Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Who by Fire by Diana Spechler

Who by Fire by Diana Spechler
Copyright 2008
Harper Perennial - Fiction
343 pages
Author's website

I finished Who by Fire over the weekend, which is just one way of saying I had a really book-happy weekend. Don't you love that? Still playing catch-up, here. 6 more reviews and I can have a party. Of course, by then I'll probably have completed two more books, but we just won't bother thinking about such things.

Who by Fire is about a small family that has been shattered by tragedy, gradually drifting apart as the scars from that tragedy remain with them. Brother Ash and sister Bits have grown and left home, while their mother continues to live in the house where they grew up. Their younger sister, Alena, disappeared many years ago, their father abandoned the family, and now brother Ash has become an Orthodox Jew, changed his name to Asher and moved to Israel. Convinced that his family's concern that he has joined a religion they consider a "cult" is detrimental to his immersion in his new life studying in a yeshiva (the family is Jewish, but Bits and their mother are not practicing Jews), Ash cuts off contact with his mother and sister.

Bits decides she must go fetch her brother to convince him to come to the funeral when their mom says kidnapped sister Alena's remains have been found. But, Bits is broke. And, she's kind of a disaster. Their mother is simply confused, lonely and desperate. It will take a lot more than a funeral to bring this family back together and make them whole, again.

There is so much more to this book, but I'm hesitant to go into any great detail because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, so I'll try to speak in generalities. First things first: I wish I was in a face-to-face book club because I think there are many little strands of this story that are utterly fascinating and worth talking about. If you're in a book club and looking for great titles, grab Who by Fire. It's beautifully written and there are numerous topics worth discussing. I can easily visualize a group of people getting together, maybe whipping up some Jewish food items to snack on and discussing not only the story, the themes of guilt and redemption, loss and healing, family and strangers, love and abandonment but also the basics of Judaism, the many facets of the characters, and what religion did or did not mean to each of them as they struggled with the wounds Alena's kidnapping inflicted upon the family.

I loved the way the author handled the religious aspect. Regardless of what religion you're talking about (and I include atheism and agnosticism), there is often a fine line between teaching and preaching. Reading about Judaism in Who by Fire is really a learning experience. There was just enough information to make me wish my husband hadn't packed up Judaism for Dummies (seriously -- he put it away, just when I needed the book). I read a little from World Religion for Dummies, instead. Obviously, we're well-stocked on books for the uninformed.

Iwanted to know more about Orthodox Jews, but I did feel as if I added to my knowledge base and my interest in their mode of dress, the long side curls described by the author, etc., inspired me to look up some photos on the internet to see what they look like in real life. This photo of Jews celebrating Purim looks a little comical, but it's a pretty good visual. Some of the Biblical references crossed over with my current Bible study, which made the reading doubly fun. I knew about Purim, Omer, and many of the Bible stories told by Ash or which his character discusses with the people in his yeshiva.

And, then, there are the characters. You could dicker all day about the characters. They're often annoying, but at the same time you can't help but hold out hope that somehow they'll find a way to learn how to be a family, again, to heal and to lean on each other for strength. While each of the characters are deeply flawed, the author builds a logical basis for their problems and there is always an undercurrent of hope. Everything that has happened to this family had its genesis in the horrible events of a single day, when a beautiful child disappeared and the unraveling process began. But, the fact remains that they need each other and there's always a sense that somehow this family could be knit back together.

Absolutely an amazing, beautifully structured and written first novel with one believable characters and dialogue, both humorous and moving moments and one of the most satisfying endings I've read this year.

Have you read and reviewed this book? I'll be glad to add a link to your review. Have you missed it? Go buy a copy. You'll love it.


  1. This is in my TBR pile and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

  2. Kathy,

    You will love it. I can't wait to see what this author writes, next.

  3. I've got this book on my nightstand in the #3 position! Looking forward to it! I skimmed your review (down to the part where you say how 'absolutely amazing' it is!) but will most definitely come back to it once I've written mine.

  4. Anonymous10:19 PM

    Great review! I can't wait for her next book, too. Trish and I saw Diana speak at the San Jose Book Expo...she has a fantastic sense of humor, and was so nice...she's one of those people you really hope makes it big!

  5. I read this in January. I thought it was very good. I did go through many pages of wanting to strangle someone. Mostly Bits, but sometimes Asher as well.

    Nice review!!

  6. Anonymous5:38 AM

    Your review has sold me on this book - it's on my wish list now. Thanks for the review.

  7. Wow. Just wow. This is the second incredibly beautiful review I've read of this book. Yeah, I think I'll have to take your advice on this one, and go buy a copy.

