessing. As they raised their cups, he began, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe.” The piercing nasal drone of his voice held everyone in thrall at first, but then others joined, creating a baritone jumble of melodies and accents that conjured a congregation of absent fathers and grandfathers. Tears flowed as the goblets were emptied, but Tirzah gave them no time to mourn, banging the door open wide with a tray piled with golden loaves of challah. She was greeted with applause and chatter, which continued through the brief blessing for bread, which was passed and devoured.”

Something slipped over me in reading this that I couldn’t shake off. We’re alive. Our people lived through this hell and multiple others to make it to Israel. I won’t forget.

The one thing that remains alive in that moment is reciting the passages of the past, the same words they heard countless times before the war, only to quietly realize that here they are repeating it in the heart of Israel. Our prayers as a nation are the only thing keeping the past alive and our hope ablaze in the future.

And as much as Zorah resents these moments that bring on memories long repressed, I can only think of this truthful passage from David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories“So what am I supposed to do, let the bastards win? Because who wins if a Jew doesn’t go to synagogue? I’ll tell you who: Hitler.”

With each new description in the book, I stop cold at how masterfully Anita Diamant constructs her characters. I personally enjoy exploring little individual moments that make up somebody’s life, and reading about the day-to-day in that unmoored timeline of 1945 through this group of lost individuals is riveting to revisit.

“It seemed impossible that these could be the same stars she had looked up at six months ago, impossible that she was seeing them through the same eyes.”

This had the potential to be a new favorite with all the elements I love in one: Jewish-Israeli characters, survivors arriving in Israel after the Holocaust which is rarely explored, the prime time of Zionism, and displacement. Day After Night operates on so many levels.

Plus, I’m a known fool for the name Noah (read: My Appreciation For the Name Noah in Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok), so Shayndel’s brother piqued my interest… Only to be crushed in this brutal reality of Polish antisemitism and pogroms. Lest anyone forget:

“The Poles had been just as monstrous as the Germans. The Nazis did not require her neighbors to spit on her family the day they were taken away. They had spit again when she returned, after the war, to see if anyone else had survived.”

The sad reality is that the Poles are already trying to erase history by making themselves seen as innocent and blame it all on the German Nazis. History will never fully wrap all the horrors and pogroms they inflicted upon the Jews.

On another note, here are some points I want to highlight:

  • The few hints of romance in here I came to appreciate because sometimes it’s a necessary component in feeling alive, feeling seen. This book drew the important distinction between realizing whether your feelings are for that particular individual and simply for the rush of hormones they provide. This phrase puts the idea together well:

“I guess I wanted to be in love with someone. But not him.”

This explains so much on settling for the wrong guy. And how we look into book-romances to project our own desires on the particular couple to get together. We seek that intoxicating rush of feeling without actually doing something that can hurt like being close with another human. It’s predictable, safe, and follows a script, unlike real life.

  • Throw all that away when it comes to Meyer Meyer Meyer, the boy who brings Zorah back from the brink of cynicism. I hung onto his every word. Something about his air of kind honesty left me laser focused on the task at hand: Seeing him interact with Zorah. Their dynamic was so full of promise. He’s the kind-hearted soldier with a sharing packet of Chesterfields, and she’s the rugged girl that loves to say no. I thought at first that the author was pulling us along with an exquisitely outdrawn slow-burn, and it did work at first because I nearly jumped like a cat when he finally arrived in a scene with Zorah after way too long.

“I never heard you sing before,” said a familiar voice at her ear.
Zorah did not turn around. Meyer moved closer and asked, “Did you miss me?”
“Only when I was dying for a smoke,” she said.
“I thought about you all the time,” said Meyer.”

Likewise. Also: why did this make my heart skip a beat?

“I wish I could send you cigarettes,” Meyer said, slipping a packet into her hand. “But they would only get stolen. Still, whenever you get a letter, you should know that I was thinking about sending a whole carton of Chesterfields. I am a romantic, right?”
Zorah fought the urge to face him, to wish him well, to say good-bye.
“Pray a little for my safety, will you, Zorah?” said Meyer. “I will kiss you good night wherever I am.”
Zorah heard him walk away and counted to thirty before she turned. He had reached the gate. Without turning or looking back, he raised his hand to wave. As though he knew she would be watching.”

He’s so damn charismatic.

You know Zorah has it bad when she starts talking to herself in his voice. “Worthy opponent or suitor?” I personally really enjoy seeing this switch happen in books like I mentioned in my review for The Great Alone. There’s something so powerful when you start viewing a person in a different light.

