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new fiction

I was so taken in by the beginning of David Bezmozgis’ “The Free World,” I missed my “el” stop. Later the same day I stood on another “el” platform, gobbling up this story of immigration, and nearly missed my train home. There it stood, doors open. When had it pulled into the station? How is it I hadn’t heard its “Brown Line to Ravenswood” call? I seemed to be hermetically sealed within a book.

Bliss!

A Jewish family leaves the Soviet Union in 1978, bound for the United States, Canada, maybe Israel.  Alec and Polina are newlyweds. Karl and Rosa have two rambunctious young boys. The men’s parents are Samuel and Emma. None would leave Russia without the other; now in Rome, none will leave without Samuel, whose age and health holds up their application. The family’s extended time in Rome frames this novel’s story.

Its first page entrances: Alec should be helping his family with luggage but he’s distracted by two girls, American tourists.  He ” traced a line of smooth, tanned skin from heel to calf to thigh, interrupted ultimately by the frayed edge of cutoff blue jeans. …They sat on their backpacks and leaned casually against each other. Their faces were lovely and vacant. They seemed beyond train schedules and obligations.”

Oh, to be one of those girls!

Instead, Alec plays the dutiful son, the faithful husband, the good brother.  He and Polina find work, and a shared apartment of their own.

Stuck in Rome, what drives this story forward? Will playboy Alec be true to Polina? Will Rosa get her way, and steer the family to Israel? Will roommate Llyova reach the United States?

Bezmozgis takes us backwards, to the horrific pogroms of Samuel’s youth, Samuel’s valor and despair serving in the Red Army, his embrace of Communism.  We also relive Polina’s decision to leave her husband, her family and her homeland for Alec.

Rich stuff. Unfortunately, Bezmozgis brings his story to a close with a teenager who causes the family violence, death and breakups. Deux ex machina!

Still, I held this book close for more than a week. I ached for its characters. I savored its prose. This is David Bezmozgis’ first novel. I look forward to more.

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Some books enchant, others repel. The other day I closed a book after 30 pages and drove it directly back to the library branch it had been borrowed from. I pulled an illegal u-turn and parked in a tow zone, risking all to be rid of it. Clunky writing, horrific story; thank you, no!

Another, by a lauded literary writer, had an interesting set up but was so poorly told I pressed it on a writer friend as a great example of a how not to tell a story.

Why keep reading?

cov_all_the_livingWhen we open a book, we take a leap. And sometimes we’re rewarded: we’re hooked, we’re grabbed, we’re taken in.

From a stack of newly published books I pulled C.E. Morgan’s “All the Living,” Farrar Straus Giroux, $23. I was nabbed by its first sentence: “She had never lived in a house and now, seeing the thing, she was no longer sure she wanted to.”

She is Aloma, a young woman just out of school, orphaned at a young age, arriving at the tobacco farm her boyfriend, Orren, has come to own.

Sex is their common ground. She’s a trained musician, aching to leave the moment she arrives. He devotes his every hour to saving his family’s farm. When Aloma signs on to play piano for the local church, the pastor quietly, and heartbreakingly, pursues her. It sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, but the book’s most moving passage is when the pastor shames Aloma for leading him on.

It’s a present day story but the world we’re taken into — its language, and foods, and landscape — seems from the near past. Television, but it’s on only for its tornado warnings. Telephones, but no cell phones; no texting, no tweeting. Places to eat, but no fast food. “Don’t be ill” means “don’t be mad.”

There’s no bad guy, no boogie man lurking in the woods. The only menace is the drought, and a mean rooster, and Orren’s buried grief for the family he’s lost.

It’s a Plot 101 tale — will she stay or will she go? — but the quality of the prose kept me reading. A simple story in a remarkable landscape, tightly focused and exquisitely wrought. A model of Aristotle’s unities of time, place and action.

It had me in its grip all weekend.

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