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Book Review: 'A Replacement Life'


Boris Fishman is a writer who was born in Russia and once worked at a magazine in New York. The same goes for the protagonist of his first novel called "A Replacement Life." Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says it manages to take on the terrible topic of the Holocaust with, of all things, humor.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The novel stars a Russian-born magazine writer named Slava Gelman who toils away as a researcher for a slick and brilliant New York magazine called Century, a publication along the lines of an amalgam of of New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Slava can't break through into the magazine's pages with the ease of some of his native born rivals on staff, and it burns him. When an early morning telephone call from his mother in South Brooklyn brings the news that his maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, Slava returns to his Brooklyn and his Russian roots. His grandfather, an ancient hooligan from Minsk, wants to honor his late wife and make a good piece of crash in the process by filing a bogus Holocaust restitution claim with the German government on his own behalf. Slava hesitates. What are you, Lennon's grandson, his grandfather says. Maybe I didn't suffer in the the exact way I need to have suffered, but they made sure to kill all the people who did. Soon after a marvelous funeral feast - I'd describe it all here, but I'd start drooling - grandfather charges Slava with the task of writing that claim. But before too long, Slava's assisting with more and more of these counterfeit briefs with people in the neighborhood, producing beautifully narrated sequences about Jewish life amidst Nazi horror that just doesn't happen to be the experience of most of the people who are filing them. Slava finds himself torn between his loyalty to these old Russians and his worries about breaking the law by forging the claims. We also see him torn between an old world girl, Vera, from the neighborhood who's all mascara and provocation and a brainy and flirtatious researcher, Arianna, from the Century staff. Human 2.0 is what she calls herself. How to live in this new world with old world emotions - how to tell lies and stay honest - these are among some of the truths Slava wrestles with. And in the way the he presents these to us with feeling, humor and eyes wide open, novelist Fishman doesn't miss a beat.

SHAPIRO: Boris Fishman's novel is called "A Replacement Life." Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.
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