But I guess the author had other things in mind when it came to Meyer, since I can count on one hand the number of times he showed up after, and then never again till the epilogue that I’m not ready to discuss.. (I’m still in the stage of denial, as evidenced by my refusal to even write it down). And I’m too stubborn to let something as powerful as Zorah with Meyer dissipate simply like that. I wanted to see them T A L K deep into the night and share secrets and grow old together… And I got none of that.

  • Speaking of loose ends, there are so many that my mind is busy thinking over… What happens with Tirzah and Danny? Did the group of four ever reunite? WHAT ABOUT THE PICTURE?? Who’s the lucky man that married Shayndel? What happened to Lillian aka the running gag of the book with being put in her place by multiple people?

Like a movie, it ends on a group snapshot of the four young women that made this book shine with tiny inscriptions telling us where they all ended up. The epilogue really made the story feel so vividly real that I was tempted to look up the names of the characters, knowing full well that even if they were based on real woman their full names wouldn’t have been used… I JUST NEED THE PICTURE. I tried hunting for it on my own with zero results. The descriptions of it in the book feels too real. It’s these telling signs that tell the whole story of Day After Night. Like Shayndel and Leonie standing so close together in the photograph led the author to chronicle a close friendship in her mind. And the details of their matching white outfits in that shot then rings similarity in the story when people thought them to be the same even though on the outside they were opposites.

“Leonie and Shayndel grinned at each other, knowing these same girls sometimes called them “peas in a pod” and “the Siamese twins” even though they were a pair of contrasts, too.”

Taking notice of these telltale signs made me feel like a tiny Sherlock. First came the picture, then the story. And now I’m pretty desperate to uncover what came first. Does the picture even exist?

I’d had hoped to see them thrive after Atlit, but since it’s so real the end sequence bears too many loses to feel like closure. The epilogue in itself should’ve been more elaborated on, instead of dropping new information that I have no idea how to take in since the book is already over. All I can say is Tedi deserved to have seen that picture.

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Review: Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith by Gina B. Nahai

I was keen on finding a read with hints of magical realism in it, when I came across this wonder of a book centered on just that, with the added bonus of featuring the Jewish ghetto of Tehran.

Similar to one of my favorite multigenerational books, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, this reads starts off on a prominent related cast of female characters with a hint of otherworldliness in their everyday life. Spinning tales of signs and superstitions, falling victim to the inevitability of Destiny, featuring dreams and memories of ghosts, and stories of wayward ancestors, it seemed like I’d hit jackpot with picking up Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith.

All they wanted was to stay in one place long enough to belong. 

And for the first part of the book, I had nothing but praise in my words. I especially appreciated the grand, layered storytelling that reveals itself with time. You’re never sure of a single thing until you’ve followed the tale and its characters to the end. Which is where my appreciation for the peculiar side characters comes in. Their world, full of superstition, had me in its spinning webs. Most notably, Alexandra the Cat, whose every move was clouded with an air of mystery, was the first to catch my attention. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith 1-- bookspoils

This above passage was a prime example of having a storyline that doesn’t disappear with the next chapter. And having it all click together was beyond satisfying to experience.

Which is what saddened me most about the novel, knowing that the minute our main character, Roxanna, would move away from her family’s home, and later her place at Alexandra’s, the book would deteriorate in time.

Because unlike the novel I mention at the start of my review, the Jewish theme, which I thought would be a prevalent one and what had me so keen on reading this book, was practically non-existent the more I read on; it disappeared with the generations. And I don’t feel like I learned anything solid about the cultural value within the Jewish ghetto of Tehran. I feel like we barely received any scenes of camaraderie, or even simple dialogue exchanged between the Iranian-Jewish characters to receive some semblance of home and community.

It also didn’t help that at the same time that I put all these points together, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith was starting to lose its steam for me. Knowing this book wasn’t going to have a saving grace in the upcoming pages for me, I decided it best to quit ahead, as I could feel myself growing agitated and furious with the upcoming storyline.

It’s such a shame as well because this started out as an interesting tale of intersecting family lines and dealing with the burden of Destiny, yet ended on such a miserable case of virtually abandoning all the character building we had for Roxanna’s family, and instead putting the focus on her new marital home where she feels like an outsider, and as a result, so did I as the reader. All this leads in the end to her daughter, Lili, being stuck in the hands of strangers, which is where the utter disregard for their religion is shown most notably in the form of sending her off to a Catholic school… While her mother is off doing who knows what to reach her supposed ‘freedom’ that she didn’t even get to receive.Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith 2-- bookspoilsAt a certain point, the book just hit a point where the story wasn’t really moving forward or contributing any valid information that propelled the characters along. Like, there’s literally a whole page dedicated to expanding on a random bus driver who has no point in the overarching theme… And I had to put a stop to it by declaring enough is enough.