  8. I was at the library one day and as I walked (okay, truth be told - half sprinted) towards the "New Arrival" shelf, the spine of this book caught my eye. By the time I actually stepped in front of the display, a woman grabbed it! How dare she!?! Okay, obviously, I had every intention of doing the very same thing; however, she had 4 (FOUR!) other new releases in her arms. Come on - save some for the rest of us, I thought. This is when I began a chant in my head, "You don't want it - put it back. You don't want it - put it back." It works on occasion, but this time it didn't. :( Needless to say, I haven't even made an attempt to get this at a bookstore or library since. BUT, it's still on the list and I'm so happy to read that it was worth my chant - despite its failure. :)

  9. Lisa,

    I can't wait to hear your thoughts. I don't think there are any spoilers in my review, but I skim when I'm about to read the book in question, too. Hope you love it as much as I did!


    Oooh, envy thou art mine. I've seen a video of the author and she does seem like the kind of person you'd love to sit around and chat with. I'm looking forward to whatever she comes up with next! Lucky Softdrink and Trish!!!


    Exactly. And, it's wanting to strangle them both that makes the ending so good, I think. You desperately want them to figure things out. Thank you!


    It's excellent. I hope you like it as much as I did. I think Who by Fire is pretty phenomenal for a first book and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the author comes up with next.


    I've read quite a few reviews, all positive. It does tend to stir the emotions. I think the author did an excellent job of building a set of flawed characters for whom the origin of their flaws made perfect sense. I loved that. I did want to shake the characters, off and on. I hope you love the book!

  10. Joy,

    I think you were battling a greedy book gobbler. The good news is that she probably read them and returned them quickly. The bad news is that you haven't gone back to look. You'd better do that. And, if it's not there, put yourself on a waiting list, 'cause it's a must-read.

  11. Wow! A recommendation without a disclaimer! I must get it! ;)

    I see that you just finished The Girl She Used to Be. Can you give a thumbs up or thumbs down before your review? I think that's my next read.

  12. You wrote a positively wonderful review of this book. I've heard nothing but good reviews for it. I still have it in my tbr pile. I'd love to delve into it one day soon.

  13. Joy,

    Yes, you must. :)

    I think The Girl She Used to Be was one of my top reads for the month. I liked the peek into the Witness Protection program and I thought the author's writing was rather effortless and graceful. In many ways it's implausible and silly, but it was a little like one of my weird dreams brought to life, with some interesting action. It's a thumbs up for me.


    Why, thank you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, when you get around to reading!

  14. I already have this one on my wishlist! Can't wait to read it...I've read nothing but good reviews about it so far.

  15. When I finished the book I had the same thought - this would be perfect for discussion! And, like Stephanie, I wanted to strangle Bits at time but well I still ended up caring about the characters!

    Great review!

  16. Chris,

    I have a feeling you'll love it. The character development is awesome and you'll appreciate their flaws with your psychologist brain.


    Bits needed a kick in the pants, that's for sure. I'm glad you agree with me. I think it would be a perfect book for discussion.

  17. I read this a month or two back and was reduced to free association reviewing. I really liked it but found it practically indescribably. Nice job!!

  18. Carrie,

    You did? I totally missed that. I just looked back and noticed you read a Robert Fate book. Silly girl. You should have known it's a series because of moi. I read Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption and reviewed it. It was absolutely awesome. I hate the word awesome. It was consistent in tone -- that's what I loved, the atmosphere. And, I noted that you just read The Maltese Falcon, recently. Isn't it wonderful, too? For basically the same reason, I'd say, as a Fate book -- the atmosphere is pitch-perfect.

    I'm babbling, again, aren't I? Thank you. Who by Fire is definitely a hard book to describe.

  19. Wonderful review Nancy. This one is on my TBR.

    I come from a conservative Jewish family, actually closer to reformed, which is no where near as strict as Orthodox. I don't practice as an adult. I may need Judism for Dummies when I read this book as well. LOL!

  20. Teddy Rose,

    You'll love it, I'm sure. :)

    There are all sorts of wonderful books on Judaism, but I love the dummies books because they don't make my head throb. LOL I bought mine (and several other books on Judaism) after I had a very interesting dream that I thought might make a great plot for a book. It required knowledge and understanding of Jewish practices and traditions. I let it defeat me, but I still think it would be a great story in the right hands. The dream played out like a movie and I would have paid to see it. LOL

  21. Fantastic review, Nancy!! I've seen the book on the shelves, but haven't gotten around to even reading the back cover blurbs. Your review has piqued my curiosity and I will copy your post and save it for the next time my book club takes nominations for a work of fiction. It sounds amazingly good for all the reasons you stated. Thanks for the heads-up on another winner!

  22. Les,

    Thanks! I suspected Who by Fire would be a great discussion book when my friend Susan read it. She was absolutely bursting to talk to someone about it and that's how I felt, as I was reading. I'm so envious of people with F2F book clubs!!

  23. I loved this one, too. I agree that it gives you a lot to think about and much to discuss.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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