Book Review: Who By Fire, by Diana Spechler

First and foremost I want to thank Lara-B of Red Red Whine for enabling me with the opportunity to get this book and review it. Awesome.

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Second, I love the title of this book. It comes from a section of prayer discussing different ways of death. In the book, the character Ash says this about the prayer:

I envision a sudden orange fire, and I think of the paryer we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Who by water, and who by fire; who by sword, and who by beast. Every year after Alena disappeared, my mother would cry when we got to that part in the service. It’s about God’s having already decided who will die that year, and how.

This is one of those books that I would pick up off of the bookshelf in a giant bookstore because the title draws me in.

Here’s a basic recap of the book. It’s not thirteen years since Bits and Ash’s younger sister, Alena, has disappeared. Bits buries her grief in multiple meaningless sexual encounters and Ash has escaped to religion. The family is Jewish, but Ash has taken it to a whole other level and has moved to Israel and is living as an Orthodox Jew – following all the rules and studying in Yeshiva Hillel. Their mother, Ellie, has decided that Ash’s form of Judaism is akin to a cult and joins a support group for parents of children in cults. Now Alena’s remains have been discovered and nobody can get ahold of Ash to bring him home for the funeral. Bits brings it on herself to bring her brother home and so begins the story.

I really enjoyed the book and there was a nice twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. The characters were fantastic – my only regret being that I wanted to know more about them. I felt like their flaws – their sexual deviancy, obsession with absolving guilt through religion, and trying to save your remaining children – were a little too heightened and wiped away some other aspects of these characters’ personalities. I wanted more.

I read the book quickly because it was a great and easy read. I found myself reading slower in the beginning – learning each character’s voice and figuring out who was narrating each chapter – and then just plowing through the end to find out what was going to happen.

One other aspect of the book that I loved was learning about what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. My father-in-law’s family is Jewish and it was fascinating to learn more about the religion and the difference between what i see and what the other end of the spectrum is. I had no idea about a lot of the formalities and I loved learning about it through a good story.

Overall, I’d rate this book a 4 out of 5 and I would gladly pick up another book by the author.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Who By Fire, by Diana Spechler

  1. I found your site when I did a Google search for the Susan Komen 3-day Walk. My neighbor and I are registering to walk it in Boston in July. I read your posts about the 2007 walk and had tears streaming down my face … what an amazing experience. Did you get back as a crew member last year?

    Then, I came to your Home page to leave a note … and see that you’ve read one of my favorite books from 2008. I have a book blog, and Diana posted a nice guest post for my Spotlight on Bookstores series.

    Anyway, it’s nice to “meet” another book lover and 60-mile walker 🙂

    Dawn
    She is Too Fond of Books

  2. Sounds like a great book. I like what you said about the characters – they sound fascinating. (It reminds me of the book I’m currently working through, “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult.)

  3. Okay, I had a feeling you’d mentioned “My Sister’s Keeper” before, so I clicked on your 2006 Books link and sure enough, you’ve read it. I’d love to compare notes when I’m done!

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