Bottom line: I’d only recommend reading this book for its introducing fifty-something pages that encompass and expand on so much.

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Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

“And you,” Large Marge said. “What’s your story, missy?”
“I don’t have a story.”
“Everyone has a story. Maybe yours just starts up here.”

I was on the look-out for a novel set around quiet people, and The Great Alone looked like one to fulfill that promise with “the harsh, uncompromising beauty of Alaska.” Plus, the mention of exploring PTSD in the father figure piqued my interest.

The bonus was when I started reading the book and became quickly swept up in Leni’s life. She’s thirteen when the novel begins, about to enter another new school since her parents move the family rapidly from place to place (“in the last four years, she’d gone to five schools”), and she’s keen on drawing as little attention to herself as possible. My kind of girl.

Afterward, the storyline unspools easily as the family arrives in Alaska, at the notice of a letter, which leads to stories set on surviving the wilderness of Alaska and the dangers lurking inside their home.The Great Alone 1-- bookspoilsThe Great Alone 2-- bookspoilsTo get all I need off my mind, I’d like to share a list of things I took note of during my reading of The Great Alone:

(Spoilers from here.)

  • I have to start off on the right foot by featuring this all-encompassing quote on Leni’s bookish love (and mine, by default):

“Books are the mile markers of my life. Some people have family photos or home movies to record their past. I’ve got books. Characters. For as long as I can remember, books have been my safe place.”

  • I loved reading about the vast landscape of “the wild, spectacular beauty” of Alaska’s unfamiliar terrain. But I have to note the many, many descriptions… Personally, I’m not one for reading more than a couple of sentences on a character’s surroundings or the peculiar weather outside. I enjoy it more when the author spends time on dialogue, instead of useless descriptions that my eyes gloss over as it is. None of it seemed to amount to much; the words just passed through me.
  • On a brighter note, this leads me to talk about the characters. Three noteworthy relationships drove the story forward for me, including Leni with Matthew, Leni with Mama (aka Cora), and Large Marge with literally anyone because she’s that dynamic. Also, major bonus points for having a character in here named Natalie.

“I followed a man up here. Classic story. I lost the man and found a life. Got my own fishing boat now. So I get the dream that brings you here, but that’s not enough. You’re going to have to learn fast.” Natalie put on her yellow gloves. “I never found another man worth having. You know what they say about finding a man in Alaska—the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

This a classic example of “How can I become so invested in a character by the end of the paragraph?”

  • My aesthetic is having Large Marge shut down entitled men. I’m still rattled by how she expertly handled Ernt Allbright’s volatile, moody, and sharp-tempered self.

“Sit down, Ernt,” Large Marge said.
“I don’t—”
“Sit down or I’ll knock you down,” Large Marge said.
Mama gasped.
Dad sat down on the sofa beside Mama. “That’s not really the way to talk to a man in his own home.”
“You don’t want to get me started on what a real man is, Ernt Allbright. I’m holding on to my temper, but it could run away with me. And you do not want to see a big woman come at you. Trust me. So shut your trap and listen.”

  • Speaking of which, I was counting down the pages till Ernt would be shown his way out of Alaska for good. He made everything and everyone hurt so deeply. I never trusted him to be alone with Cora. Winter is coming took on a whole new meaning with him in the picture. “You could always tell when Dad was gone. Everything was easier and more relaxed in his absence.”

So I was beyond thankful the moment the townsfolk intervened upon seeing his utterly abusive behavior towards his family. The magnitude of Large Marge and Mr. Walker stepping in to help Leni and her mom stayed with me ever since. Anyone daring to rightfully put Ernt in his place has my evergrowing admiration!

“You want to fight this battle?” Large Marge advanced, bracelets clattering. “If this young woman misses a single day of school, I will call the state and turn you in, Ernt Allbright. Don’t think for one second I won’t. You can be as batshit crazy and mean as you want, but you are not going to stop this beautiful girl from finishing high school. You got it?”
“The state won’t care.”
“Oh. They will. Trust me. You want me talking to the authorities about what goes on here, Ernt?”
“You don’t know shit.”
“Yeah, but I’m a big woman with a big mouth. You want to push me?”

In the wake of those words, I’ve never loved a character more than Marge Birdsall. Showing Cora and Leni that they have a support system around them was a grandiose moment.

I felt it even more acutely after having watched Jo Wilson’s centric episode in Grey’s Anatomy, focusing on domestic abuse.

  • Which brings me to my next point: The perceptive connection that bonds mother and daughter together like peas in a pod. “Two of a kind.” It was both agonizing and admiring to see them stick so fiercely by one another.

“Mama was Leni’s one true thing.”

They had the kind of relationship that required the simplest measure: “One always knew when to be strong for the other.” It was refreshing to see such an allied bond present between Cora and Leni.

“I’m your friend.”
“You’re thirteen. I’m thirty. I’m supposed to be a mother to you. I need to remember that.”

  • Which leads me to my favorite point in the book: The exhilarating rush of giddy, young love shared between Leni and Matthew in 1978. I loved this part of the book so much, I can’t bear to shorten it on my note. I haven’t felt such fierce dedication to a literary couple in months and months. All this time I was seeking for a book to just get me when it came to those first signs of infatuation; The Great Alone did it so right.

“Leni couldn’t help thinking how small they were in this big dangerous world, just kids who wanted to be in love.”

I went through all the stages with Leni, from seeking a friend to share her secrets and longings and bookish love with, to become so easily swept up in the intoxicating head rush that is all grown-up Matthew Walker. He got her like no one else did.

“She made lists in her head of things she wanted to say to him, had whole conversations by herself, over and over. ”

I actually ached when Leni and Matthew were separated for pages at a time because of circumstances beyond their measure. He was our light in the brutal darkness of Alaska.

“Night after night, week after week, she lay in her bed, missing Matthew. Her love for him—a warrior, hiking mountains, crossing streams—strode into the wild borderlands of obsession.
Near the end of July, she began to have negative fantasies—him finding someone else, falling in love, deciding Leni was too much trouble. She ached for his touch, dreamed of his kiss, talked to herself in his voice.

I can feel the pain oozing out of this text.

But my most cherished moment came back when she first realized the switch in her mind:

“It didn’t take Leni long to know that she was in trouble. She thought about Matthew constantly. At school she began to study his every move; she watched him as she would a prey animal, trying to glean intent from action. His hand sometimes brushed hers beneath the desk, or he touched her shoulder as he passed by her in the classroom. She didn’t know if those brief contacts were intentional or meaningful, but her body responded instinctively to each fleeting touch. Once she’d even risen from her chair, pushed her shoulder into his palm like a cat seeking attention. It wasn’t a thought, that lifting up, that unknown need; it just happened. And sometimes, when he talked to her, she thought he stared at her lips the way she stared at his. She found herself secretly mapping his face, memorizing every ridge and hollow and valley, as if she were an explorer and he her discovery.”

Scouring my neverending notes for a scene that captures the easygoing nature between the two was quite tough, but then I found this:

“But in her mind, he was Matthew, the fourteen-year-old kid who’d showed her frogs’ eggs and baby eagles, the boy who’d written her every week. Dear Leni, it’s hard at this school. I don’t think anyone likes me … And to whom she’d written back. I know a lot about being the new kid in school. It blows. Let me give you a few tips …
This … man was someone else, someone she didn’t know. Tall, long blond hair, incredibly good-looking. What could she say to this Matthew?
He reached into his backpack, pulled out the worn, banged-up, yellowed version of The Lord of the Rings that Leni had sent him for his fifteenth birthday. She remembered the inscription she’d written in it. Friends forever, like Sam and Frodo.”

cries actual tears of joy 

It’s scary to put on paper, but they changed something within me. The state of utter fragility and vulnerability that their love put them in stopped me cold and made me think twice of its power.

As I read, I was reminded of this tentative song I recently discovered:

  • So you could only imagine my devastation to the unexpected (supposed) ending of Matthew being hurt beyond repair when all he was trying to do was save Leni…

“I’m the reason he’s hurt. He tried to save me. It’s my fault.”
“He couldn’t do anything else, Leni. Not after what happened to his mom. I know my son. Even if he’d known the price, he would have tried to rescue you.”

I’ve never felt such visible pain and hurt and rage. My mind was so overrun with thoughts and emotions; I felt like I was in a zombie state when I dared to get up from the book. In the wake of all the hurt we went through with Leni, everything seemed so banal in the real world. Returning to the Outside felt like involuntary breaking off the rural spell we’d been under.

“A girl needs to be strong in this world.”

I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I was supposed to move on like nothing happened after we left Matthew, unsure of what the future held for him. I was so damn invested in every single moment shared between Matthew and Leni; it hurt more than I could bear to merely think of him without her. So I was pretty much left numb after that. I honestly couldn’t have cared less, reading about everything that occurred to the characters in the aftermath. All I wanted was justice for Leni’s kind, grief-stricken Matthew.

“He’d been drowning for all of these years without her, and she was the shore he’d been flailing to find.”

In hindsight, I should’ve known who I was dealing with before entering the novel. After all, I did read The Nightingale two winters ago. And coupled with the fact that I read 400 pages of this newest release in a single day, my reading experience took quite the toll on me. What is fresh air? But as the saying goes “Hindsight is 20/20. Everyone has a clear view from the rearview mirror.”

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